Rabbeinu Yona in Shaarei Teshuva (paragraphs 24 and 25) discusses the components necessary for teshuva (repentance): One must have hachna’a (submissiveness) and shiflus (humility), and must serve Hashem “b’tznaya” (modesty) – and then he explains this in detail. The question is, what does modesty have to do with repentance? When the gemora explains what “acts of tznius” are (Sukkos 49b), it says as follows: “What does Hashem ask of you? Mishpat, Ahavas chesed, and go with Hashem ‘bitzniyus’.” Mishpat is explained as proper judgement. Ahavas Chesed is explained as acts of kindness. Tznius is referring to taking out a dead person to be buried, and bringing a bride to her wedding canopy. The gemora explains that these two specific acts are usually done in a public forum, and yet the Torah mandates that one does them with modesty.
The obvious question is: What, then, does “tznius” or modesty mean? I would like to give a parable to explain.
Rivky’s mother tells her “Today is my birthday. Sheifela, do your mother a favor and buy me a present at the jewelers.” She then gives Rivky $700 to find something suitable. In the store, Rivky meets her friend Saraleh, who is also shopping for a gift for her own mother. Saraleh picks out a pair of earrings for $50, takes out her own money, and purchases the gift for her mother. Rivky picks out a gold bracelet, hands over her mother’s $700, and purchases the gift. Both girls go home and present their gifts to their respective mothers. Saraleh—who spent her own money—mentions to her mother “not only did I take time out to find you a beautiful gift, but my own money I spent to buy it.” When Rivky presents “her” gift she mentions to her mother “Look at the beautiful bracelet I bought you for $700!”
Obviously Rivky has nothing to brag about—she used her mother’s money to buy the gift, and bought it only after her mother instructed her to do so. When she does brag, she shows her immaturity, as if she really believes that when her mother gave her the $700 she could do with it as she pleased, and therefore deserves praise for spending it on her mother!
So too, Hashem has given us the faculties necessary to do many mitzvos. And indeed the reason He gave us these faculties was so that we should do mitzvos. If we take credit for ourselves it shows that we do not acknowledge that it is Hashem’s enabling us that produced the fine act which we achieved.
The person who sinned has taken the gift afforded to him and squandered it in areas to which he had no right. He has essentially misappropriated Hashem’s funds. When that person realizes that he did something wrong, he is acknowledging that he has a responsibility to use the faculties and gifts that Hashem has given him for mitzvos, and not for sins. That realization will in turn bring him to the next step, which is that he should not think of himself as being generous with his time and money when he does mitzvos. So it seems to me, that the litmus test of a true baal teshuva is if he does his service to Hashem with modesty—without boasting about it.
As Yom Kippur approaches and we look for ways to find favor in Hashem’s eyes, many of us have already taken on new commitments to ‘over-exert’ ourselves to show our sincerity. We should keep in mind that the ability to execute our wishes is a gift from Hashem. That touch of humility, I hope and pray, will make our good deeds go that much further in Hashem’s eyes.
Gmar Chasima Tovah