Torah study is an important basis for repentance, for as a result of Torah study, one comes to observe mitzvot, as the Sages said: “Study is greater, for study leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b). The Sages further said (Berakhot 16a) that just as a stream elevates one who immerses in it from a state of impurity to a state of purity, so too, one who enters the tent of Torah to study diligently is elevated from guilt to innocence.
Study must begin with fear of God, as we read, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Tehilim 111:10). Our Sages similarly state, “The purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds” (Berakhot 17a). Therefore, it is proper for every person to set up a time each day to study works of musar, dedicated to self-improvement and character development (Arizal; Vilna Gaon; MB 603:2). During the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance, it is particularly appropriate to intensify musar study and to resolve to continue it all year long.
In addition, the mitzva of Torah study is the equivalent of all other mitzvot, because it elevates a person more than other mitzvot. All other mitzvot are performed with body or soul, but Torah study occurs in the most elevated parts of a person – mind and soul. One who studies Torah becomes one with God’s will. Since Torah study is the most sublime of all mitzvot, it has a special power to atone for sins. Thus, our Sages say that even if a person has transgressed a prohibition whose punishment is death at the hands of heaven, he can save himself by increasing Torah study. If he was accustomed to study one page, he should study two; if he usually studied one chapter, he should study two. If he does not know how to study, he can help himself by becoming involved with charitable causes (Vayikra Rabba 25:1).
The Rishonim list regimens of fasting and mortifications in penance for specific sins. Aḥaronim explain that these fasts and mortifications are for those who do not toil in Torah study. Those who study Torah assiduously and whose fear of God is greater than their wisdom find atonement and correction through diligent Torah study (Arizal; Sefer Ḥaredim ch. 65; Shlah; BHL 571:2; Noda Bi-Yehuda OḤ 141:35; below 6:7).
- Ḥayim of Volozhin also writes that Torah study atones for all sins, including very serious ones for which even sacrifices cannot atone (Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 4:31). The midrash states: “If a person committed many sins and was condemned to death [in the heavenly court]…but repented, read from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, studied Mishna, Midrash, halakhot and aggadot, and apprenticed under the sages – even if a hundred evil decrees had been made against him, God nullifies them” (Tanna De-vei Eliyahu Rabba 5). This accords with what our Sages tell us about the children of Eli. As a punishment for desecrating God’s name in the Mishkan at Shilo, they and their descendants were condemned to die young. No offering could atone for their offense. Nevertheless, when their descendants studied Torah, they lived longer. When they also performed kind deeds, they lived even longer (Rosh Ha-shana 18a).
Jewish custom is to be especially charitable during the Ten Days of Repentance, as the verse states, “Charity saves from death” (Mishlei 11:4). During this period, it is proper for everyone to engage in soul-searching, particularly with regard to kindness and charity. People should recommit to tithing their earnings to support Torah study and the poor. Those who are well-off should extend their charity and give a fifth of their earnings.