The theme of the forty days stretching from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom HaKippurim (and perhaps until Hoshana Rabba) is undeniably the concept of teshuva (which we will translate as "repentance"). Based on Isaiah 55:6 and other sources, we are told to "Seek Hashem when He is to be found," and to spend this time of year involved in introspection and returning to God. Our question this week will be whether or not there is actually a commandment of teshuva, or if this concept exists independent of any specific command.

Rambam, in his Sefer HaMitzvot, does not at first glance seem to include a specific mitzva of teshuva. He writes (aseh #73) that we are commanded "to confess (vidui) our sins and transgressions that we have sinned before the Lord and say them with the teshuva." He bases this law on the law that one has to confess when he brings a sacrifice. Seemingly, the actual commandment is the verbal confession, although the act of teshuva is necessary to provide the context for this confession. Similarly, in the heading to his laws of teshuva, he writes that the commandment is "that the sinner should return from his sins before God and confess." Additionally, the first chapter of the laws of teshuva does indeed focus on the vidui, confession (although it is interesting that they are named the "Laws of Teshuva" and not "Laws of Confession"), and in the very first law he writes that "when he (one who sinned) does teshuva and returns from his sin he is obligated to repent." Again, it seems clear that teshuva serves as the background for the actual commandment of confession.

The Minchat Chinuch (mitzva #364) deals with this issue in Rambam. He states that whether or not the mitzva is teshuva or vidui will have ramifications for a person who did teshuva, but did not as yet offer a verbal confession for his sins. If the two are intertwined, namely that the mitzva involved in teshuva is that of vidui and there is no teshuva until there is vidui, then one who has not confessed will be unable to fully repent for his sins. However, if vidui is a commandment related to but not formally connected to the concept of teshuva, then it is possible for one to repent for his sins and successfully atone for them without confessing. The only lacking will be that he will have neglected the doing of a positive commandment, similar to his forgetting to put on tefillin.

However, the Minchat Chinuch goes on to claim that in reality it is not similar to tefillin. Tefillin are an obligatory commandment that one must atone for if he neglected to do and can be punished for not doing. vidui, by contrast, is not obligatory in the same way. Rather, if one fails to put on tefillin and then fails to confess that sin, he is punished only for the main sin, namely the neglect of the tefillin, and not for the additional neglecting of confession. He fails to do vidui, but he does not sin as a result.

What emerges is that whatever the commandment is that we are dealing with here, it falls into the category of "meta-commandments," namely that it exists on top of other commandments. One cannot wake up in the morning and decide to repent or confess if he has not done anything wrong. In order for him to fulfill any possible commandment here, he must first do something wrong. Once he does so, the mechanism by which he corrects that wrong is through the process of teshuva along with verbal confession.

Although it seems that teshuva is strongly connected to a particular sin that has been done, insofar as the sin creates the need for the teshuva, there is a problem with making such a statement. In general, a Jewish court administers lashes (malkot) to a person who violates a negative commandment (such as by muzzling an ox while he is plowing). However, there are no lashes given for any negative commandment which has a corrective positive commandment appended to it (lav ha-nitak la'aseh). If teshuva is really connected to the sin that engenders it, then we would never be able to give lashes, as every single violation is connected with the positive commandment of repentance! The Sdei Chemed raises this issue and cites the Nachalat Binyamin, brought down by Chida. He claims that we only apply to rule of lav ha-nitak la'aseh when the corrective measure exists specifically for the purpose of righting the particular sin that has been done. However, teshuva is not intrinsically linked to any particular commandment, and thus this rule would not apply here. The ramification of this view is that the status of teshuva is now in doubt – it cannot exist on its own, i.e. without a sin first being committed, yet its connection to that sin is tenuous at best.

Rav Yoseif Dov Soloveitchik claims that Rambam believes that teshuva itself is a mitzva. That being so, how does he deal with the view of the Minchat Chinuch that reads Rambam in the opposite way? He claims that teshuva falls into the category of commandments whose fulfillment and action are not identical. Whereas by lulav, one fulfills the commandment when he picks up the four species, by teshuva one can fulfill his obligation to repent by going through the mental processes, but only the vidui is considered to be an action connected to teshuva (thoughts do not counts as actions). Thus, Rambam follows his familiar pattern of first discussing the actual action involved, even though it is not the whole of the mitzva (similar to the laws of prayer, where he discusses the rudiments of prayer, even though one's internal thoughts are the main component).

I would like to suggest that Rav Soloveitchik's idea may help to solve an interesting detail in the second chapter of Rambam's law of teshuva. The first law in that chapter begins "What is complete teshuva (teshuva gemura)?" and goes on to explain that complete teshuva comes when one finds himself in a situation in which he previously sinned, and is still capable of committing the same act and wants to do so, yet refrains as a result of teshuva. The second law in that chapter begins "And what is teshuva?" and explains the three steps involved in repentance – recognizing one's sin, regretting it, and accepting on oneself the burden of not performing the sin again in the future. Once these three steps have been taken, then one can recite his confession.

The question in my mind is why Rambam begins with "complete teshuva," and only afterwards explains what "regular teshuva" is. It would seem logical to first present the three basic steps of the process, and only then to explain the final step, that of refraining from the sin when given another opportunity to perform it.

Perhaps Rambam is speaking about two qualitatively different types of teshuva. Not that "complete teshuva" is "regular teshuva" plus one more step, but rather that it is of a completely different nature. I would like to suggest this to the point that in performing "complete teshuva" one does not have to go through an entire three-step process, but rather only has to have the one moment of restraint. Why would this be so? A person who decides one day to repent does so out of a general desire to improve himself and to return to Hashem, but not necessarily out of an immediate sense of guilt brought on by his recent infractions of Jewish law. As such, he is given a basic formula to follow that, done properly, will re-orient his way of thinking and set him on the path to repentance. Once that is done, he must verbalize those thoughts, and thus the confession contains elements of all three of the steps (see Hilchot Teshuva 1:1). The commandment involved here is teshuva in one's mind, and the formal action occurs when those thoughts are put into words.

However, one who has a moment of restraint does not need such a process. Using the example given by Rambam, imagine a situation of a man who has had an illicit relationship with a certain woman, and now is placed in a situation where it is possible to commit that same action again. Not only that, his desire for her is still what it was when he first sinned with her. Yet, for some reason, he holds himself back and does not sin, BECAUSE he is repenting. In one flash, he accomplishes the entire process! He realizes that he did something wrong, he regrets having done it, and he not only accepts upon himself not to do it in the future, but he resigns himself to resisting the temptation at this very moment! He does not need a generic formula for teshuva –his teshuva is "complete," as it exists not in his mental world but in an all-too-real reality!

In this latter situation, there is no need for vidui. The confession, we have said, is merely the external expression of the penitent's thoughts. However, in this case the external expression is uniquely bound up with the entire moment. His very restraint is more of an expression of his commitment to teshuva than any confession could provide. Thus, Rambam does not include vidui in his description of "complete teshuva," as it is not necessary. Only those who have to rely on a more detached form of repentance need to confess their sins as well. The vidui is not the actual mitzva, but, in most cases, it is the necessary externalization of the real mitzva of teshuva.

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