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Why Does Teshuvah Work?

As Elul arrives and Rosh Hashanah approaches, we need to start thinking about teshuvah, about how we can build positively on all the events of tumultuous past year so that we are better Jews in the upcoming year. I would like to explore two different ways to think about teshuvah and the implications that arise from those different approaches.

I. How Does Teshuvah Work?

Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 2:4) says that among the ways of teshuvah is you change your name (or nickname) as if to say, “I am someone else, not the person who did those actions.” To Rambam, part of the teshuvah process is changing yourself so that your new personality is disassociated from the sins. You have grown and no longer deserve punishment for past actions. In this accounting, teshuvah is emes, truth, justice.

Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Ma’amarim, Ma’amar Al Teshuvah, 1991 edition p. 23) illustrates this approach by quoting the Gemara (Kiddushin 40b) that someone righteous all his life who rebels at the end loses all his merits because he regrets his past good deeds. From the perspective of religious standing, regret undoes past actions. If regretting past good deeds causes someone to lose his merits, regretting past sins should cause you to lose your punishment. That is the just, true outcome.

In contrast, Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah 1:1) argues that teshuvah has no place in justice. You committed the sins and deserve punishment for them. It is only through divine kindness, chesed, a tovah, that we can erase our past misdeeds. The prophet Yirmiyahu describes it as “erpa meshuvoseichem, I will heal their repented deeds” (3:22). Teshuvah consists of divine healing of our past that otherwise would require punishment.

II. Teshuvah’s Steps

Rambam (ibid., 2:2) lists four steps to teshuvah: 1) stopping the sinful act, 2) regretting the sin, 3) accepting to never return to the sin, 4) confessing to G-d for the act. Other Jewish thinkers divide the steps somewhat differently. Rav Sa’adia Gaon (Emunos Ve-Dei’os 5:5) adds a fifth step of asking for forgiveness. Rabbeinu Yonah (ibid., ch. 1) offers a more detailed teshuvah program with twenty steps that include changes in attitudes as well as behaviors.

What if you only start the first step of teshuvah? Are you divinely forgiven at the beginning or only when you complete the course? If teshuvah is a matter of justice, then only when you have completely changed into a new person then you achieve forgiveness. However, if teshuvah is a result of divine mercy, then perhaps anyone who starts on the path of repentance merits that mercy. In fact, we find that Rav Moshe of Trani (Mabit, Beis Elokim 2:1) says that teshuvah is a function of divine chesed and mercy and later (2:2) says that even though Rabbeinu Yonah lists twenty steps of teshuvah, you receive forgiveness after only the two steps of regretting and stopping the sin.

The Gemara (Kiddushin 49b) says that if a man marries a woman on condition that he is righteous, then he is married even if until then he was wicked. As soon as he does teshuvah in his thoughts, he is considered righteous. According to Rabbeinu Yonah, we understand why this would be the case since teshuvah is a function of mercy. You can stop sinning and regret the sin in your thoughts, even without fulfilling the other steps. According to Rambam that teshuvah is a function of emes, justice, the later commentaries have to distinguish between being righteous and achieving forgiveness. You are righteous even if you repent in your thoughts but you achieve forgiveness only after following all the steps of teshuvah (see Minchas Chinuch 364:1).

III. Extra Teshuvah

Medieval Ashkenazic authorities prescribed a variety of strong acts of self-induced suffering as part of the teshuvah process, including long-term fasting, lashes, exile and more. Rabbeinu Peretz (Gloss to Semak, no. 53) lists four kinds of teshuvah:

1) teshuvas charatah, in which you regret the sin;

2) teshuvas ha-geder, in which you set additional boundaries for yourself to avoid sinning in the future;

3) teshuvas ha-kasuv, in which you undergo the punishment listed in the Torah for your sin;

4) teshuvas ha-mishkal, in which you inflict yourself with pain corresponding to the amount of pleasure you enjoyed with your sin.

Of these four, the first is what we consider standard teshuvah and the second is going above and beyond. The third and fourth are not — and should not be — practiced today. The Vilna Gaon’s brother (Ma’alos Ha-Torah, introduction) makes clear that we cannot undergo these harsh forms of teshuvah in our time (his time, even more so in our time) and emerge physically and religiously healthy. Instead, he recommends intense Torah study.

If teshuvah is an element of justice, what value is there going beyond the official steps? Once you have fulfilled the steps, you no longer are burdened with those sins. If you then continue repenting, you are repenting for sins you have already shed. Even if Rambam’s four steps are a telescoped version of Rabbeinu Yonah’s twenty steps, once you have followed all the steps, you achieve forgiveness. However, if teshuvah is a divine mercy, then we can rightfully beg for mercy as hard as possible, going as far as our spiritual and physical limitations allow to arouse divine forgiveness. If teshuvah is an element of chesed, we can better understand these extreme forms of teshuvah.

Although perhaps even according to Rambam, who holds that teshuvah is an element of emes, we can still understand the extreme teshuvah practices mentioned above. Rav Yechezkel Landau (Noda Bi-Yehudah, vol. 1 Orach Chaim no. 35) explains that these self-punishments are designed to inspire a person to true teshuvah. They have no inherent value but serve as methods to fully achieve the required steps of teshuvah. According to this explanation, even Rambam would agree that these additional punishments have value in the teshuvah process when they do, in fact, motivate toward complete teshuvah.