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The Integrity of Teshuva

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
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Adapted by Rav Aaron Ross

The term "integrity" has two possible meanings: the first denotes wholeness as opposed to fragmentation; the second has moral overtones, portraying a sense of honesty and total opposition to any form of falsehood. Our goal here will be to see if these two definitions can be interrelated in the context of teshuva (repentance). Can teshuva be both true and limited, genuine yet partial? Can fragmented teshuva be subjectively sincere? In other words, can one repent for violating one commandment and not for another, yet still believe that both are the word of God? On an objective level, can we speak of God accepting such repentance?

Our investigation begins in Devarim 10:12-13. There, Moshe tells the Jews:

"And now, Yisrael, what does God ask from you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to love Him and to serve the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul; to keep the mitzvot of God and His ordinances that I am commanding you today, to be good for you."

The gemara (Berakhot 33b) notes that at the outset, it seems that Moshe is telling the Jews that God wants very little, "just" that they be God-fearing individuals. How can this be considered a minor request? To Moshe, however, it was a relatively easy level to attain, and the two verses taken together demonstrate how this it is to be accomplished. The first verse speaks of major religious values - fearing God, loving Him, walking in His ways. The second verse is more particular, describing various categories of commandments that the Jews are to perform. Together, these two elements are characteristic of the ideal of Avodat Hashem (service to God) that Moshe wished to pass to the Jews for posterity. We are asked to move along a dual axis: a grand majestic approach to service of God, paralleled by a detailed, somewhat mundane form of service that is rife with rituals and procedures.

The world of Halakha is both teleological and formal. It wants us to strive for the grand and the ultimate in deveikut ba-Shem (attaching oneself to God), yet it does so by commanding us to involve ourselves in the minutiae of daily life, seemingly far removed from the grandiose view that one would envision. In a similar sense, the first two paragraphs of the Shema express the themes of accepting the yoke of mitzvot and accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. While each theme is the focus of a separate paragraph, Rambam notes that they are actually two sides of the same coin, together comprising up the single obligation of reciting the Shema. They both lead to the ultimate goal of following and pursuing God and cleaving to Him.

Rambam's prime Biblical source for the mitzva of teshuva is the verse of "ve-hitvadu, and they will confess" (Bamidbar 5:7), a verse that comes in the context of the laws of one who steals from a convert (gezel ha-ger). The second source comes from the laws concerning the Yom Kippur service - "for on this day you will be forgiven..." (Vayikra 16:30). While this latter verse is often read as a promise, Rabbeinu Yona notes that it refers to a special mitzva of repentance on Yom Kippur.

There is a marked contrast between these two sources. In Bamidbar, the focus is on a very specific act that may be very limited in import - a person atones for one instance of thievery. On the other hand, in the verse in Vayikra, the word "tit'haru" (you will be purified) does not focus on any particular sin, and no verbal confession is mentioned in the verse. Unlike the viddui (confession) that we say nowadays in our prayers, the gemara in Yoma lists several suggested forms of viddui, all of which are general in nature. In marked contrast to the Bamidbar approach, the gemara seems to focus on a general acknowledgment of sin as a sufficient form of confession.

This contrast is reflected in the Rambam's writings as well. He begins his Hilkhot Teshuva by saying that when a person transgresses "one" of the mitzvot in the Torah, he then has to recite viddui and thus fulfills a positive commandment. This viddui that is said over transgressing a particular commandment is described by Rambam as itself being specific; one must name the sin he committed. However, in chapter two of Hilkhot Teshuva, Rambam speaks of teshuva and Yom Kippur, and there the focus is once again on the general - "Aval anachnu chatanu, But we have sinned." There is no mention of particulars, but rather a simple seeking out of God when He is near.

These two different approaches to teshuva address themselves to different aspects of sin. In any sinful act, one can speak of multiple facets: the misdeed itself; the fact that any sin constitutes a denial of God and His priorities; the impact on the self, as sin defiles an individual and renders him impure and dirty; the inherent rebellion against God and, as it were, against the Kingdom of Heaven; and the fracturing of the relationship between God and man. Taken as a whole, these five elements can be categorized under two rubrics: moral, focusing on the wrong as such, and religious, focusing on one's relationship to God.

Ramban (Shemot 20:3) notes that when God is described as "jealous" regarding those who worship idols, that description describes only God's relationship to the Jews, an idea that fits in with the imagery of God and the Jews as man and wife. This idea, however, can be extended beyond idolatry to the entire purview of religious experience. It can be applied to anything that ruptures the intimate relationship between man and God.

If sin is to be viewed as a multifaceted event, then it is logical to assume that teshuva is similarly multifaceted. There is teshuva that reasserts God's authority, and there is teshuva that responds to the contamination of the self. In one case, we are instructed to make up "to" God, and in the other, we are implored to make up "with" God – "ve-hitvadu" and "tit'haru."

Let us return now to our original dilemma. While the goal is obviously that we strive for total teshuva, there nevertheless exists the possibility of a partial and particular teshuva through "ve-hitvadu." We rule (Horayot 11a) that one who is known to eat forbidden fat (mumar okhel chelev) may nevertheless bring a sin-offering if he eats blood, yet one who is known to worship idols (mumar le-avoda zara) may not bring a sacrifice if he commits any other sin. In the former case, his habitual sin of eating fat is particular in nature, while in the latter case, the individual has damaged his relationship to God. Similarly, a person may repent for one instance of a sin while not repenting for a second instance of the same sin, unless he is such a repeat offender that his repentance is effectively a sham.

That is all good and well for "ve-hitvadu," the particular form of teshuva, but what are we to say about "tit'haru," the more general approach? Can one partially repair his relationship with God? Instinctively, it would seem not; either we are committed to Him or we are not. There are no middle-of-the-road approaches to be had.

However, there are qualifications in both directions. Rambam (Hil. Teshuva 7:7) notes that, when a person is steeped in sin, God may throw that person's mitzvot back in his face. Any mitzva can come to be seen as an abomination. In the Yerushalmi (Kiddushin 1:9), Ben-Azzai discusses, based on a verse in Kohelet, how one fly can ruin an entire jar of oil that is to be used for anointment purposes. In a similar sense, it can be suggested that a single sican reach a level of severity that it offsets all of one's merits.

While these examples may be a bit extreme, we also must consider the reverse qualification. The holistic or systemic teshuva of "tit'haru" makes sense because one cannot be "tovel ve-sheretz be-yado," one cannot purify himself while still holding the very object that is the cause of his defilement. Rav Soloveitchik noted, in the name of the Chavot Yair, that the last line of Yoma, comparing God's purification of the sinner to that of a mikveh (ritual bath), is not as enthusiastic as it is usually made out to be. The gemara first notes that Yom Kippur does not atone for sins committed between man and his fellow man. Then it concludes with Rabbi Akiva's statement of that the Jews are fortunate that they come to purify themselves before God Himself, and that He serves, as it were, as their mikveh. Why are these two lines juxtaposed? The Rav answered that when God purifies the Jews, he does so acting as a mikveh - one cannot purify himself partially. If one has not yet cleansed himself of his sins against his fellow man, then not even God Himself can purify that individual. It is either all or nothing when it comes to one's relationship to God.

The mishna (Avot 3:8) states that a person who forgets part of what he has learned is held accountable for his life - a very harsh statement indeed. What is one to do if extenuating circumstances, as are extremely common in our lives, cause one to forget? To answer this problem, the mishna states that one is held accountable only if he actively uproots his learning from his heart. What does this mean? Rabbeinu Yona says that the failure to review adequately is included in the concept of uprooting what one has learned. Either way, the message is clear. One who forgets, even if due only to the conditions around him, yet is not bothered by that fact, is equivalent to one who uproots the Torah from his heart. To him, ignorance of a certain part of Torah is not a matter of major importance. Yet this harsh verdict does not apply to one who learns and wishes that he could do more, yet finds himself limited, despite his thirst for Torah and his concern for his spiritual development. His forgetfulness is not equivalent to uprooting.

The same is true when we speak about teshuva. If one aims for total teshuva, then, regardless of how slowly his teshuva progresses, he can feel confident that his teshuva will purify him of sin. However, if one repents in some respects, yet is unperturbed about his failure to do so in other areas, then his teshuva is sorely lacking. "Ve-hitvadu" without an eye towards "tit'haru" cannot work. Yet if the ultimate goal of total purification is kept in sight, then even a "partial" teshuva can be made to work, and can help an individual along the path to complete repentance.

[Based on a teshuva lecture delivered at Kehillath Jeshurun in New York in Elul 5757 (1997).

This adaptation originally appeared on Rav Ross's website,]


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