TESHUVA: The Sequel
Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi Soloveitchik claimed that Maimonides arranged his Hilchot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance) to comprise ten chapters so that we could study one every day of the Ten Days of Teshuva. The Rav believed that this would enhance our spiritual growth during this crucial time frame. Maimonides actually accentuated the importance of these days in the following passage: Even though repentance and calling out to God are desirable at all times, during the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, they are even more desirable and will be accepted immediately as Isaiah (55:6) states: 'Seek God when He is to be found' (Chapter 2, Halacha 6). So, this is a great opportunity to analyze a couple of aspects of teshuva, because this is when God can be encountered, Divine office hours, so to speak. While we have God's attention we ask for forgiveness, and work on repentance. Our Sages have asserted the importance of teshuva in many ways at many times, but one of my favorites is in the tractate Menachot (29b). After the claim is made that this world was created by means of the letter hey in God's name, the rabbis ask: Why this letter? Part of the answer explains that the little space in the upper left is there to allow an opening for those who want to do teshuva, in other words our world has a built-in escape hatch for those who stray (like all of us), namely teshuva. The world was made with the opportunity for teshuva, because without it we couldn't go on, therefore we should learn about teshuva, and one of the best expositions on teshuva is Maimonides' work on the topic.
The ten chapters of the Laws of Repentance can be divided into three parts. The first four are concerned primarily with sin and the mitzvah of vidui (confession). Then there are two chapters which discuss free will, because the sin-teshuva cycle requires free-will. We freely chose to transgress; we must freely choose to return. The final four chapters seem to describe how wonderful teshuva is, but we'll see there's more to that. Having explained the general outline, I must say that the whole work is important and grand, but two chapters are truly outstanding, 2 and 7.
Chapter two describes the nature of teshuva for a specific sin. It describes the process, and then notes that there are two roadblocks to a successful return to the good graces of God, which we call kapara or atonement. The first is when we didn't actually stop performing the sin. Maimonides compares that to immersing in a ritual bath (mikveh), and still clutching an impure object. How can you expect to become pure (tahor)? The other barrier to God's complete forgiveness only applies when our transgression is against another person. We can't get God's atonement without the aggrieved party forgiving us first. It's also in this chapter that Maimonides elucidates the four steps of teshuva: stopping the performance of the sin, regretting having committed the sin, clearly stating what the sin was (vidui), and resolving to never commit that sin again. There's more but that's enough for now.
Now we come to chapter seven. This is the most glorious and moving section of the whole work. Maimonides first explains that teshuva is available to us all and should be accomplished as soon as possible, but then he introduces us to a new reality of teshuva. He writes: A person should not think that repentance is only necessary for those sins that involve deed such as promiscuity, robbery, or theft. Rather, just as a person is obligated to repent from these, similarly, he must search after the evil character traits he has. He must repent from anger, hatred, envy, frivolity, the pursuit of money and honor, the pursuit of gluttony, and the like. He must repent for all of the above (7:3). Maimonides then explains that this is even harder than abandoning a specific sin, and quotes Isaiah to make his point: May the wicked abandon his path and the crooked man, his designs (57:7). This means that real, sincere teshuva does not address what we do. It addresses who we are. And that's hard.
But it's also glorious. Maimonides declares: Teshuvah is grand for it draws a man close to the Shechinah as…Jeremiah (4:1) states: "`If, you will return, O Israel,' declares God, `You will return to Me.'" Implied is that if you will return in Teshuvah, you will cling to Me. Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed. Previously, this person was hated by God, disgusting, far removed, and abominable. Now, he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear (law 6). And he further informs us: How exalted is the level of Teshuvah! Previously, the sinner was separate from God, the Lord of Israel, as Isaiah (59:2) states: 'Your sins separate between you and your God'…but now, he is clinging to the Shechinah (law 7). So there are two totally different categories of teshuva. One is segmented and is a return from specific negative acts; the other is holistic and is a return to the person God created and we always wanted to be.
In many rabbinic writings about teshuva you often hear about repentance through fear and through love. The first is about concern for punishment and the other emphasizes establishing a relationship with God. We think of one as negative and the other as positive. But maybe one is focused on specific, discrete acts and the other concentrates on the totality of the person. Many of us enter this season with great fear and trepidation, and that's not necessarily bad, and many rabbis work that particular approach. But maybe it's time to engender another point of view. Let's enter this period with a sense of opportunity, of hope, of optimism. We've already seen how Maimonides quoted Isaiah that God is close at this time, and that we should avail ourselves of God's proximity to renew our ties. And then Maimonides reminds us of another promise: There shall come a time when you will return to the Lord, your God, and God, your Lord will bring you back (Deuteronomy 30:3). Let's work on making this the year!