In Parshat Nitzavim (Devarim 30:11), Moshe encourages the Jewish people, “This Mitzvah which I command you today is not impossible for you… rather, it is in your mouths and hearts to accomplish it.”
The Rishonim debate to what “Mitzvah” Moshe is referring. Many Rishonim claim that Moshe is referring to all of the Mitzvot of the Torah. If so, Moshe’s message to Bnei Yisrael is that living a life of Jewish belief and observance is not as difficult as it may appear. It is something that we can all achieve.
The Ramban, however, claims that Moshe is referring specifically to the Mitzvah of Teshuvah, repentance. According to this approach, Moshe’s message to the people is that even if they have veered from the path of Torah observance, they always have the opportunity to return to Hashem. By adding in the conclusion of the Pasuk, “BeFicha UViLvavcha LaAsoto,” “It is in your mouths and hearts to fulfill it,” Moshe points out that there is a verbal component (“BeFicha,” which refers to Viduy), an internal, emotional component (“UViLvavcha,” which refers to regret about what you have done wrong) and a practical component (“LaAsoto,” which refers to actually changing your ways) in doing complete Teshuvah. (This interpretation is echoed by Rambam in the beginning of Hilchot Teshuvah where he lists these steps as the necessary components of repentance.)
I’ve often wondered about the term “Mitzvah” being used to refer to Teshuvah. How can we classify Teshuvah as a Mitzvah? Are we encouraging people to sin so that they can fulfill the Mitzvah of repentance?
The answer may lie in Reish Lakish’s famous statement: Teshuvah is so great that it converts intentional sins (Zedonot) into merits (Zechuyot). How can that be? It may be understandable that such sins not to count against you once you’ve repented, but for those sins to count to your benefit requires explanation.
Perhaps the answer is that the experience of making a mistake, genuinely regretting that mistake, committing not to repeat the error, and actually following through with that commitment is an enormously valuable process to undergo. When you genuinely engage in real repentance, you emerge spiritually stronger than you started; stronger even than before you committed the sin for which you repented. During the Teshuvah process, you have the opportunity to learn a lot about yourself; your priorities, your inner strength, your ability to honestly assess and critique yourself. These are qualities and abilities that one must continuously work on and improve in order to become a spiritually sensitive individual.
In that sense, the sins we’ve committed really can allow us to reach spiritual heights otherwise unreachable. Perhaps that is why Moshe commands us to engage in the Mitzvah of Teshuvah.