Translated by Kaeren Fish
From the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur, when teshuva (repentance) "is most becoming and is accepted immediately" (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 2:6), every individual is required to examine his actions and to repent for any sins that he may have committed. In listing the laws of teshuva, the Rambam divides the teshuva process into four parts: abandonment of the sin, confession, regret, and a resolution for the future (2:2).
But as we examine our ways and seek to return to our Maker, doubt and despair start to overcome us: Was it not exactly a year ago, as we examined our deeds at the end of last year, that we confessed exactly the same sins, resolving not to repeat them? And now only a year has passed, we discover that we have transgressed in the same areas, and we have to accept upon ourselves not to transgress again in the future. During this period, as our mouth promises – and with full intention! – that we will not repeat those sins that we have just abandoned, we know in the depths of our hearts that in a year's time we will stand again brokenhearted before the Master of the Universe, and confess precisely the same sins once again.
Does this not somehow fall into the category of "One who tells lies shall not stand before My eyes" (Tehillim 101:7)? Are we not, heaven forbid, similar to one who says, "I will sin and then I will perform teshuva," who never performs a true teshuva (Yoma 85b)?
In listing the stages of the process of teshuva, the Rambam describes the stage of resolution for the future as follows: "And He Who knows all secrets can testify concerning him that he will never again repeat THIS SIN" (2:2). What is the meaning of the expression, "this sin"? Is the Rambam referring to the sin that the person committed – in which case the person will be considered as having performed teshuva even if he continues in all his evil ways, but abandons that one specific sin that he has confessed? I learned from Rav Soloveitchik zt"l that this is not the case. The key to understanding this is an understanding of the two aspects of the process of teshuva.
The Rambam's Hilkhot Teshuva is divided into two parts: in chapters 1-6 he discusses a person who recognizes the sin that he has committed, and decides to perform teshuva. From chapter 7 onwards, the Rambam deals with a different type of teshuva: a person recognizes that his WAYS are evil, not just his deeds, and he seeks to change himself.
The first type of teshuva has a clear aim, and if a person does not transgress that sin again then he has attained his goal. By contrast, the second type of teshuva is a life-long mission. It has no endpoint; it guides a person's path throughout his life, "until he dies as a penitent and merits life in the World-to-Come" (7:1).
The "way of the sinner" means the direction of his life, the road that he treads, and it is this path that has brought him to commit his many sins. The comprehensive teshuva that the Rambam presents is more meaningful and more difficult than the specific teshuva that he addressed at first. The "path of the wicked" is less well defined than "wicked deeds;" it is more difficult to recognize with a view to changing it. On the other hand, the path is what leads to the deeds, and a change in the former will bring a change in the latter.
At the beginning of chapter 7, the Rambam summarizes his teaching concerning free will: "Since every person is given free will, as we have explained, a person should TRY to perform teshuva…" At first glance, this formulation is most surprising: surely teshuva is a mitzva, a commandment, and not merely a recommendation? Some people have indeed tried to claim that in the Rambam's view, teshuva is not a mitzva, but such a view is unacceptable to any worthy religious philosophy.
The correct understanding is that, in using this formulation, the Rambam is referring to the second type of teshuva – a comprehensive endeavor to improve one's attributes, and not the focused repentance for specific deeds. This teshuva has no objective which, once attained, will allow the person to rest on his laurels. It involves unceasing effort: "A person should always view himself as though he is about to die, and since he may die at that time and still be associated with his sin – therefore he should repent his sin immediately" (7:2).
This type of teshuva is also addressed by the prophet Yeshayahu, when he declares, "Let the wicked one abandon his way, and the iniquitous person his thoughts" (55:7). The "way" of the wicked is the thread that runs through all of his various deeds, guiding his future on the basis of the past and the present. When repenting, the wicked person is required not only to abandon his deeds, but to change the direction of his life and to forsake the path that has led him to all of his transgressions: "Return, return from your evil ways; why should you die, O house of Israel?" (Yehezkel 33:11).
It is this type of teshuva – repairing character flaws and changing the course of one's life – that the Rambam refers to when he uses the term "try," for in the spiritual world the effort is critical, and a person's efforts have an independent status and value. The focus of teshuva is not the result – that he may "die as a penitent" – but rather the path, the aspiration, the effort. "A person should try to perform teshuva" – and then automatically he will die as a penitent, and merit life in the World-to-Come.
Here we must keep in mind an important point. While teshuva – a "returning" from a sinful path – indeed represents a revolution in one's personality, it is not usually accompanied by a corresponding revolution in one's deeds. Sometimes we encounter "ba'alei teshuva" who have changed their path and their lifestyle in a dramatic manner. Generally, however, the visible changes that accompany a teshuva are far less spectacular: if a person has until now given in to his inclination concerning a certain level of some stimulus, from now on he will overcome his inclination, yielding to it only at a higher level of stimulus. This change finds its practical expression only when the person encounters a stimulus of the strength that used to cause him to sin. As opposed to his way prior to his teshuva, he will no longer speak "lashon ha-ra" every time that he feels the desire to do so; it now takes a stronger desire to cause him to speak "lashon ha-ra."
This is the deeper meaning of the Rambam's words, "to the point where the Knower of all secrets can testify concerning him that he will never return to THIS SIN." Rambam writes: "What is complete teshuva? When a person encounters something that once caused him to sin, and he has the ability to repeat it, but nevertheless removes himself and does not act thus because of his teshuva" (2:1). There is no one in the world so righteous that he does only good and never sins; it is the way of the world that people stumble. Resolution for the future, which is an integral part of the teshuva process, means gradual progress, continuing throughout a person's life.
A person who stands in fear and trembling before his Maker and returns to Him in complete teshuva knows that during the past year he has not committed the same sins that he repented for the previous year, for he has managed to overcome his inclination in the situations that brought him to sin a year ago. This person remembers his sins from the year that has gone by, regrets and confesses them, and resolves not to give in to his inclination, to overcome it in those situations where he has sinned until now. In this way, a person sanctifies himself year by year, following the path that leads to God's house, correcting his ways and improving his deeds, such that "he will die as a penitent and will merit life in the World-to-Come."
How great is the status of teshuva! Previously this person was separated from the God of Israel, as it is written, "Your sins have separated between you and your God," he would cry out and was not answered… But now he cleaves to the Shekhina, as it is written, "But you who cleave to God your God…" – he cries out and is answered immediately, as it is written, "And it will be that even before they call out, I will answer them." He performs mitzvot and they are accepted with Divine pleasure and joy, as it is written, "For God already desires your actions." In fact, He even longs for them, as it is written, "May the offering of Yehuda and Yerushalayim be sweet to God as in days of old, as in the ancient years gone by." (Rambam 7:7)