Teshuva: More than a Commandment
Rabbi Ruben Gober
After discussing the commandment for repentance in the beginning of his Laws of Repentance, the Rambam says in chapter 7, law 1: “Since control over himself is given to each individual as we explained [in the previous chapters the Rambam discussed how every individual has free will] a person should try to do repentance and confess with his mouth his sins, and shake from his hands his sins, so that he should die as a Ba’al Teshuva (one who repented) and merit the world to come.” There are a few questions that can be asked on this statement of the Rambam, but it seems that there is one basic problem: What is the Rambam trying to teach us here? We already know that there is a commandment to repent so what does he mean that since a person has free will, he should repent - what does this add?
Furthermore, the last part of the law is quite puzzling: “…so he should merit the world to come” Does the Rambam mean that we should perform this obligation as a means to achieve the reward of the world to come? From a simple reading of the text, it would seem so. However, a problem arises when we read in Chapter 10 Law 1: “One should not say ‘I will perform commandments of the Torah and be involved in its wisdom so that I will receive the blessings written in it or so that I will merit live in the world to come’…it is not appropriate to serve God in this way…” and again in the same chapter, Law 4: “…maybe one will say ‘I will learn Torah so that…I will receive a share in the world to come’- we are taught saying ‘to love God’- anything you do should be from love.” It is clear that the Rambam discourages any motivation for performing commandments other than the love of God. If so, how could the Rambam encourage a person to fulfill the commandment to repent with the motivation of receiving reward in the world to come?
To understand what the Rambam is trying to teach us, let us examine his original statement more closely. The Rambam says that since a person has free will, he should repent. What is the connection between the concept of free will and the concept of repentance? And why does the Rambam mention this only now in chapter 7 and not in the beginning chapter when he introduces the commandment to repent?
Many times we find that when people think about their own actions and behaviors, whether they be sins or just everyday habits, people believe that these actions stem from a part of them which is permanently engrained inside themselves, almost as if there is some force within them that causes them to do these actions, and, therefore, they must do it. They feel that they don’t have any control over these actions; it’s simply a part of who they are and that it is something they cannot change. They don’t sincerely desire to change since a part of them feels that there is nothing they can do about it. The notion of free will, however, directly opposes this type of perspective in that it means that there is something within man that can allow him to act in whichever way he deems good and correct. The concept of free will shows us that man is the final, ultimate arbiter of how he lives his life so that if, for example, man desires to change, he has that ability.
With this idea, we can understand the connection between free will and repentance, but we are still left with our previous questions about the end of the statement: “so that he dies as one who repented and can merit the world to come.” What does the Rambam mean? Why is he suddenly shifting to death and the world to come? And why isn’t the fact that we have a commandment to repent a sufficient motive?
Once man understands the concept of free will and its import, namely that he has the ability to choose the life that he wants to live, it naturally follows that man is obligated to think through what he wants to do with his life. Of course, this demands an analysis of what the value and function of his life is. Every decision we make reflects what we think is valuable and want to pursue in life. When we think about the fact that we can choose what we want, we need to consider what man is, what the nature of our existence is, in order to choose what is best for us.
It is in this context that the phenomena of death and the world to come are relevant to one’s personal concerns and values. Most people look at their existence and only take into account one ingredient of their makeup, that which they can sense and feel- the physical element. But when one thinks about the fact that death is inevitable, it places the physical world in a certain perspective. The inevitability of death shows man that the physical world does not partake of ‘real existence’ in that eventually it must end; it won’t last forever. So what is a ‘real existence’ that will last? When we look at man, we notice another component of his makeup, the soul. This is the aspect of man which he uses to think, to conceptualize, to appreciate the wisdom of God, and to delineate between good and evil. The Torah calls this aspect of man the ‘Tzelem Elokim’, image/reflection of God, which the commentators explain to be the intellectual capacity to reflect on the non-physical (see Sforno on Genesis 1:27). That being the case, there is a way man can have a a ‘real’ lasting existence- by partaking of the non-physical and developing the non-physical tool that God granted him, the soul. How does it last forever? That is ‘Olam Haba’, the world to come where the soul of man continues to exist after the physical part of man, his body, is gone.
This perspective is clearly expressed in Tractate Avot, Chapter 4 Mishna 16: “Rabbi Yaakov said ‘This world is like a vestibule to the World to Come- prepare yourself in the vestibule so that you may enter the reception room.” Here too, one should not think that the Mishna is teaching one to serve God in order to obtain reward (that is contrary to what the mishna previously taught in Chapter 1, Mishna 3); rather the mishna is teaching a perspective, how one should look at his existence in this world. When one sees that the physical world around him is limited and that only the non-physical part of him will continue to exist, he is forced to look at his existence here as a temporal means of preparing oneself for the next life. With that perspective, a person will look at physical enjoyments and relate to them differently, in effect changing his view of reality and bringing about internal as well as behavioral changes in the person.
With these concepts in mind, we can now explain what the Rambam is trying to teach us. When one realizes that he is not under the uncontrollable sway of any internal ‘forces’ but rather has the ability to choose a life of value and meaning, one is forced to evaluate what is valuable and worth pursuing. In this study, man must reflect on the nature of this worldly existence- it is limited and temporal. That being the case, man must realize that the only real and valuable existence is one in which he lives in line with his soul so that his soul is developed and perfected so that it is able to exist beyond this physical world after death. This is what Rambam means: do repentance so that when one dies, one will have merited a place in the world to come. The Rambam doesn’t mean that one should repent for a greater reward. That would be giving us a false motivation, as he says later in Chapter 10. Rather, he is teaching us to view repentance with the correct perspective of reality: that one should realize what is real and what is temporary and adjust his mentality and behavior accordingly, just as the Mishna in Avot taught. In this perspective, the World to Come is not a reward one should sacrifice for - it is the only value one has, even in this world, just as the value of the vestibule is in its ability to prepare for the reception. Thus, in this statement, the Rambam teaches us the idea that repentance is more than just a command by God - it is the natural response man has when he is honest with himself who he is, and what is a truly meaningful existence.