Take words with you, and return to Hashem...” (Hosea 14:3)


The Concept of Teshuva

Rabbi Joshua Maroof


            As we approach the High Holidays each year, the theme of self-improvement becomes one of the focal points of our thought. We are strongly encouraged to involve ourselves in the process of teshuva, or repentance, in preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe. The Jewish notion of repentance, however, is by no means simple or self-evident. What exactly is teshuva, and how does one go about doing it? The Torah provides precise guidelines for the fulfillment of all of its commandments; thus, if we intend to observe the commandments correctly, it is incumbent upon us to consult these guidelines as a matter of course. The commandment to repent of our sins is no exception to this rule - it encompasses a host of halakhot and principles that are indispensable to its proper performance. Therefore, before we can repent in a halakhically meaningful way, we must take up the study of the Torah’s unique approach to teshuva.


            The Rambam’s Introduction - The Mitzvah of Teshuva 

            Without question, if we wish to develop a better understanding of the subject of repentance, we must turn to the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam. The Rambam was the first of our Sages to provide us with a systematic and comprehensive treatment of the topic of teshuva, and his accomplishment in this area remains unequaled to this day. Careful attention to the Rambam’s formulation of the Laws of Repentance is sure to reward us with valuable insight into their deeper significance. As an introduction to these laws, the Rambam writes:


 “This section contains one positive commandment, namely, that the sinner should repent before Hashem and confess.”


            This brief statement raises a powerful question: what sense does it make for the Torah to institute a commandment to repent? If a person who has transgressed one of the laws of the Torah subsequently decides to repent, he will simply go back to keeping the original commandment he violated. He does not need to be commanded to heed a commandment that already exists! If, on the other hand, he has not yet resolved to abandon his sin, there is no reason to think that an additional commandment will help him. He can choose to neglect the commandment to repent just like he opted to neglect the mitzvah he has already violated!

             Additionally interesting is the fact that the Rambam uses an apparently superfluous phrase to describe repentance, calling it repentance before Hashem. Of course, the Rambam is not alone in using this kind of terminology. The Tanach often refers to repentance as returning to Hashem. Nevertheless, this concept is very difficult to comprehend. When a person repents, it appears that he is attempting to return to the observance of a particular commandment, not to Hashem! The association of teshuvah with standing before Hashem does not seem like an accurate depiction of what occurs in real repentance where one’s conduct, rather than one’s God, is the center of focus. Simply put, how is the notion of being in the presence of God relevant to the process of repentance?     


            Repentance and Confession

            As our investigation of the Rambam’s teachings progresses, further difficulties begin to emerge. The first chapter of the Laws of Repentance commences with these words:


            All of the commandments of the Torah, whether positive or negative - if a person should violate one of them, whether willfully or inadvertently - when he repents and turns away from his sin, he is obligated to confess before God, Blessed is He, as it is written: “A man or a woman, when they do any sin...and they shall confess the sin that they did.” This refers to verbal confession. This confession is a positive commandment. How does one confess? He says: “Please Hashem! I have erred, sinned, and rebelled before you, and I have done such-and-such. Now I am regretful and embarrassed by my behavior and I will never return to this thing again.” This is the essential confession. And anyone who makes a more lengthy confession and elaborates on this topic is praiseworthy.


            The first feature of this passage that requires some explanation is the repetitive clause  “when he repents and turns away from his sin.” Isn’t repentance and turning away from sin the same thing? The Rambam appears to be repeating himself unnecessarily here.

            The concept of viduy, or confession, is also difficult to understand. Ostensibly, in requiring us to repent, the Torah’s primary objective is that we stop behaving in ways that violate its laws. One can certainly make a firm decision to change one’s behavior for the better without verbalizing it; in the end, it is what a person does that should matter, not what a person says. Yet, it is clear that the Torah sees confession as indispensable to teshuva. The Rambam reflects this by counting teshuva and viduy as a single, unitary commandment as well as by mentioning repentance and confession together throughout his treatment of the subject. Hence, we must ask, what benefit do we gain by translating our repentance into words? How does this make our teshuva more complete?

            Additionally problematic is the Rambam’s recommendation that the sinner elaborate on his confession as much as possible. What room is there for elaboration in a viduy? Seemingly, once the sin has been identified, remorse has been expressed, and a resolution to change has been adopted, there is nothing left to say. Whether one’s confession is long or short, what we are most interested in is whether the sinner discontinues his inappropriate behavior. There should be no room for differences in degree - either a person has abandoned his error, or he has not.


            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 is 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 sin” 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.


            The Role of Confession

            The new insights we have developed can also help us to explain why confession is such a central feature of repentance. Human speech is a reflection of the ability of human beings to think conceptually. Indeed, from the way an individual communicates an idea it is easy to measure the coherence and precision of his understanding. When a person cannot put what he is thinking into words, we tend to assume that his musings are not yet developed enough to be expressed in speech. Said simply, the use of language is intimately related to the use of the mind.  If teshuva were synonymous with bettering our actions, confession would have no intrinsic relationship to it. Repentance would be a matter of the body while confession would be a matter of the soul. One would theoretically be possible without the other. However, now that we see that teshuva is, in reality, a process of thought and analysis, it follows that - if we have truly completed the process - we should be able to summarize our conclusions in a final declarative statement. At the culminating point of our introspection, we are challenged to demonstrate the clarity of our newfound convictions by expressing them verbally. If we cannot rise to the challenge, our repentance is by no means complete - our thought is not yet clear enough to be articulated. We must continue to seek a better understanding of our personal issues until we have a firm grasp on them, until we can use language to describe them. By the same token, when we have made real progress in our soul-searching, our confession would be expected to mirror the profundity and complexity of our self-analysis. This is why the Rambam states that a confession has the potential for a great deal of expansion and elaboration. The more thoroughly we have delved into the significance of our transgressions and the examination of our life priorities, the richer and more descriptive our confessions will be.


            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.


This essay is based on Rabbi Joshua Maroof’s class on Rambam that is held in Riverdale, NY each week. Acknowledgments are extended to all who attend the class and, as a result of their participation, make an immeasurable contribution to the quality of its content. (Elul 5763)