Monday, October 3, 2011

The Wondrous Mechanism of Repentance

The velt asks: The Rambam says in regard to the judgment that is passed on everyone on Rosh Hashana, tzadikim are unremittingly sealed for life; rasha-im are immediately sealed for death; and beinunim are left suspended. If they perform teshuva, the balance is tilted in their favor, and they are spared and earn life. If they fail to do so, the scales are tilted in the opposite direction, and they are doomed and meet their fate. Why is it that the Rambam singles out the mitzva of teshuva as if it were the one good deed that a beinuni could perform so as to have the scale tipped in his favor? There are myriad mitzvos, and doing a sufficient amount of any of them should ostensibly be effective in tipping the scales in his favor!

To this I wanted to offer the rejoinder that the Rambam holds to a concept of teshuva that identifies it with azivas hachet, which is to say, total abandonment of the transgression. This abandonment is its core essence. When a person transgresses, the tally of his transgressions is incremented and, in time, comes to exceed that of his merits, i.e., good deeds. When he mends his way and ceases to commit transgressions, his good deeds are gradually increased, ultimately reaching the point where they are trailed by the count of his offenses. This is what abandoning his transgressions accomplishes. And this is, in part, what the Rambam means when he says that teshuva has the effect of tipping the scale in his favor.

In other words, the Rambam is taking the position that to set this person's standing aright it won't do (for him) simply to add to the cumulative store of his mitzvos so that it will outweigh that of his aveiros. It's not about numbers. And in this respect, the mitzva of teshuva is no exception: it's not a matter or adding this particular mitzva to the total mix. For the Rambam, the only dependable way of altering this person's standing (with its attendant consequences) is by eradicating the (effect of) the particular transgression he committed (that for which he is enjoined to do teshuva). This is what makes doing teshuva efficacious. It targets this particular aveira, and it has the effect of ridding the person of it. For it is the presence of this aveira that is precipitating this person's lopsided imbalance. His teshuva accomplishes its eradication by having him completely abandon it. 

But actually there is more to it. For it is not sufficient that the erstwhile transgressor should simply mend his ways, in the sense of ceasing to do bad and doing only good, from here on in as it were. By this alone, the blot on his record remains unaltered. He has, after all, committed transgressions in the past, and they are not left undone. To clean his record, they need to be undone; which is to say, he requires kapara (atonement). Achieving it calls for teshuva: but teshuva must now be understood as entailing more than just ceasing to commit the transgressions of the past. It requires a positive act done in the present, one of taking upon oneself never to repeat one’s transgression and resolving decisively to do only good going forward. This in turn entails showing remorse for the evil that one has perpetrated; indeed, it requires articulate confession.

But neither is this enough! The requirement of total abandonment remains in place; and until one has displayed this latter, one has not completed fulfillment of one’s teshuva (and kapara) obligation. Yet, the satisfaction of this latter element lies in the future: it depends on the individual’s capacity for carrying through on his voiced determination. How, then, could the kapara take effect now? And it must take effect in the present; for if it doesn’t, then what’s to keep this individual from succumbing to the fate ordained by his sins immediately?

This, I imagine, is what prompts the Rambam to say that his repentance and dedication must be of such intensity that the Knower of the Hidden testifies in regard to this individual that he will not repeat his transgression. This is not merely a point about the intensity of the feeling. It is an answer to the question: if kapara requires teshuva, and teshuva requires azivas hachet (total abandonment), how can one possibly achieve kapara until one has lived his life (when it is already too late!)? Who is able to say that the person has abandoned his transgression with such a degree of finality? The answer: kevayachol the Ribono shel Olam Himself! Only He knows that his psychological abandonment is such as to keep him from lapsing as time passes. If it is, his act of teshuva has been consummated, and he merits forgiveness (kapara) at once: he is spared the depredations of his transgressions’ consequences.

So to repeat, teshuva requires azivas hachet. Azivas hachet has two aspects. On the one hand, it consists in the fact of abandonment, which is to say, non-repetition of the transgression. It is this aspect that accounts for the ba-al teshuva’s not incurring the fate of someone overladen with transgressions. His slate is thereby reconfigured. At the same time, however, it includes a component of strong disavowal, which is a psychological state. This latter serves to confer immediate kapara for the transgressions already committed. Encapsulated in it is the fact that there will be no future relapse. This is what gives (this aspect of) teshuva the power for the individual to avert the consequences of the sin that has been committed. It makes it now so that the slate will be reconfigured in this individual’s favor.

May we merit to achieve complete teshuva.

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