Chapter 2, Law 1
"What is true teshuva (repentance)? It is when it comes before [the sinner]
the same matter in which he sinned, he is able to sin again, and he
refrains, [and he does so] on account of [his] repentance and not from fear
or lack of strength.
"How is this? If for example a person had illicit relations with a woman and
afterwards he is in seclusion with her, he loves her just as much, has his
physical strength, and is found in the same country where he [previously]
sinned and he refrains and does not transgress, he is a true repenter
('ba'al teshuva' -- lit., 'master of repentance'). This is as Solomon says:
'And remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the bad days
come, and the years arrive of which you will say 'I have no desire for them'
"If a person repents only in his older years, at the time when it is
impossible for him to do what he used to do, even though it is not a
superior teshuva, it is still effective for him and he is considered a ba'al
teshuva. Even if a person sinned his entire life and repents on his day of
death and dies in a state of penitence, all his sins are forgiven. [This is]
as it is stated, 'before the sun, light, moon and stars have grown dark, and
the clouds return after the rain" (ibid., v. 2) -- which [refers to] the day
of death. This implies that if one remembers his Creator and repents before
he dies, he is forgiven."
The Rambam begins this chapter by describing teshuva (repentance) in its
true form. Ideally, teshuva is being in the exact same situation as the past
and refraining from repeating the same behavior. Such utterly wipes out the
memory of one's past behavior and demonstrates unequivocally that the person
has changed for the better. Anything short of that *may* be a sincere
transformation but remains untested and unproven.
The Rambam then balances his statement by stating that even so, if a person
repents only in his declining years it too is effective. The Rambam seems to
make a point of adding this in wherever appropriate: he makes similar
statements in 1:3 and 3:14.
And the meaning is that as important as it is to understand what true
teshuva is -- and to live up to its demands, one who does not should never
give up on himself. It is never too late to repent. Even if we never did
learn better in our younger years, we must at least leverage our new-found
wisdom of experience to realign ourselves with our Creator. For as King
Solomon writes, repent now while you are still able -- while life yet
courses through your veins -- for afterwards there will be no turning back.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu &
www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig) posed a few very basic questions on this
law (which is based on Talmud Yoma 86b). The Sages state that true teshuva
is recreating the scene of the crime and refraining. The reason, presumably,
is because this truly demonstrates that the sinner has repented -- the
Talmudic equivalent of the controlled environment of the science lab.
Now first of all, we obviously have no right to attempt to recreate the same
setting in which we sinned. We most certainly may not again place ourselves
in romantic seclusion with our former lover -- only to (hopefully) show that
this time we are better. The Rabbis considers it wickedness for a person to
knowingly expose himself to temptation (even if he subsequently resists the
temptation) (Talmud Bava Basra 57b). If so, how are we to take the advice of
this law? True, this may be the definition of true repentance, but how
practically does it relate to us? Being that we must never attempt to
recreate the crime scene, we can never know if we *have* fully repented.
Additionally, even if theoretically G-d does put us in precisely the same
setting, we'll never *really* know if we've fully repented. Can we measure
that -- as the Rambam stated -- our desire is exactly as it was the past
time? Perhaps my appetites are stronger today now that I've further indulged
them. Or perhaps I'm less excited about the same woman once I've lived with
her already. There's no way we'll ever know.
Thirdly and most strikingly, why do the Talmud and Rambam both write that
the precise crime scene must be recreated? The Rambam above stated "in the
same country," and the Talmud wrote even more explicitly "in the same
place." Presumably, the reason is so that the sinner can test himself -- to
see if presented with the exact same temptation, he can control himself. But
why the same woman and even the same place? Why not a different woman and
setting -- so long as the sinner's *desire* is the same? As we just
observed, just creating the same scenario does not at all guarantee that a
man's desire will be the same. If so, why not state more generally that if
the sinner has the same level of desire for the same sin and refrains, he
has fully repented?
It is thus clear from all the above that the Sages here are not providing a
practical guide for determining if we have fully repented. Not only *should*
we not expose ourselves to temptation, but even if we do, we'll never truly
know if the challenge was precisely the same. Rather, as we'll now see, the
Sages had an entirely different idea in mind.
One of the strongest factors which holds us back from improving our ways is
identification with our past. If I've acted a certain way up until now, it's
very hard to break away from my current rut and become something different.
And this is not only because of inertia, of the effort required to retrain
myself and my behavior patterns. Even more fundamentally, it is because I
feel my past is who I am. This is who *I* am; this is the kind of person I
am, for better or worse. Adhering to my past behavior patterns gives me a
sense of security. It gives me a sense that I am following and building upon
all of my past experiences rather than venturing precariously into the unknown.
Generally speaking, this mentality is not a bad thing at all. Behaving
consistently and adhering to the tried and true enables us to build upon our
experiences and gain from our past. When it comes to sins, however, such a
mentality is devastating. If I feel my sins are who *I* am, then it will be
near impossible for me to change myself. This is the type of person I am.
This is how I've always done things. Acting any differently now would almost
be dishonest -- and would deny me the comfortable sense of identifying with
my former self. Changing my behavior now would cut off and invalidate a part
of my past, would be admitting that it was all a fallacy which should never
have occurred. It carries the painful sense of sacrificing a part of my very
(Ever see a businessman make one mistake and then follow it up with several
other mistakes -- because otherwise he would be admitting his first move was
a stupid one? (I have.) Well, we do this often in life. Repenting is a form
of admitting my past life was a fallacy; those years were wasted and
regrettable. And parting with years of our past is much more painful than
parting with a fraction of our assets.)
This is why the Talmud requires that the *exact* crime scene be recreated.
The point is not to provide us with a practical experiment for testing our
resolve. It is to teach us what teshuva truly is. Teshuva means
disassociating ourselves from our past. It means taking our past and
deciding that that is not who we are today, rejecting and invalidating a
part of our history. The highest and best way to prove this is by being in
the exact same situation again. Put our past right before our eyes -- deja
vu -- and see how we respond.
Sometimes people who repent improve their ways but still fondly reminisce
about their pasts: Those were the "good old days" when we used to live it
up, but nebbach (unfortunately) now we know better and have to behave. Of
course, far better to at least behave today. But such really misses the
point of teshuva. Teshuva means my past was a mistake; it should never have
happened. I cringe at the very memory. It was a fallacy and is not who I am
now. Teshuva is an amputation -- the enormously painful sense that a part of
"me" is rotten and much be exorcised. I am now a youngster, literally years
behind my contemporaries who merited to live their lives right. And one need
incredible resolve and willpower to pick himself up and begin life anew.
When we think about it, then, teshuva is an immensely difficult task. Admit
that much of what constitutes "you" was a mistake. Reject your past
experiences, your thrills, goals and successes as something you wish never
occurred. Start again with so little of your past to show for yourself. It
is almost like losing years off your life. But considering again, if we
don't reject our mistakes ourselves, one day we'll stand before G-d on
trial. All we will have to show for ourselves are our positive achievements.
Far better that we reject our pasts ourselves while we are still able.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org