Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chaim Mordechai Hakohen ben Natan Yitzchak, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Avraham Yechezkel ben Yaakov Halevy, HaRav Yosef Shemuel ben HaRav Reuven Aharon, David ben Elazar Yehoshua, the refuah shlaimah of Devorah bat Chana, Yitzhak Akiva ben Malka and Leah bat Shifra, and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
Our haftarah contains the famous declaration of the prophet Hoshea, “Return, O Israel, unto the L-rd your G-d (Shuvah Yisrael od Hashem Elokecha), for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (Sefer Hoshea 14:2), and provides this Shabbat with its name, Shabbat Shuvah. Herein, the navi (prophet) urges the entire Jewish people to return Hashem, and once again keep His Torah with heartfelt authenticity. This act of returning is known as “teshuvah,” and serves as the spiritual and conceptual underpinning of the entire period of the Yamim Noraim.
In a well-known passage in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides (the Rambam, 1135-1204) asks, “What is teshuvah?” His answer informs this discussion until our own historical moment:
What constitutes Teshuvah? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart never to commit them again as (Sefer Yeshiyahu 55:7) states: “May the wicked abandon his ways....” Similarly, he must regret the past as (Sefer Yermiyahu 31:18) states: “After I returned, I regretted.” … He must verbally confess and state these matters that he resolved in his heart. (Hilchot Teshuvah II: 2, this and all Hilchot Teshuvah translations, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger)
In sum, in the Maimonidean exposition, teshuvah entails four distinct elements: recognition and rejection of the sin (hakarah v’azivah), the determination to never repeat the prohibition (kabbalah al he’atid), remorse for performing the forbidden action (nechamah al he’avar), and the verbal attestation (vidui) of these commitments.
Given this understanding as to what teshuvah is, we are prepared to analyze its mitzvah status according to the Rambam, i.e. is it or is it not a precept of the Torah? In his introduction to Hilchot Teshuvah, Maimonides writes, “[This section] contains one positive commandment, that the sinner should return from his sin before Hashem, and should verbally confess (v’yitvadeh).” It appears from this statement that the mitzvah is “the sinner should return from his sin before Hashem,” i.e. teshuvah, and that vidui serves as a handmaiden to this process. The very first halacha following this statement, however, stipulates:
If a person transgresses any of the mitzvot of the Torah, whether a positive command or a negative command - whether willingly or inadvertently - when he repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess before G-d, blessed be He as (Sefer Bamidbar 5:6-7) states: “If a man or a woman commit any of the sins of man... they must confess the sin that they committed.” This refers to a verbal confession. This confession is a positive command (vidui zeh mitzvat aseh).
Herein, and in seeming opposition to his introductory sentence, the Rambam expressly states that vidui is the mitzvah. As one might suspect, these apparent differences led to two very different approaches among meforshei haRambam (expositors of the Rambam). The Minchat Chinuch (Rabbi Yosef ben Moshe Babad, 1800-1875) and the Avodat HaMelech (Rabbi Menachem Krakowski, 1869-1929) maintained that the Rambam held that there is no mitzvah of teshuvah – only vidui. In contrast, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918), his son, Rav Moshe (1879-1941), and his grandson, Rav Yosef Dov (1903-1993, known as the “Rav”), opined that in Maimonides’ opinion, teshuvah is, in fact, the mitzvah, whereas vidui serves as a constitutive element of the overall teshuvah process. (See Pinchas Peli, ed. of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s Al HaTeshuvah, pages 15-45)
The Rav zatzal has a novel understanding of the Rambam’s conceptualization of the mitzvah of teshuvah that is in consonance with his family’s approach to this issue. In his view, the Rambam perceived teshuvah as being similar in kind to the mitzvah of tefillah (prayer), in the sense that both of these commandments, at their core, are experiential and personal, rather than physically demonstrative in nature. Thus he states regarding teshuvah:
This is a commandment whose essence is [not exhibited] through various actions and performances; rather, it is a process that, on occasion, takes place over a lifetime. It is a process that begins with remorse, with the sense of guilt, with the recognition by man that he has lost the purpose of his life, with the feeling of loneliness, with [the acknowledgement] of error after error [until his life has become] an empty vacuum… and he continues through this very long process until he achieves his goal – the teshuvah itself. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Al HaTeshuvah, Pinchas Peli ed., page 44, this, and all translations, brackets, underlining and parentheses my own)
The Rav continues with his analysis of teshuvah, focusing upon its singular ability to alter the very persona of an individual, and the role that vidui plays in this undertaking:
Teshuvah is not tied to one particular and conclusive act; instead, it develops and grows in a slow and steady fashion until it brings the person to a metamorphosis. And then, [and only then,] after he changes and becomes a different person, is the act of teshuvah [ready to take place]. And what is the act of teshuvah? One may say that it is vidui. (Pages 44-45)
Rav Soloveitchik now expands upon the relationship that obtains between the mitzvah of teshuvah and vidui. His words are nothing less than an intellectual and spiritual tour de force:
[When the Rambam writes,] “When he repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess,” he is following his general approach in such matters: In Halacha, and in regards to the mitzvah action [at hand], he presents teshuvah in its objective sense, in its demonstrative sense, therefore, he writes [immediately after our law,] “How does one properly fulfill [the action] of vidui?” In his prefatory statement to Hilchot Teshuvah, however, when he defines the mitzvah, he hints at the inner experience of teshuvah … the convulsions of the soul that bring him [to the state wherein] “the sinner will return from his sin before G-d.” Then, when the teshuvah has grown to its full power, when he undertakes teshuvah [in practice,] “he will confess.” The Rambam, therefore, stresses and states that according to Halacha, “this confession is a positive command,” and it is the action (p’ulah) of teshuvah. The teshuvah, itself, however, is its fulfillment (ki’yumah) and it is an absolute necessity for vidui, for without it, there is no mitzvah of vidui. (Page 45)
At this point, the Rav concludes his discussion by proving the similarity of teshuvah to many other mitzvot of the Torah:
Teshuvah, in and of itself, therefore, is the fundamental mitzvah, albeit, a spiritually based mitzvah that has no physical aspect. There are many other mitzvot that are similar in kind, such as tefillah, as we have already mentioned, and the mitzvah of “and you shall love your fellow Jew as yourself;” for this, too, is a mitzvah that is inextricably interwoven with a variety of actions, such as kindness and helping one’s fellow Jew, yet the essence of the love itself is a feeling and in the heart. (Page 45)
In sum, according to Rav Soloveitchik, teshuvah, though highly subjective, is “the fundamental mitzvah” for the Rambam, rather than vidui. Like tefillah and the commandment to love one’s fellow Jew, which also involve actions, the essence of the mitzvah of teshuvah resides in our hearts and minds.
We are on the cusp of Yom Kippur, when we will beseech the Almighty, “S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kappear lanu” (“Forgive us, waive our deserved punishments, and remove all traces of our sins.”) We know that the fulfillment of these requests is contingent upon our heartfelt teshuvah, and sincere desire to reconnect with our Creator. With His help, and through our most powerful efforts, may we return unto Him, and bring the following verse to fruition: “For on this day He shall grant you atonement and purify you [from your sins]; before Hashem, you shall be purified from all your sins.” (Sefer Vayikra 16:30) V’chane yihi ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom and g’mar v’chatimah tovah.
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*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language audio shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. Please click on the highlighted link.
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal