How is it best to encourage repentance before Rosh Hashanah?

The following is a translation of a Chassidic Talk (a Sicha) by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, on the 1st of Elul, 5782. Presented here with permission, as translated and published in Sichos In English, Volume 14. [Clarifications by the Director of are inserted in square brackets.]

The month before Rosh HaShanah

The month of Elul is the time when Rabbis prepare their sermons for this month [of Elul] and the “Days of Awe” [a traditional name for the days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, which follow immediately after Elul]. Some of these Rabbis suppose that since it states of Elul [when Jews have a custom to blow the shofar (ram’s horn) on every weekday], “If a shofar is blown in the city, will not the people tremble in fear” [Amos 3:6], and likewise the “Days of Awe” [which can also be translated from the Hebrew as “Days of Fear“], their sermons must be full of anger, “fire and brimstone.” They think that the more they shout at and admonish Jews in their sermons, the greater the speaker they are, and the better the job of “educating” their flock.

However, Torah tells us “the words of Sages are heard quietly” [Ecclesiastes 9:17], teaching us that when the words are not spoken “quietly,” they do not achieve their desired effect. Moreover, a person knows in his heart on what spiritual level he stands — and how can one have the audacity to publicly admonish Jews in such reprehensible terms?

It is recorded that when G-d commanded Yeshayahu to be a prophet to the Jews, Yeshayahu commented improperly about the Jews (“I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” [Isaiah 6:5]). For this he was immediately punished, as stated [6:6-7] “One of the Serafim (angels) flew to me, having a live coal in his hand … and he laid it upon my mouth.”

Now, Yeshayahu’s improper comment about the Jewish people was not said publicly, but when he was talking to G-d. He was answering whether he accepted the mission of prophesying to the Jews, and of course, he had to tell the truth to G-d — that he was afraid of the mission because “I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Nevertheless, Yeshayahu was punished for unseemly words against the Jews!

Moreover, Yeshayahu’s words were not idly said, but were necessary for concrete action — that he cannot prophesy to the Jews since they are “a people of unclean lips.” In addition, he did not say anything bad about the Jews’ hearts or minds, but only their lips — and that only to G-d and not publicly. Nevertheless, it was considered unseemly conduct…

A lesson to take from Isaiah and Moses

The lesson from this is clear: People rationalize their instinct to criticize and condemn others by saying it is for the purpose of correcting the other’s misdeeds. Indeed, they say, it is because they love Jews that they so severely denounce them. The above story teaches us differently: One need not search for a great lover of Israel than the prophet Yeshayahu; and yet we see what was the result of his improper comment about them. And the reason why Yeshayahu did so, despite being chosen by G-d as the prophet of the true and complete redemption, is because through this we in later generations know how not to act!

The above is especially important now, in the month of Elul. It is the month of mercy, when Moshe went up on the mountain to receive the second set of tablets. Moshe at that time prayed for mercy even for those who had sinned with the golden calf; and indeed, effected that G-d should say, “I have forgiven according to your words” [Numbers 14:20].  Hence, in this month which is the time to ask for and strive to receive blessings for a good and sweet year… G-d forbid to speak bad about Jews!

A Torah law that may be overlooked

The vast majority of Jews are not guilty of the faults these people scream about. And even if there are a few who have some remote connection to such faults — who appointed these people as a “prophet” to denounce [those about whom G-d said] “You are sons to the L-rd your G-d”!? [Deuteronomy 14:1]

If a person wishes to fulfill the mitzvah [commandment] of “You shall surely admonish your fellow,” the halachah [Torah law] rules it must first be done privately, and even then in a quiet manner, not angrily and vehemently. It is related of R. Zusia, one of the disciples of the Mezritcher Maggid, that when he wanted to cause a Jew to change his ways, he would stand nearby and say “Zusia has committed such and such a sin” (and would enumerate these things the other had done, but would say “Zusia has done it”), and would cry over “his” transgressions. When the other would hear this, he would be aroused to true repentance.

Another important point: Even when speaking in the manner of “the words of the Sages are heard quietly,” there are two ways: to talk of the bad things the other has done and the punishment he will get; or talk of good things, the reward received for doing good. Why talk of the bad, when one can talk of the reward received for doing mitzvos, for repenting, etc.? There is so much literature about this aspect that it will suffice for sermons for the entire year!

Indeed, talking of a person’s faults is useless. The best way to get a person to mend his ways is when one talks pleasantly about the greatness of doing good. When one explains to a person … that, as the Rambam writes [in Laws of Repentance, ch. 3], through one mitzvah he can “tilt himself and the entire world to the meritorious side,” it is the best way to influence him to become better.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson