Chapter 2, Law 4
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Among the ways of teshuva (repentance) are: (1) The repenter cries out
constantly before G-d with crying and supplication. (2) He gives charity
according to his ability. (3) He distances himself greatly from the matter
in which he sinned. (4) He changes his name, as if to say 'I am another; I
am not that same person who did those actions.' (5) He changes all of his
actions for the better and towards the straight path. (6) He exiles himself
from his place, as exile atones sin since it causes the person to be
subdued, humble, and of lowly spirit."
After discussing the basic teshuva process earlier this chapter, the Rambam
lists other activities beneficial to the process. Although not requirements
of teshuva, such are electives -- actions which help concretize the process
and make it last.
The Rambam's advice this week is based upon a similar statement in the
Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b): "Said Rabbi Yitzchak: Four things tear up the
[evil] decree of a person. They are charity, crying out, changing one's
name, and changing one's acts. And some say also changing one's place."
There's a significant common thread running through all six actions the
Rambam mentions. They all bring about the same basic result -- that the
repenter is transformed into a different person. They thus bring teshuva to
an entirely higher plane. Simple teshuva means I've stopped sinning, I
regret, and I accept to be better for the future. I'm the same old me (for
better or worse); I just desist from doing certain improper actions. Here,
however, the repenter is doing something altogether more meaningful: he
literally becomes a different person from the one who sinned.
The best indication of this is the fourth way the Rambam brings, that the
sinner change his name. Here the sinner states outright that he is now
someone else. As we see constantly throughout Scripture, a name is
considered to define a person's essence. Children were named according to
the circumstances in which they were born (see for example the end of
Genesis 29). Their name epitomizes who they are and their life's mission.
Abraham was the father of many nations ("AV HaMon goyim") (Genesis 17:5),
Sarah was princess (the exact translation of her name), Solomon was to be a
man of peace (Shlomo = Shalom).
Similar to this is the Jewish practice of changing the name of a deathly-ill
person. Perhaps Heaven has decreed that Moshe's life is about to end, but
perhaps Chaim Moshe will be granted a different verdict. A new name means a
new person with a new mission. The repentant sinner is likewise stating that
he is now a new person with a new outlook. His past sins have no bearing on
him; they were done by someone else.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig has noted that short of doing something so
drastic as changing one's name, at times simply switching from one's English
to his Jewish name may do the trick. This too gives a person a wonderful
opportunity to make a break from his past. Steve used to act that way -- but
not Shalom. By letting all your friends know you'd now prefer to be known by
your Hebrew name, you make a statement -- to them as well as yourself --
that you now aspire to higher standards.
Another good example is way #6 -- exiling oneself. The Rambam here adds that
being out of place tends to humble a person. He cannot act up the same way
since he's a stranger, living in the good graces of his host community.
Another idea is that it allows a person to make a clean break from his past.
Say in the past you were always known as the class clown. It's very
difficult to deviate from that when the entire class is watching you,
smirking, waiting for you to cause trouble. It's sometimes easier to change
environments, using the fresh start to reestablish your personality the way
*you* want it.
Several years ago, one of the boys in my son's class switched to a different
school. My wife asked the mother sometime later what was the reason. The
response was that it actually had nothing to do with the school itself. It
was that the boy was extremely quiet (partly on account of being a recent
immigrant from America to an Israeli school) and had already gotten a
reputation as someone who *never* talked in class. And it was too
embarrassing for him to break away from that. Finally, the decision was made
to move him to a new environment where he could start anew.
Let's now look at the Rambam's way #2 -- giving charity. This would seem to
simply be a nice thing to do -- not necessarily an identity-changing act as
the others. Yet, my teacher R. Zweig observed that this seems to be an
entirely different act from the standard obligation of charity. Jewish law
obligates us to give 10% of our profits to the needy. Although in itself
quite demanding, rarely does such a percentage significantly alter a
person's lifestyle or financial standing. Here however the Rambam writes
that a person must give "according to his ability" -- i.e., as much as he
can. The implication is far stronger -- giving more than normal, giving as
much as he is able, giving till it hurts.
And this too is a transforming action. I'm not the same me who has just done
an additional good deed. I have literally lowered my economic status. I
sinned as a rich man (that quite often had something to do with it). Now I
am a much humbler and well-behaved poor man.
The Rambam's remaining three examples also revolve around the same theme.
They were that the repenter constantly cry before G-d, that he distances
himself from his bad behavior, and that he changes all of his acts for the
better. These too all go beyond simple repentance. The repenter is not
simply *refraining* from the sin itself but *distancing* himself from it,
going to the opposite extreme. He is likewise changing all his acts for the
better -- not only the specific matter in which he sinned. He remakes his
entire personality. And finally, he cries out to G-d -- not specifically for
atonement for this sin but in general. He wants to reestablish his entire
relationship with G-d, to beg G-d to truly allow him to return.
All of this makes clear that true repentance is a wrenching, uprooting
process. I don't just stop; I remake myself entirely. One of the themes
we'll return to many times in these studies is that true teshuva is
enormously hard work. You can't just shrug your shoulders and try to be
better next time. You need to go into yourself, hold firm your scalpel, and
exorcise the evil from your mind and heart. Even though man is naturally
good, evil, once given the opportunity, takes deep root in his soul. As the
most malignant virus, it attaches itself to your very essence and constantly
changes form to avoid detection. Repentance is a tough battle. We must do
our part, but as the Rambam states, in the final analysis we must just cry
to G-d to accept us once again.
Based in part on ideas heard from my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
(www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig).
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org