As we enter into Elul and the Yamim Noraim, much of the discussion regarding religious development revolves around the notion of Teshuvah. In that vein, many have noted that Teshuvah does not appear to make any sense. The problem boils down to the fact that a person should be held responsible for his actions; if someone sins, he should face the consequences. In fact, no less an authority than the Yerushalmi (Makkot 2:6) acknowledges this reality when it records the following story: It was inquired of Wisdom, ‘What is the punishment of the sinner?’ Wisdom said, ‘evil pursues the wicked.’ It was asked of prophecy, ‘what is the punishment of the sinner?’ Prophecy said to them, ‘The sinful soul shall perish.’” Nonetheless, despite the clear and concrete views of wisdom and prophecy, the Yerushalmi concludes by citing G-d’s perspective on the issue, “It was asked of the Holy One, ‘What is the punishment of the sinner?’ and He said ‘Let him repent and he will be forgiven.’”
Wisdom and prophecy agree that the sinner must be punished; why does G-d disagree? How can G-d, whose ‘signature’ is truth and who cannot be called ‘lax in justice’ (“Vatraan”), disagree by ignoring man’s sins and absolving man of his rightfully deserved punishment?
Sensitive to this problem, Rav Soloveitchik provides an essential insight into the nature of Teshuvah. The Rav explains that after one does Teshuvah, G-d does not forgo punishing him for his sins. Rather, the sins themselves can be changed and transformed. The Rav explains that the true Teshuvah experience is actually using the past to “recreate” the self. By going through the process of failure, by sinning, a person can better appreciate the importance of his actions and behavior. Now, after the experience of failure, man is enlightened by his newlyfound insight and understanding and he can begin forging his identity anew. While previously man’s sins were simply human failures, with Teshuvah, a negative experience can be transformed into an opportunity for growth and development. In this sense, man can change the past by transforming the influence it has on his identity. Put differently, Teshuvah is not a suspension of justice or G-d “looking the other way”; rather, when G-d gives man the opportunity to repent, He is expanding His view of man’s actions to include the long-term positive effects.
This approach to Teshuvah is extremely empowering and solves the classic difficulty articulated above. Moreover, because this view of Teshuvah offers man the opportunity to recreate himself, it seems that man’s moral capacity to transform his identity comes from his own inner strength and is an essential component of his human nature. Additionally, long before the Rav articulated this perspective, it seems that Rambam echoes this perspective as well with an insightful comment.
In his opening remarks to Hilchot Teshuvah (1:1), Rambam says that “when a person does Teshuvah….he is responsible to recite Vidui.” Picking up on Rambam’s strange formulation, which seems to begin in the middle of the process (“when a person does Teshuvah”) instead of starting at the beginning (“there is a mitzvah to do Teshuvah”), the Minchat Chinch suggests that according to the Rambam there is no mitzvah to do Teshuvah. Rather, the actual mitzvah is limited to the recitation of Vidui once a person is already involved in the voluntary process of Teshuvah. In this vein, he likens it to the Torah’s counting of divorce through a Get as a Mitzvah; when faced with the reality of divorce, there is a mitzvah to perform the process using a Get. Essentially, neither Teshuvah nor divorce are Mitzvot; rather, when man is involved in a particular procedure, then there is a Mitzvah to utilize a certain methodology, be it Vidui or Get, to complete the process.
However, there is a blaring difference between Rambam’s formulation regarding divorce and Teshuvah. In his brief summary of divorce in Sefer HaMitzvot (number 222), Rambam writes that “if one chooses to divorce his wife, there is a commandment to do so with a Get.” However, in his discussion of Teshuvah, the Rambam writes that “when a person does Teshuvah, he should say Vidui.” Seemingly, the Rambam’s “situational” view of Teshuvah differs significantly from his view of divorce; regarding Teshuvah, there isn’t a question of whether a person will be involved in the process and thus be obligated to say Vidui. Rather, when a person performs Teshuvah, he is required to say Vidui.
Thus, it seems that Teshuvah is not something that people might do; it is a human process and normal pattern of life. Man’s return to G-d, his recreation of the self by commencing on the journey of Teshuvah, is engrained in the very essence of man.
Seemingly, this idea is also reflected in the poetic description of repentance in Parashat Netzavim. Ostensibly, this description (30:1-10) fits into the larger discussion of national repentance that follows Jewish suffering in exile. However, adopting Ramban’s view that the continuation of the Parashah (30:11-20) is also dealing with Teshuvah adds an additional layer of meaning and depth to this prophetic vision. Whereas the beginning of the Parashah predicts an eventual repentance, the second section details intimately how we can be assured it will happen. Lest one doubt the Jewish people’s commitment to return to G-d after a history of pogroms, expulsions, holocausts or assimilation, the Torah informs us that “this is not something foreign or removed from you; it is not in the heavens…it is not across the sea…this is something very close to your mouths and hearts.” The Jewish people’s inner yearning for Teshuvah, for recreation of the self to be united with G-d, is embedded deep within the Jewish soul and no matter how far the Jews may stray from G-d and their moral anchor, they will return.
However, despite this grandiose conception of man’s moral capacity, Judaism’s view of mankind is not naïve. Sin is a reality of religious life and every religion, Judaism included, knows it. In this vein, the Tanach clearly acknowledges that “there is no man who does not sin.” Sin is inevitable. Yet, the Jewish response is not one of despair or passive waiting for divine grace. Rather, Judaism empowers man and demands that he himself respond. The Torah believes that while all men sin, there is “no man who cannot repent.” Despite his moral failings, man will emerge from the experience courageous in his return to G-d.