Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Obvious Teshuva

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

With the Yom Hadin upon us, teshuvah assumes a special urgency. Knowing that our very existence depends of the quality of our teshuvah prompts us to probe the meaning and scope of this obligation.

But it turns out that referring to teshuvah as an obligation may be a matter of dispute. The Rambam, in Hilchos Teshuvah, does not appear to regard teshuvah as a mitzvas asei.

In the first perek, the Rambam states that when a person engages in teshuvah, a vital aspect of that process is viduy—confession—which he defines as a mitzvas asei. Yet surprisingly, the Rambam stops short of defining teshuvah itself as a chiyuv. It seems from his language that there is no obligation for a person to do teshuvah, but rather that if a person repents, there is a mitzvah to say viduy.

In Perek 5, Halacha 2, he states that “it is proper to do teshuvah and to leave our wickedness behind,” again without designating teshuvah as an obligation. The same is true of Perek 7, Halacha 1, where he writes that a person should endeavor – yishtadeil – to do teshuvah and clean his hands of cheit. Once again, no mention is made of teshuvah being mandatory.

One might conclude from the language of the Rambam that while it is certainly a virtuous act, there is no chiyuv to do teshuvah.

Yet, we know from many pesukim in the Torah that teshuvah is in fact compulsory. In numerous places, Hashem urges the Jewish people to spiritually cleanse themselves, to repent and do teshuvah and return to G-d’s embrace.

In fact, in his short introductory summation to the chapters on teshuvah, the Rambam writes that the perakim on teshuvah contain “one mitzvas asei, which is that the sinner should repent from his sin before Hashem and be misvadeh, confess.”

The Ramban and the Siforno state unequivocally that every Jew has an obligation to do teshuvah. Both Rishonim identify the source for this chiyuv in the posuk in Parshas Nitzovim, [30; 11]Ki hamitzvah hazose asher anochi metzavcha hayom,” which is always read on the Shabbos prior to Rosh Hashanah.

Both Rishonim agree that the words “ki hamitzvah” are referring to the mitzvah of - “vahasheivoschah el levovechah” - “you shall impress upon your heart”- which is mentioned earlier in the parsha. They interpret this command as an obligation to do teshuvah.

How then are we to understand the Rambam’s failure to designate teshuvah as a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew? Perhaps by reviewing the pesukim of parshas Nitzovim we can gain deeper insight into the Rambam’s views on teshuvah.

The pesukim discuss what will befall Am Yisroel when they succumb to sin. They speak of how Eretz Yisroel will be destroyed and the nations of the world will wonder why the country was singled out for such devastation. They will be told it was because the Jews deserted the covenant they had made with Hashem. They served strange gods and were cursed and punished.

Eventually the nation will do teshuvah and return to Hashem. He will then have mercy on us and gather us in from our exiles all across the world and retrun us to Eretz Yisroel. When the Jewish people will repent and perform all the mitzvos properly, they will be blessed and Hashem will rejoice with them once again.

It is then that the posuk which the Ramban and the Siforno say relates to teshuvah, appears: “This mitzvah, which I have commanded you today is not hidden from you, nor is it remote in the heavens, or in a far-away land. It is very close to you and easy for you to perform.”

The parsha continues, with Hashem telling the Jewish people that He has placed before them life and and goodness, as well as death and evil. If you sin then you will be smitten, the Torah says, but if you choose life, and good, then you and your children will merit living. You will love Hashem, follow his commandments and cling to him, because he is the source of your life.

The Rambam, in his discussion of teshuvah, is essentially following the order and content of the aforementioned pesukim. This is why he writes, in perek 5, a lengthy explanation of the concept of bechirah. He explains that Hashem created man with the ability to choose which way he wants to live his life. He is free to exercise his choices in any direction; to be good and follow Hashem’s word, or to be evil. If he were not empowered with free choice, there would be no grounds for reward and punishment.
We thus choose our own path in life, and thereby determine our own fates.

The Rambam then continues in perek 6 and 7, stating that therefore, people are punished when they don’t follow the proper path. But teshuvah has the power to suspend punishment. A person should therefore endeavor to repent and mend his ways and do teshuvah, so that he will be spared Divine punishment and merit Olam Habah.

And just as the pesukim in Nitzovim end with redemption, the Rambam follows the narrative and writes that teshuvah will lead us to redemption, and bring the nation back to Hashem’s embrace.

Herein lies the answer to our original question regarding whether teshuvah is mandatory or merely proper and advisable. There are two types of teshuvah. The preferred is teshuvah m’ahavah, the outcome of a person’s perception that Hashem is his Creator with whom he wants to grow closer. Out of his love of Hashem and appreciation for his abundant kindness, he rejects sin, which distances man from Hashem. Teshuvah m’yirah, though not as pure and ideal, is also accepted and helps clear the slate of the repentant person. This teshuvah is generated by a person’s fear of sin’s consequences. He realizes that his choices are life-and-death choices, and opts for life.

Were there an explicit obligation to do teshuvah, it would negate the possibility of choice in the inner tug of war that pits a person’s desire to be good against the temptation to do evil.

If a person engages in teshuvah because he is forced to by Divine obligation, his teshuvah is lacking in the core ingredient that defines this spiritual process: a yearning for reconnection and reconciliation with Hashem.

What makes teshuvah real as opposed to perfunctory is its source. It is real when it springs from a person’s deepest self as an innate response to facing two opposite paths and with one’s own free will, fulfilling the command of uvocharta b’chaim, choosing life.

That is why the pesukim which speak about teshuvah in parshas Nitzovim speak of the choices one has to make in life and their consequences, without clearly spelling out the obligation to repent. The pesukim present the choices before man, and the benefits of teshuvah, but they do not obligate him to follow the proper path. That choice is left to us.

That quintessential choice is left to us because teshuvah cannot be commanded and still be authentic. The only way the process can rise to the level of authenticity is if it is freely chosen.

The Rambam follows this line of thinking. He explains the virtues of teshuvah, the nobleness of drawing closer to Hashem, and the general benefits which arise from a person repenting. But while he discusses the advantages of teshuvah and guides one through the process, he does not say straight out that a person is obligated to undertake this course of action. If a person does teshuvah simply because he wants to adhere to the mitzvah, he would defeat the entire purpose and his act would have little value.

So much of what we do in life boils down to a choice of good and bad. Our choices carry repercussions—for ourselves and others. If we do the wrong thing or go down an ill-advised path, we can be plagued for life. Often times the route that seems most appealing is actually the most destructive. By the time we realize our mistake, it is too late to pull back and extradite ourselves from the morass we’ve stumbled into.

Teshuvah provides us with that opportunity to reverse course. It gives us a chance to start over. If we recognize that we erred and wish to return to life, goodness and to Hashem’s circle, we have the ability to wipe the slate clean as we rectify our ways. We have been provided with the power to undo defective choices, escape from the mess and return to Hashem’s good graces.

In the period of the Yomim Noraim, the Creator judges us according to our actions throughout the past year and ordains our future based upon how we have acted. Out of his deep enduring love for us, He provides us with the opportunity to merit a good year even though our actions might not justify those blessings. He presents us with the fork in the road and begs us to choose the path of life.

It is a simple choice, to be bocher b’chaim and choose the path of a blessed and good life. No matter how poorly we have performed, the magnitude of our mistakes, and how low we may have sunk from the level expected of us, there is a way out. Teshuvah is the ladder which enables us to climb down from the house of cards we have built for ourselves, and to climb up from the pits of self-indulgence and false pride.

It is never too late and we are never too far gone for teshuvah to help us return to the place we belong. The Torah testifies that once we decide that we want to be on the path of life, teshuvah is not that difficult to perform. We have to show we care, express interest in righting ourselves, and initiate the process. Hashem will then reach out to us in these special Days of Awe and complete the process, drawing us even closer to Him than we were before.

Teshuvah and the good life we all crave is a matter of priorities. It’s all about us recognizing the truth of the words of the pesukim, of Chazal, of the Rambam and of the mussar seforim with which we have been blessed and should review in this period.

At its core, what ought to prompt a person to teshuvah is not complex or ambiguous. Teshuvah is obvious once we recognize on the deepest level that Hashem created the world and wants to help us succeed in it.

Teshuvah requires the humility to accept that we are powerless to arrange our own destinies by ourselves. We are dependant upon a Higher Power to provide us with sustenance and life. To the extent that we follow the path He has laid down for us—which we all know is the only way to go—we will merit a blessed life filled with every good thing we long for.

Let us hope and pray that we all merit a bona fide teshuvah and that together with all of Klal Yisroel, we will be inscribed for a kesiva vachsimah tovah.


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