Rabbi Joshua Maroof

Defining Teshuva

In order to resolve these difficulties, we must examine the concepts of sin and teshuva more carefully. Specifically, we must consider the fact that a person who violates one of the commandments is doing a lot more than acting inappropriately. His sin is not a random occurrence that can be viewed separately from his personal beliefs and convictions. On the contrary, through his action he is demonstrating something about his entire value system: he is making a statement about what he envisions - or does not envision - as his purpose in life.

An example will better illustrate this point. The Torah demands that we restrict ourselves to the consumption of kosher food. Eating kosher is instrumental to our development as human beings because it keeps us aware of our spiritual objective in life even as we are involved in taking care of our physical needs. Observance of kashrut demonstrates our belief that eating cannot be significant in its own right unless it is a means to our ultimate goal - the service of our Creator.


Hence, an individual who succumbs to temptation and consumes non-kosher food has not simply committed a technical violation of Torah law. He has indicated through his action that he is not fully dedicated to the philosophical principles of Judaism. He has not adopted an unequivocal set of life priorities - he remains torn between the lure of instinctual gratification for its own sake and his desire to develop his mind and soul. In a moment of weakness, his baser drives grabbed hold of him and overpowered his intellect, leading him to neglect an important commandment. The violation itself, however, was only a symptom of a more basic conflict within his personality.


When we become aware that we have committed a sin, then, this should serve as a stimulus to deeper reflection on the purpose of our existence. We should not write it off as a fluke but should perceive it as a sign that we have moved too far in the wrong direction philosophically, that we have not sufficiently clarified our ultimate priorities in life. We should realize that our action indicates that we are ambivalent about some aspects of the Torah's values and directives, and that, as a result, we still struggle with them in practice. This in turn should motivate us to immerse ourselves in Torah study in order to gain a clearer sense of the purpose of our existence and to increase our awareness of how important its teachings and mitzvot are for our development. We will emerge from this quest with a more definitive set of principles and priorities to guide our lives - and, as a natural result, we will feel compelled to abandon our misguided ways. This, in fact, is the reason why the Rambam uses the double language "when a person repents and turns from his si" when he introduces the mitzvah of doing teshuva. It is the internal, transformational process of self-reflection, value clarification and study that constitutes true teshuva - the behavior change is, as it were, a by-product of this monumental effort.


Teshuva - A Unique Commandment

Now we are in a better position to understand why repentance must be counted as an independent commandment. It is not equivalent to simply resuming the observance of the mitzvah that has been neglected. Even if the Torah had not included a mitzvah to repent, a person who ate non-kosher food would be expected to return to a kosher diet as soon as possible in order to avoid further violations of the formal laws of kashrut. This change in behavior alone would be expected as a function of the original commandments to keep kosher, with or without an additional commandment to repent.


This change in behavior, however, would not constitute real teshuva. The commandment to do teshuva requires a complex set of operations that transcend the realm of behavior and focus on the values and beliefs of the sinner. When we commit a transgression, we are obligated to delve into our personal convictions and correct the philosophical error(s) that led to the sin. We are commanded to refine our understanding of our purpose in life and the choices we must make if we are to achieve that purpose.


Although the person who decides to resume his observance of kashrut will do his best to avoid future kashrut infractions, he will still be required - as a function of his past violations - to engage in the more introspective process of teshuvah at some point in time. By introducing a separate mitzvah of teshuvah, the Torah teaches us that we have not fully repented for our transgressions until we have taken the time to explore the depth of their significance. Superficial changes in our habits are not enough to satisfy the Torah's requirement of teshuva.


Returning "Before Hashem"

At this stage it becomes clear why doing teshuva is always described as returning to, or before, Hashem. It is true that the immediate stimulus to repentance is usually a specific violation of Torah law that occurs at a particular time in a particular place. However, the process of repentance moves beyond the superficial features of a transgression to an analysis of its underlying causes and a reflection on the ultimate purpose of our lives. Teshuva culminates not merely in the rejection of incorrect values, but in the sinner's rededication to the highest human priority - the quest for knowledge of Hashem.


As a result of his soul-searching, the penitent's awareness of his true position in the Universe has deepened tremendously; thus, he now stands in the presence of Hashem, humbly refocused on the meaning of his own existence.