Souls of Infinity
Chapter 7, Laws 1-2
"[Law 1] Since every person has free will, as we have explained, a
person should make the effort to repent and to shake his sins off his hands
so that he will die in a state of penitence (lit., 'he will die and he will
be a master of repentance (ba'al teshuva)')." [This is] in order that he
merit life in the World to Come."
"[Law 2] A person should always see himself as if he is on the brink of
death, and perhaps he will die in the [current] hour, remaining in his
sinful state. Therefore, a person should repent his sins immediately, and he
should not say, 'When I get old I will repent' lest he die before he gets
old. This is as Solomon said in his wisdom, 'At all times shall your clothes
be white, and oil on your head should not lack' (Koheles (Ecclesiastes)
Last week we concluded the Rambam's two-chapter discussion of the topic of
free will. The Rambam discussed free will at great length, establishing the
overall principle while addressing various philosophical difficulties with
it and apparent contradictions to it appearing in the Scripture.
This chapter seems to loosely follow the previous. Since free will exists,
not only are our actions our own responsibility, but we also have the
ability to repent them. Therefore, continues the Rambam, we must take
advantage of this opportunity, and be sure to repent before the day of our
deaths -- whenever that may be.
This point, incidentally, is based directly upon a mishna in Pirkei Avos,
"Repent one day before you die" (2:15). The
obvious inference is that since no one knows just when his day of death will
be, he must always live in a state of penitence.
There are a few issues I found bothersome with the Rambam this week. He
seems to reintroduce teshuva (repentance) to us from scratch -- although
that has been the topic of his entire work since the very start. Sure, the
obligation is more logically compelling now that we've established the
principle of free will, but why the fresh start? The Rambam told us long ago
that we must repent. Why must he re-obligate us now?
Second, the Rambam's focus on death is curious. Shouldn't we repent because
G-d told us to? If it's an obligation, we should do it *now* -- or at least
by the nearest Yom Kippur! At least ideally, we should not require the
threat of death hanging over us to cause us to do what we should be doing
anyway. Is there any other obligation in the Torah regarding which the
Rambam writes: "Do this because you might die before you get around to it"?
Do it because you must! G-d wants you to do this -- period.
(To be fair, as we noted in the beginning of this work (Chapter 1, Law
1), it is not that clear that the Torah obligates us to repent at all.
Our remorse and repentance to G-d must really come from within; it cannot be
imposed on someone who really does not want to make it up to G-d. The
Torah's direct command is therefore not that we repent, but that when we
*do* regret our mistakes we enunciate it by recited the viduy confession.
Thus, perhaps the Rambam here means to say that although G-d doesn't
directly command us to repent, we ought to motivate ourselves -- using the
fear of death. Yet even so, why because of death? Why not more correctly
because we know this is what G-d wants us to do -- even if He does not
directly command us?)
Lastly, the motivation the Rambam lists for doing teshuva seems rather
selfish: We must repent before our deaths so we'll receive our share in the
World to Come. And this again seems to miss the point of teshuva. Shouldn't
we repent to make it up to the G-d (as well as the people) we have wronged?
Isn't the purpose of repentance repairing our relationship with G-d? Isn't
it primarily something we owe G-d -- rather than our own selfish seeking of
our portion in the hereafter? Why does the Rambam appear to discuss teshuva
on so much lower and pettier a level than earlier?
All of these questions are pointing us in a new direction -- and with it
we'll understand the entirely different thrust of this most critical chapter
of the Rambam.
Up until now, until the past two chapters on free will, the Rambam presented
repentance as an obligation to G-d. G-d created us, He sustains us, and He
continually provides us with all we have been blessed with. He therefore has
every right to command us how we must live -- and we failed Him. We misused
the gift of life He has granted us, and we owe it to Him to make amends.
Thus, teshuva, as we had studied it, was something we do to G-d (as well any
others we hurt along the way). Even if, as above, the Torah does not
directly obligate us in teshuva -- you can't tell someone else to feel bad
if he just doesn't -- yet the primary obligation was a G-d-oriented one.
In fact, we pointed out back then (see again 1:1) that if not for this, if a
person doesn't clearly direct his repentance to the G-d he wronged, teshuva
can be seen as no more than New Year's resolutions. You failed and you want
to be better next year. The natural reaction would be to put the past out of
mind and try not to make the same mistakes again. Sure, next year might be
better, but such "repentance" leaves G-d out of the picture entirely. You
never stood before G-d and apologized to Him for your infraction. You just
attempted to improve yourself -- to get yourself a better share in the World
Thus, the earlier part of the Rambam is certainly the foundation of
repentance. If we repent only because we don't want to be punished, that is
not a return to G-d at all. Such is not teshuva -- it is self-improvement.
Only if we stand before G-d and apologize to Him does the entire process begin.
All of the above is perfectly valid -- but it leaves something out.
Repenting because of G-d alone turns into yet another Torah obligation. Sure
G-d didn't actually command it, but it's basically an imposed action --
because G-d wants it, even if He didn't say so. And such can only go so far.
By way of analogy, say a person gives charity because the Torah tells us to
tithe our income. Such a person does so not because he is sensitive to the
needs of others and wants to help those less fortunate, but because G-d told
him to. Clearly, such is a very hollow performance of the mitzvah
(commandment) of charity. The initial obligation may be because G-d said so
-- and of course we must listen to G-d whether we feel generous or not --
but clearly, the Torah's intent is that we care about other human beings and
develop a desire to help them.
The same is true regarding teshuva. Step 1, as the earlier chapters of the
Rambam, is that we repent because it is G-d's will. And as we explained,
teshuva requires that prerequisite -- just as all mitzvos must ultimately be
predicated on our obligation to G-d.
However, once that basis has been established, we need to move on -- to put
ourselves behind repentance as we should with any other mitzvah of the Torah
or any other quest in life. And the basis, the jumping-off point for that,
is free will. Let us explain.
Free will is not just a principle that we can choose our actions. It means
something much more profound, as we discussed earlier (see e.g. 5:1). Free will
means we can change ourselves, that we can decide -- really in an instant --
to become different people. Free will means I am not bound by my earlier
mistakes. Perhaps on the outside I have sinned and corrupted myself. But
within -- as we all know deep down -- we are still pure. Our souls are still
beautiful; they remain unsullied by our faults. Sure, we have to go many
layers down to find it. But our souls are still there. They still desire
nothing other than goodness and closeness to G-d. And if I simply get in
touch with my inner self, I can be free.
This is the true concept of free will. We can free ourselves of our outer
shells -- of so many layers of coarseness and apathy. We can release our
true selves, realize our full potential. We can cut beneath the confusion
and our physical limitations and become whom we really want to be. We can
find fulfillment. We can be great. And even more than great: we can be
One of the most depressing aspects of sin is the inner sense that we know
deep down this isn't what we want to do. It's not just that we're defying
G-d. We're not being true to ourselves. We know in our inner hearts that sin
is not for us, yet we allow ourselves -- our outer selves -- to be drawn
after it. Sin thus leaves us feeling not only wicked, but empty; not only
that we failed G-d, but we failed ourselves.
Once we truly become aware of the potential free will gives us, we will take
it and fly. We will repent to G-d not simply because He told us to --
although of course that must always be part of the picture -- but because we
ourselves want fulfillment. Teshuva will be an exciting, invigorating
process of self-realization and self-fulfillment. We will become our true
selves and find true happiness.
We can now appreciate why the Rambam here is so focused on death. The
simplest point is that once the focus is teshuva for your own
self-improvement, death is a pretty powerful motivator. We all want get in
touch with our inner selves and realize our potential. We must realize that
our time on this earth is limited and take advantage of every day we have on
Even deeper, however, is the fact that we are not dealing with specifics.
The focus here is not to repent over a particular sin we did on a particular
day. That is the day-to-day obligation of teshuva. Here we are talking about
self-fulfillment, about achieving our life's goals. And for that we must
approach matters from a lifelong perspective. Our goal here is one which in
one sense we can fulfill instantly -- simply by getting in touch with our
true selves, yet in another, relates to the entirety of our beings and our
lives. We are talking about our lifelong goals, whom would we like to be
when it's all done, how we would like to be remembered, how we would want to
stand before our Creator after 120. And so, the emphasis is on our deaths.
It may come at any time. We must always be prepared.
Anyway, this topic is deep and has far more potential -- as will be
developed throughout this chapter. So I won't delve further today. We are
talking about a very lofty subject, but at the same time something very
close and natural to us. We all know whom we are deep down. When we allow
ourselves to think about it, we realize that much of our outer behavior --
our front, our routines, the face we put on for the world -- are all a
spurious act, a mask we put on to hide ourselves from the world at large --
and hide our own inner selves from ourselves. Yet as we all know, we really
want to be in touch with ourselves, to really become the pure and beautiful
soul we know we possess. Sooner or later we will have take off that mask --
and hopefully we will do it before we die.
(Part of the above based on ideas heard from R. Yochanan Zweig
(www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig).)
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org