I became a ba’al teshuva years ago. Since then, I did teshuva on all my sins, and haven’t done any serious new ones. So what should I be focusing on during this whole period of repentance spanning Elul, Rosh Hashana, the Ten Days of Teshuva and Yom Kippur?
As I’m sure you know, the term “ba’al teshuva” literally means “one who has mastered repentance”.
Although the situation you describe certainly sounds as if you have mastered repentance, it is highly unlikely that one could properly recall and fully repent for literally all of his transgressions. This is actually an important safeguard against complacency, and encourages one to continually improve and grow.
So if you’re mistaken about not having anything to repent and improve, you can do teshuva for not reviewing and reckoning your transgressions properly, taking them too lightly, being complacent and possibly apathetic.
But let’s say, theoretically, you assess your situation accurately. You currently have no transgressions because you’ve done teshuva on the old ones and haven’t done any new ones.
Still, there’s room for new teshuva.
For one, as a person grows spiritually, his new awareness enables him to realize the limits of his prior perceptions. Thus, his earlier teshuva becomes insufficient relative to his current understanding and sensitivity. On his current higher level, he has a greater revulsion for his prior transgressions, the awareness of which now necessitates new teshuva! This is a never-ending process referred to as “teshuva upon teshuva” and is relevant even if he’s done (what turns out to be only partial) teshuva on past sins and accrues no new ones.
In addition to this form of teshuva upon teshuva over not having recognized the true magnitude of one’s sin, another form of new teshuva is repenting over not properly appreciating the greatness of the King against whom one has transgressed. As before, since one’s perception of G‑d should always increase, this subtle form of teshuva is also unending.
The following story illustrates this latter point:
Once, a student of Rav Sa’adiah Gaon found the rabbi rolling in the snow as a form of repentance for sin. The student queried, “Does the master indeed have sins of such severity to warrant such extreme teshuva?” The rabbi replied that he did not, but that he learned to do so from a simple innkeeper. And so Rav Sa’adiah Gaon explained:
“I was once a guest at an inn, and the host did not know that I was a scholar of Torah. He extended to me the courtesy accorded to any regular visitor. Later, a report spread that I had arrived in town and the city residents came to pay their respects. When my host saw this, he too accorded me utmost honor and accommodation for the rest of my stay. Upon my departure, he fell at my feet and wept and begged forgiveness for not having treated me respectfully enough. I reminded him that, on the contrary, since his revelation, he had treated me as a king. The host replied, “I regret and apologize for the earlier period in which I did not realize the greatness of the master and thus did not honor him sufficiently”.
Rav Sa’adiah Gaon concluded to his student: “If he fell to the ground in weeping and supplication asking forgiveness for the lack of honor he showed me before knowing who I was, which I didn’t deserve and is only the honor of flesh and blood, all the more so it should be concerning the Creator, whose greatness we recognize more and more each day. Surely we must weep, plead, afflict ourselves and beg Divine forgiveness for the shortcomings of our worship, fear and love of G‑d from past days!”