Repent Your Good Ways
Chapter 3, Law 3(a)
"Anyone who regrets the mitzvos (good deeds) that he did and is appalled
over the merits, saying in his heart: 'What have I gained doing them? If
only I hadn't done them!' -- such a person loses them all. [The heavenly
court] does not recall for him any merits whatsoever, as it is stated, 'The
righteousness of the righteous person will not save him on the day of his
wickedness' (Ezekiel 33:12). Such can only refer to one who regrets (lit.,
'expresses surprise') over [his] earlier [merits].
"Just as [the heavenly court] weighs a person's sins and merits on the day
of his death, so too every year they weigh the sins against the mitzvos of
all those who pass through the world on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. One
who is found to be righteous is sealed for life. One who is found wicked is
sealed for death. As for the average individual, [the court] leaves the
matter hanging until Yom Kippur. If he has repented he is sealed for life;
if not he is sealed for death."
Up until now this chapter has been discussing the manner in which G-d judges
mankind. This law continues the same basic theme, making two unrelated
points. We will discuss the Rambam's first point below and will G-d willing
save the second for next week.
The Rambam first states, based on Talmud Kiddushin 40b, that one who regrets
his good deeds loses them entirely. He has waived the reward G-d had been
prepared to grant him. Their merit is forgotten and disregarded on the
There is a very famous question on this. It was posed by R. Elchanan
Wasserman (Kovetz Ma'amarim), of 19th-20th Century Lithuania. He was a close
disciple of the saintly R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim) and grew
to be considered one of the leaders of world Jewry in the period between the
wars. He was killed in sanctification of G-d's name at the hand of the Nazis
R. Elchanan asks as follows. A number of the classic Jewish philosophers
state that the concept of teshuva (repentance) really does not make sense.
By rights it should not be possible for a person to just regret his past
sins and have them magically disappear -- no longer reckoned with on G-d's
divine scales. Where did they go just because you have now had a change of
heart? What of their devastating impact and the damage you've done to
yourself and the universe? Thus, there is really no logic to teshuva. It
exists only as a special kindness of G-d. It really should not be -- and
only is because of G-d's benevolence.
Based on this, asks R. Elchanan, why does the Talmud state one *can* regret
his mitzvos (good deeds) and lose them? If regretting one's sins is only
effective due to G-d's special mercy, why would He allow the same for one
who regrets his mitzvos? Is G-d extending an especial *cruelty* to allow it?
We can appreciate that G-d is merciful and may extend an especial kindness,
allowing us to regret our sins, but the Talmud appears to state G-d does the
same for one who regrets his mitzvos. Why would G-d allow the regretting of
one's good deeds as well?
Several answers have been suggested to this query. I will first quote the
answer R. Elchanan himself offers and then quote several offered by my
teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu &
www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig). Since each one of these approaches is an
important life lesson in its own right, I will not dwell too heavily on any
of them. Instead, I'll offer them as a smorgasbord of possibilities.
R. Elchanan explains that there are two aspects to a sin. One is that I have
disobeyed G-d and so deserve punishment. The second is that the sin itself
-- being an inherently evil act -- has a detrimental effect on my soul.
Now attaining forgiveness for the first aspect of a sin is basically
logical. If I apologize to G-d (as well as the one I have wronged), it makes
sense that He may forgive me and refrain from punishing me. Punishment
depends on G-d's displeasure; it may be averted if I appease Him.
What is illogical is that the damaging effects of a sin can be removed based
on regret alone. If a sin truly destroys my soul and the universe about, how
can my feeling bad do anything about it? It is the equivalent of a chronic
overeater "regretting" his eating habits and instantly shedding 75 pounds
and halving his cholesterol level. The deleterious aftereffects of sin
cannot just be willed away: they're a reality -- if not for the special
kindness of G-d.
Explains R. Elchanan that when the Talmud states one *can* regret his
mitzvos, it is referring to the first logical aspect of repentance. Just as
one can apologize for his sins and if done sincerely can attain forgiveness,
so too one who regrets his mitzvos just as logically loses them. He wants no
part of them and so has waived any reward G-d was willing to grant him.
Perhaps some good effects of such a person's mitzvos have not been lost (the
equivalent of R. Elchanan's second aspect), but the reward itself can be
forfeited just as easily -- probably more easily -- than the punishments due
for his transgressions.
My teacher added several more answers to the mix, each instructive in its
own way. I'll deal with each briefly.
(1) We must distinguish between mitzvos (good deeds) and sins. When we sin,
*G-d* has the right to punish us. That our teshuva averts it is a special
mercy of G-d. G-d holds the right to punish our sins; the fact that He
accepts our repentance is an act of compassion which logically need not be.
By contrast, when we do a mitzvah, *we* are the ones who deserve the reward.
The reward is thus ours to forgo if we so desire.
(2) There are two ways of viewing the concept of repentance. G-d invented
the phenomenon in the world that one can repent his past sins and have them
wiped away -- that a mere change of heart can literally remove the
experience of sin from a person's record and from his soul. One way of
viewing this is basically magic: It really makes no sense that mere regret
can change a person's past, yet even so G-d permits it. If so, there would
be no reason why G-d should permit the same for a person's mitzvos. Why
would G-d allow the same nonsensical phenomenon to enable a person to ruin
his exemplary past?
The second way of viewing repentance, however, is that it is a reality. G-d
created a *reality* in this world that a person can regret his past and by
so doing disassociate himself from it. Having a change of heart really makes
us different people, forgiven for our past and able to begin anew. Although
the creation of this reality was a special act of kindness of G-d, once He
created it, it is a reality which works both ways. Just as one can
disassociate himself from his past sins, so too -- now that the reality of
teshuva exists -- can one do the same for his mitzvos. The essential
creation of teshuva was an act of kindness, but today it is a two-edged sword.
(3) We need to have a proper understanding of the concept of Divine reward.
If "reward" is just some sort of currency G-d grants us for behaving -- as
if we'll collect x-million dollars of "reward" after 120 -- then it would be
difficult to understand why G-d would be so cruel as to forfeit it if we
later regret our good deeds.
This, however, is not the Jewish concept of reward -- at all. What reward
actually is is a relationship with G-d. If in our lifetimes we have
conditioned ourselves to appreciate G-dliness and spirituality, then we will
have what "in common" with G-d, so to speak, when we pass on. Our share in
the World to Come will be based on our ability to cleave to holiness -- how
close we will be able to venture towards G-d, so to speak -- man's ultimate
Based on this, it is quite clear why someone who regrets his mitzvos will
have no connection to G-d in the World to Come. You cannot force a
relationship on someone. If he doesn't care for the other, there *is* no
connection! Such a person may at one time have done mitzvos which *could
have* enabled him for closeness to G-d, but he regretted them -- in effect
stating he is not interested in the relationship they might have afforded.
And if you don't want a relationship, it isn't there. It can't just
magically happen without you. Perhaps reward as $10,000 bills you can force
on an uninterested recipient. But a relationship cannot be stronger than
both of the parties' willingness to share.
This stands in contrast to sin and punishment. Just because a person regrets
his sins, saying he *does* now want a relationship with G-d, there is no
guarantee that he will be able to attain one. There is still a barrier
between him and G-d, brought about by his sins. As the philosophers write,
it was a special kindness of G-d that such a phenomenon in fact does exist.
Anyway, wrapping up, we discussed many fundamental ideas in this class. Each
provided us with much to think about -- so I won't belabor any of them
further now. This law is yet another excellent example of the amount of
depth contained in the Sages' wise words. One simple statement helped us
understand so many fundamental ideas of Judaism. May we always approach the
words of our Sages with the same reverence and see in them the amount of
depth they truly intended.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org