Insights into Teshuva by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


            The Rambam writes (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:6) "even though Teshuvah and crying to God in prayer is always an appropriate activity to be engaged, in during the Aseret Yemai Teshuva it is exceptionally appropriate to be engaged in Teshuvah and it is accepted by God immediately as it is written by the Navi Yeshayahu דרשו ה' בהמצאו (נה:ו) "seek out God when He is present".  Exploring the nuances of Hilchot Teshuva will enhance our appreciation of the great gift of Teshuva.  We will explore some of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's insights into the Rambam's Hilchot Teshuva. 

            The Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva (א:א) writes that when one who sins and does Teshuva is obligated to confess his sins "before God".  Why does the Rambam find it important to

include the words "before God"?  Rabbi Soloveitchik makes a number of suggestions.  First, it teaches that confession and Teshuva should only be part of our relationship to God and not an exercise in religious exhibitionism.  Second, that Teshuva should be viewed as prayer, which the Rambam describes as a direct encounter with God (Hilchot Tefilah 4:61).  Teshuva should not be seen as an automatic process, that we achieve כפרה automatically.  Instead, it should be seen as praying to Hashem for forgiveness.

            The third lesson is that the objective of confession and Teshuva is to come closer to God.  We should not merely correct lapses in our observance of the Torah, but we should keep in perspective that the goal of Teshuva is to become a more spiritual person.  Rabbi Soloveitchik was fond of noting that both the individual and the community must repent.  This assertion is clearly supported by the  language of the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 2:7) "Yom Kippur is the time for Teshuva for every individual, and community and it is the fact opportunity for forgiveness for the entire Jewish people".  The ברכה we recite on Yom Kippur reflects the distinction- we bless Hashem who is מוחל וסולח לעונותינו ולעונות עמו בית ישראל, forgives our sins and the sins of the entire house of Israel.  Accordingly, not only should individuals at this time of the year review their spiritual state but also we should examine how the Jewish community can be improved and its deficiencies corrected.

            Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that one can discern from the Rambam that there is a distinction between emotion-based Teshuva and intellect-based Teshuva.  This idea emerges from resolving an apparent contradiction in the Rambam.  In Hilchot Teshuva, פרק א' הלכה א', the Rambam writes that the process of Teshuva involves 1) Regretting having committed sinful acts 2) Making a commitment not to repeat the sin in the future.  On the other hand, in פרק ב' הלכה ב' the Rambam reverses the order.  First he must resolve not to return to sinful behavior and then he should regret involvement in sinful activities.

            Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that in the first chapter the Rambam is speaking of an emotion-based Teshuva.  This type of Teshuva focuses on regretting the commission of sin.  In this case the repentant finds the sins he committed disgusting and revolting which motivates his Teshuva.  In the second chapter intellectual considerations motivate the individual to return to Hashem.  In this case, the repentant focuses on changing his future behavior. 

            Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer debate whether the Jewish people must repent to merit the final redemption.  Rambam (הלכות תשובה פרק ז' הלכה ה') rules that only when we will repent, will we merit redemption- אין ישראל נגאלין אלא בתשובה.  Rabbi Soloveitchik makes a beautiful observation regarding this point.  We see that the obligation to believe in the coming in Moshiach includes a requirement to believe that the Jewish people will eventually repent.  Accordingly, we must be unswervingly optimistic about the future spiritual welfare of our people.

            Rabbi Soloveitchik asks why does the Rambam place his discussion of belief in free will- בחירה חפשית in Hilchot Teshuva and not in Hilchot Yesodei Torah where he discusses the fundamentals of Jewish belief.  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the belief in free will is the foundation of Teshuva.  Belief in free will, which the Rambam (הל' תשובה פרק ה' הל' ג') refers to as "a great principle and the foundation of Torah and Mitzvot," is what makes Teshuva possible.  If one erroneously believes that one's personality and behavior are entirely controlled by forces beyond his control, then he will not be able to change his behaviors.  However, if one believes that an individual is empowered by God to control and change himself, then Teshuva is a relevant possibility.

            The seventh chapter of Hilchot Teshuva is one of the most beautiful sections of the Rambam's Mishneh Torah.  The Rambam writes exaltingly of the repentant as one who only yesterday was alienated from God, but now clings to God.  Only yesterday he was a sinner whose acts of Mitzvot were found displeasing to God, but today God not only accepts but even desires his performance of Mitzvot.  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that only subsequent to asserting and explaining the role of free will can the Rambam speak of Teshuva in such a lofty manner.  In light of the principle of free will, we see that an individual has the ability to rebuild and fashion his entire personality instead of making small behavioral adjustments in his religious behavior.  Only Teshuva which involves a redirection and refocusing of one's goals and ambitions in life is described in such dramatic terms by the Rambam.

            Finally, it is very worthwhile to mention Rabbi Soloveitchik's insight into the following rule.  We know that the Mishna in Yoma (דף פה:) teaches that Yom Kippur does not atone for sins between people.  One is required to ask forgiveness from the individual that one offended.  The Mishna and Rambam (הל' תשובה פרק ב' הל' ט') mention that forgiveness is not sufficient, what is required is "Ritzui," that he should appease him.  The Rav explains that this means that one must exert all efforts to restore the relationship with the offended person to what it was before the sin was committed.

            These beautiful insights of Rabbi Soloveitchik enrich our understanding and appreciation of the great gift of Teshuva.  We should view the period of the עשרת ימי תשובה as a special opportunity to engage in this process.  May Hashem grant us all a year of good fortune, health, and happiness.

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