Laws of Repentance
Standing Before G-d
Chapter 1, Law 1
"All the mitzvos (commandments) of the Torah, whether positive or negative,
if a person transgressed one of them, whether purposely or inadvertently,
when he repents and returns from his sin, he is obligated to confess before
the Almighty, blessed be He. [This is] as it is stated, 'A man or woman,
when they do any of the sins of man to trespass against G-d, and that soul
becomes guilty, they shall confess their sins which they have done' (Numbers
5:6-7). This is [known as] verbal confession (lit., 'confession of words').
Such confession is a positive commandment.
"How does one confess? He says, 'Please G-d, I have sinned, trespassed, and
rebelled before You and I have done such and such. And behold I have
regretted and become ashamed of my act and I will never return to it.' This
is the essence of confession. The more one confesses and increases in this
matter, it is praiseworthy.
"So too, people who are obligated to bring Sin Offerings or Guilt Offerings,
at the time they bring their sacrifices on their inadvertent or intentional
sins, they are not forgiven through their sacrifices until they repent and
confess verbally, as it is stated, 'and he shall confess that which he has
sinned' (Leviticus 5:5). So too all those sentenced to death or lashes at
the hands of the court are not forgiven through their death or lashes until
they repent and confess. So too one who injures his fellow or damages his
property, even though he has paid [his fellow] what he owes him, he is not
forgiven until he confesses and repents from doing such ever again. [This
is] as it is stated (in the first verse quoted above), 'of any of the sins
of man' (Numbers 5:6)."
First of all, welcome back everyone who followed the first half of this
series! And welcome whoever joined just now! Thank you all for your
patience, and I hope this class will begin regularly now.
As a quick point of introduction, the previous section we covered, the Laws
of De'os, was the second section of the Rambam's first book (The Book of
Knowledge). This section is the final of the same book. (These are all
sections of the Rambam's magnum opus, _Mishne Torah_ ("Repetition of the
Torah"). It consists of fourteen "books" each containing multiple sections.)
Although the topics covered in this section will differ vastly from the Laws
of De'os, our study of it will generally resemble the previous section in
both style and presentation.
Finally, in these studies we will generally use the Hebrew term for
repentance -- "teshuva".
So far the Rambam has only briefly introduced the concept of repentance.
There are many details which will only be covered later. Yet already I feel
there are a few striking points in the Rambam's wording.
The Rambam, in his opening paragraph to the Laws of Repentance, hardly
mentions repentance at all. He instead focuses almost exclusively on the
obligation of confession -- "viduy" as we'll call it below. He does not
describe what teshuva is, its mechanics, its importance, its effects on the
soul, etc. -- all of which he discusses at various points later in his work.
Rather, he makes an almost passing reference to it: "When he repents and
returns from his sin, he is obligated to confess before the Almighty..."
Teshuva is almost assumed, presupposed. The Rambam did not begin by saying
we must do teshuva, just that *when* we do it, we must confess in the process.
We are therefore presented with two very basic and related questions. First
of all, why did the Rambam not begin by discussing teshuva itself? Wouldn't
that be the appropriate starting point of the Laws of Repentance? And
further, viduy (confession) we would assume to be merely a detail of teshuva
-- that one of the conditions of repentance is that one articulate his
guilt. It's an important detail to be sure, but only a detail of the overall
process. Yet the Rambam all but glosses over teshuva itself, introducing his
laws by focusing almost entirely on the detail -- almost a classic case of
not seeing the forest for the trees. So firstly, why was teshuva itself
almost ignored, and second what is so central about viduy that it
immediately took center stage?
The simplest -- and probably correct -- answer is that the Rambam generally
discusses a topic by beginning with the Torah's commandments on the matter
-- with what Scripture itself has to say about it. The only Biblical verses
relating to repentance do not mention teshuva per se. They obligate us in
viduy -- that we verbally confess our wrongs., but they never say anything
outright about repenting. The Rambam quotes two relevant verses above,
Numbers 5:7 and Leviticus 5:5, both of which discuss a person who is
obligated to bring a Guilt Offering (Korban Asham) -- although as the Rambam
himself noted, the language of Numbers 5:6 clearly implies the obligation to
confess is universal.
This however only backs up the question. Why does the Torah itself not
obligate us in teshuva? If G-d wants us to repent our evil ways, why not
*command* us to do so -- as the Prophets so very often exhorted us? Why
instead does the Torah never actually *tell* us to repent, telling us only
to confess our wrongs. For if we think about, theoretically if we would
confess our sins *without* regretting them, it would probably be worse than
nothing. It would be as if we are bragging about our past escapades. And if
so, why this peculiar approach in the Torah -- telling us to admit our
wrongs but never telling us to regret them?
There are two very important ideas here. The first is one we've discussed a
few times in the past, so I'll recap it briefly now. The Torah really cannot
tell us how to feel. The Torah cannot "command" us to feel bad about our
sins -- let's say we're stupid enough not to? Regret has to come from the
heart. If G-d would attempt to impose it upon us, it would be meaningless.
Rather, the Torah commands us in the concrete part of the teshuva process --
at least admit openly that you have done wrong, and that you are obligated
to be better. *Hopefully* the admission will penetrate your insides and
you'll repent fully. But as in most things, G-d cannot tell us to truly be
moral, decent human beings. He can command us to *behave* that way -- or at
least through our admission pay lip service to it -- in the hope that moral
actions and espousals will eventually transform us into moral beings.
A second idea is that the Rambam and Torah focus so strongly on confession
to emphasize its critical importance in the teshuva process. Above we
assumed viduy to basically be a minor detail of teshuva -- one of the
particulars of how teshuva must be performed. In truth, however, it gives
teshuva its entire meaning and direction, as we'll explain below.
Let me illustrate this concept by describing an episode which occurred to my
wife and me close to sixteen years ago, when our second child (a daughter)
was born. We were living in Baltimore at the time, in an apartment complex
with many young Orthodox couples. Community-minded members of that complex
established an excellent practice. (As many Orthodox communities worldwide,
it was exemplary in its acts of kindness.) The other ladies of the
neighborhood would provide two weeks worth of suppers for new mothers. We
were blessed and gratified to become recipients of such kindness, one my
wife repaid several times before and since.
Now one night of those two weeks, dinner never arrived. It turned out that
the woman who volunteered to make us supper that night plumb forgot about
it. The truth is, it actually made little difference to us. When people make
meals for others, they typically round it way up just to be safe. Not then
being a large family and not a particularly heavy eater myself, for the
course of those two weeks we were basically inundated with more food than we
knew what to do with (an ironic foreshadowing of the mourning period for my
father years later), with more coming every day. So we were actually
relieved not to have received yet another pan-full of chicken and rice,
allowing us to dig into our ever-growing collection of half-eaten leftovers.
But the poor woman who had forgotten had no such consolation. She we imagine
was completely mortified. And my wife noticed that the woman basically
avoided her so long as we lived in Baltimore. (You know, you're in one aisle
of the supermarket and she makes sure to take a different aisle.
Unfortunately, we all have people we'd prefer to avoid.) She was just too
ashamed to come face to face with my wife after (in her mind) wronging us so
deeply in our time of need. (My wife reflected after that it was really too
bad she never had the chance to explain to the young woman how little a
difference it made to us at the time. They could have laughed it off and
lived happily ever after.)
All of this illustrates an important idea. We can be sure that that young
woman never made the same mistake again (assuming she continued volunteering
meals at all). I'm sure she began marking her commitments on her calendar
(or multiple calendars) and assiduously checked her schedule every day. She
would tie strings on her fingers, tell her husband remind her, set her alarm
clock, put messages on her refrigerator, etc. (Our fridge today is so full
of "reminders" that that one no longer does us any good.)
Thus, improving her ways the woman most certainly did, but she failed to do
one thing -- to own up to the person she wronged (or at least thought she
wronged). She basically attempted to avoid the victim of her past mistake,
making sure to never repeat her error and create so awkward a situation again.
And this highlights for us the importance of viduy, and why the Rambam
places such emphasis on it. Viduy means confession, apologizing to the one
you have wronged. It means coming face to face with him (with Him that is --
but quite often with the flesh and blood you hurt as well), and owning up to
your wrong. Teshuva without viduy -- meaning improving your ways without
apologizing for your past -- misses the entire point. Sure it's good to
learn from your past mistakes and not repeat them, but the hurt is still
there. You have perhaps made a wonderful New Year's resolution, but you
haven't amended your wrong. True teshuva is, as the Rambam here states,
saying "Please G-d, I have sinned, trespassed, and rebelled before You and I
have done such and such..." It is humbly and contritely standing before your
Creator and begging for forgiveness. It is having the courage to come back
and beg for reconciliation.
These are ideas we will G-d willing develop further in coming weeks, but I
wanted to establish this basic definition from the start. The Rambam (and
Torah) focus so exclusively on viduy because that is really what teshuva is
all about. Teshuva is owning up, admitting, and begging for forgiveness. It
focuses on G-d, not on ourselves and our own program for self-improvement,
worthy as that may be. For the starting point of the entire teshuva process
must be and can only be our Creator.
Based in part on ideas heard from my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
(www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig).
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org