Teshuvah, Chapter 2
For years, one of my dreams has been to write a translation and accompanying commentary on Maimonides’ Hilkhot Teshuvah (“Laws of Repentance”). Having written for an entire year about the Torah portion, and a second year about all the haftarot, I hope during the coming year to devote these pages to a variety of subjects. Together with selected midrashim on the weekly Torah portion, I hope, at least from time to time, to devote some space to this classic of Jewish psychology, philosophy and religious thought. What follows is a modest attempt at a start—albeit taken, not from the beginning, but from the opening section of Chapter 2.
א. אי זו היא תשובה גמורה? זה שבא לידו דבר שעבר בו ואפשר בידו לעשותו ופירש ולא עשה מפני התשובה. לא מיראה ולא מכשלון כח. כיצד? הרי שבא על אשה בעבירה ולאחר זמן נתיחד עמה והוא עומד באהבתו בה ובכח גופו ובמדינה שעבר בה, ופירש ולא עבר, זהו בעל תשובה גמורה. הוא ששלמה אמר: "וזכור את בוראיך בימי בחורותיך." ואם לא שב אלא בימי זקנותו ובעת שאי אפשר לו לעשות מה שהיה עושה, אף על פי שאינה תשובה מעולה, מועלת היא לו ובעל תשובה הוא. אפילו עבר כל ימיו ועשה תשובה ביום מיתתו ומת בתשובתו, כל עונותיו נמחלין לו, שנאמר, "עד אשר לא תחשך השמש והאור והירח והכוכבים, ושבו העבים אחר הגשם" שהוא יום המיתה. מכלל שאם זכר בוראו ושב קודם שימות נסלח לו. (רמב"ם, הל' תשובה פ"ב ה"א)
1. What is “perfect repentance”? This is when a person is faced with some thing in which he has sinned in the past, and he has the opportunity to do it again, but he turns away and does not sin because of teshuvah, not out of fear or through lack of strength. How so? One who had illicit relations with a certain woman, and after a certain period of time was alone with her again, and he still feels love for her, and still has bodily potency, and is in the same place where he committed the transgression, and he turns away and does not sin—such a one is a perfect penitent. Concerning this Solomon said: “and remember your creator in the days of your youth” [Eccles 12:1]. But if he did not repent until old age, at a time when he is unable to do what he would have done: even though such is not exemplary repentance, it is efficacious and he is considered a penitent (ba’al teshuvah). Even if he sinned all his life and only repented on his dying day, and died in a state of teshuvah, all his transgressions are erased. As it is said, “until the sun and the light and the moon and the stars go dark, and the clouds come after the rains” [ibid., v. 2]—this refers to the day of death. To imply, that if he remembered his Creator and repented before he died, he is forgiven. (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.1)
Two or three remarks about this passage. Firstly, there as a subtle, interesting play on words in the middle of this passage. “Even though it is not exemplary repentance (teshuvah me’ulah), it is efficacious (mo’elet hi).” The Hebrew words used to indicate these two contrasting states—exemplary repentance and efficacious repentance —are very similar; indeed, possibly derived from the same root.
But these terms refer in fact to two very different aspects of teshuvah. One level, that of minimalistic teshuvah—the classical example is that of one who repents on his deathbed—relates to the process of “Divine bookkeeping,” so to speak. In this context the word “efficacious” is relevant. God is compassionate, merciful and forgiving—that is the essential message of the Thirteen Qualities of Mercy, read over and over during this season. He is prepared to grant us atonement for our sins; all that is needed is a minimum act of turning towards God to open the gates. Such teshuvah serves as an instrument for gaining Divine forgiveness, but is far from ideal in terms of the person himself.
On the other hand, there is a maximal, “exemplary” form of teshuvah,” concerned with the correction or even perfection of the individual’s personality, the removal or reversal of the “stain” left on the person’s character by sin. The true concern of the process of teshuvah is character building, the constant growth and perfection of personality, what the classical Musar writers (Hebrew ethicists) refer to as tikkun hamiddot (“correction of the [character] traits”), which is ultimately a life long project. It is in regard to this latter standard that Rambam articulates the concept of teshuvah gemurah—the quest for true, total, full repentance.
These two aspects or kinds of teshuvah serve as a central organizing principle in Hilkhot Teshuvah. Most of the laws dealing with teshuvah as such are in fact concentrated in the first two or two and half chapters of this work; the balance of its ten chapters (with the exception of Chapter 7) are devoted to an excursus on a variety of related theological, philosophical and religio-psychological subjects: what constitutes proper Jewish belief (defined negatively: to wit, what constitutes heresy?); the seemingly irresolvable contradiction between free will and Divine omniscience; the nature of the World to Come; the ideal of true, disinterested love of God; etc.
Between these first two chapters, the former is concerned with the role of teshuvah as an instrument of atonement or expatiation of sin (mekhaper) and the relation between teshuvah and other such instruments, particularly the Temple ritual conducted on Yom Kippur (this point is felt even more strongly in Maimonides’ discussion of teshuvah in Sefer ha-Mitzvot: Mitzvot ‘Aseh §73). It is within this rubric that the “efficacious teshuvah” referred to in our sentence finds it rightful place. The second chapter, by contrast, is devoted to the maximal definition of teshuvah: to teshuvah as an act or, better, process in which the person’s personality is definitively changed (this theme is continued in Chapter 7). Hence, §2.1 is not dependent upon what precedes it, but can be read as a new beginning, as the opening of an exposition of teshuvah in its own right.
What is this halakhah saying? Following a brief Talmudic dictum in Yoma 86b (interesting, there the language used is, “Who is a Ba’al Teshuvah?” rather than “What is complete teshuvah?”), it states that the true teshuvah requires testing: that one relive the circumstances that led to sin on a previous occasion, and this time make a different choice. I would like to suggest a radical reading (which may or may not have been Maimonides’ original intention): namely, that teshuvah in the fullest sense is virtually impossible, and that all teshuvah is of necessity only partial, fragmentary, incomplete.
The example chosen, that of sexual transgression, is singularly well chosen to illustrate this point. In many human cultures, sexual misbehavior is seen as emblematic of all sin: because of its innate attractiveness and fascination, and its potential ubiquity; because of the role of the imagination therein; because an essential dimension in the choice of an ethical path in life is that between moral uprightness and integrity vs. the pursuit of pleasure. Hazal, too, see it as paradigmatic: the very term aveirah (“transgression”), when used without further elaboration, refers to sexual sin; the archetypal Yetzer ha-Ra (“The Evil Urge”) is the sexual impulse; Rambam likewise notes the widespread nature of this transgression in the peroration to Issurei Bi’ah, §22.19.
But there’s more to it than that. The sexual encounter is not a purely instinctual physical act fulfilling immediate physical need, but a meeting between two persons, treasured as much for its emotional overtones as for its erotic sensations. It is for this reason that Maimonides includes in this section the words, “and he retains his love for her”—a phrase that does not appear in the Talmudic source, which merely states “with the same woman, the same place, the same time period” (see note below).
For that very reason, because of the ebb and flow of human emotions, it is difficult for me to imagine a second encounter between a man and woman who were once illicit lovers ever being exactly the same as the initial encounter. Perhaps when they first met and engaged, say, in an adulterous liaison, one of them was lonely, confused, feeling rejected; when they meet again, years later, he/she is happy, contented, perhaps married to a new, more loving spouse. But even if this is not the case: for two people who have already made love, any second or subsequent time will somehow ipso facto be different; there is something special, unrepeatable, in an intimate encounter of this kind. Two lovers who meet again, even after years of separation, have already crossed that barrier. It may be easier to repeat the act—but for that reason will also be less interesting, less intensely gratifying.
The point here is of course not the intricacies of sexual emotion, but something much deeper: the real point of teshuvah is to repair ones impaired moral faculty in such a way that, next time one is confronted with a difficult decision, with a deep moral temptation, one will succeed in making the “right,” ethical, godly choice. Yet, in fact, one can never know how successful one will be in confronting the next challenge, the next moral junction in ones life, until one gets there—because it will never be quite the same. Hence, when Rambam writes, “and one still feels the same love for her,” he seems to be begging the question: Does one ever really feel exactly the same love, even for the same woman, after passing through X, Y, and Z life experiences? Thus, it seems to me that Rambam is telling us that one can never have total, perfect closure on any situation of sin. One does one best to purify ones character in the smelting pot of difficult life tests, but in the end one comes full circle to the teshuvah of Chapter 1, to throwing oneself upon the Divine mercies: “forgive us, pardon us, atone us.” (Perhaps that, too, is the deeper meaning of the seemingly contradictory idea of praying for teshuvah: that repentance is not only an act of human will, but also entails a certain element of Divine help)
NOTE: Comment on Methodology: For those unfamiliar with the study of Maimonides’ great code of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah or Yad ha-Hazakah, the above comments on his use of Talmudic sources are significant for the following reason: About 90% or more of the material appearing in the Yad is essentially taken from earlier sources: the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud, to a lesser degree from the Palestinean Talmud or Yerushalmi, from the writings of the Babylonian geonim, down to R. Isaac Alfasi (Rif) and R. Joseph ibn Megas (the R”i mi-Gash), his own father’s mentor. Rambam’s genius and his unique point of view is expressed in his selection of material, his organization of it in a completely new way, and the subtleties of his phrasing (as in the above case). Here and there he adds comments of his own but, which these are extremely significant and revealing, quantitatively they represent only a very small part of this oeuvre. For a full discussion of these and other issues, see Isadore Twersky’s masterful Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah), New Haven: Yale: 1980.II. A Definition of Teshuvah
ב. ומה היא התשובה? הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו ויסירו ממחשבתו ויגמור בלבו שלא יעשהו עוד, שנאמר "יעזוב רשע דרכו [ואיש אוון מחשבותיו]". וכן יתנחם על שעבר, שנאמר "כי אחרי שובי נחמתי." ויעיד עליו יודע תעלומות שלא ישוב לזה החטא לעולם, שנאמר "ולא נאמר עוד אלהינו למעשי ידינו" וגו'. וצריך להתוודות בשפתיו ולומר ענינות אלו שגמר בלבו.
2. What is meant by teshuvah? It is that the sinner abandons his sin and removes it from his thought, and firmly decides in his heart that he shall no longer do it, as is said, “let the evildoer abandon his way…” [Isa 55:7]. And he shall also regret the past, as is said, “for after I turned, I repented” [Jer 31:18}. And He who knows the secret things shall testify of him that he shall never return to this sin forever, as is said: “And we shall no longer say ‘Our God’ to the work of our hands’” [Hosea 14:4]. And he must confess with his lips and articulate those things which he decided in his heart.
This definition of teshuvah is one oft-repeated in yeshiva Mussar lessons, often formulated in shorthand as “regret for the past; confession; resolution for the future.” Notuce, by the way, that the three proof texts invoked here are all taken from familiar passages, from the haftarot read during this season: fast day afternoons, the Second Day of Rosh Hashana, and Shabbat Shuvah.
One of the problematic aspects for many contemporary readers is that Maimonides seems to emphasize the mind to the exclusion of other aspects of the personality: “he removes it from his thought and firmly decides in his heart…” Teshuvah is defined here as essentially a cognitive and volitional process, involving the mind and the will. One identifies the sin, realizes that it was wrong and regrets having done it, and makes a decision to change ones ways in the future. Hence, the functions of mind and of will seem to reign supreme in the human soul. Modern, post-Freudian culture, is far more cogniscent of the subconscious, emotive elements in behavior; it has become a truism that even the most intelligent of men is often only vaguely aware of the true motivations underlying his actions.
Another difficulty, often noted by Rabbi Mickey Rosen of Yakar in his talks, is the impression conveyed here by Maimonides that teshuvah is a discrete, singular process, one that may be done in a complete way, on which one can have “closure.” Yet our experience of teshuvah seems to be of something that is never really completed, but is always ongoing, partial, fragmentary. The answer, I think, is that the purpose of this specific paragraph is to define the phenomenon, not to prescribe how one actually goes about doing teshuvah.
The “how to” of teshuvah is, at least in part, the subject of §4; in part, it is very much an individual thing. Thus Rav Soloveitchik, in whose thought teshuvah occupied a particularly central place, often spoke of hirhurei teshuvah, “thoughts of repentance”: that is, that teshuvah begins with inchoate, vague sentiments of something being amiss, of dissatisfaction with oneself on moral and ethical grounds, from which there gradually evolves the clear resolve to abandon past mistakes.
Indeed, in Chapter 7 Maimonides does in fact speak of teshuvah for “de’ot ra’ot”—that is, negative character traits (what most Mussar authors call “middot”)—whereas here he speaks of teshuvah for specific actions. Notwithstanding the continuous, non-incremental nature of character growth, there are certain times and situations in life where one makes a clearcut, one-time choice to change ones path. The murderer, the thief, the profligate, may make a definite decision to forego his past acts, so that one may say that from a certain date he ceased to kill, to steal, to philander, etc. Even in the case of seemingly less severe but far more pervasive sins, such as gossip and slander, it is possible at least in theory to cease and desist from a definite point. In that sense, one can attain “closure” on teshuvah.
Of course, to use a cliche, all these things are far easier said than done. One who attempts to abandon deeply engrained, major transgressions, will almost certainly find himself back-sliding, or at very least undergoing strong temptation to return to his former acts. Simple habit plays a powerful role in determining human behavior. Indeed, Hazal have observed that “once a person commits a sin and repeats it, it becomes permitted to him… that is, [he feels within himself] as if it is permitted.” (Yoma 86b) Anything done repeatedly, without much thought, becomes a natural part of ones life, and it is very difficult to perceive it as something wrong or negative that requires change. Behaviorists may see in this a central factor in human life, while advocates of other psychological schools may stress more the role of cognitive decision making on an ongoing level; the latter is clearly closer to Jewish beliefs concerning behirah hofshit (“free choice”) and each individual’s responsibility for his/her actions. But in any event it is a matter of everyday experience that changing even the simplest habit is a difficult and wrenching process. Thus, even on a purely behavioral level, means changing habits and establishing new patterns, what might be called behavioral reconditioning.
The experience of 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous is a case in point: the decision to change one aspect of ones life, although admittedly an overpowering addiction that has come to dominate one’s life—alcohol addiction, overeating, debt dependence, etc.—ultimately requires a social support system, daily vigilance, and a thorough review of all aspects of ones life, “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
But, in essence, the act of teshuvah, of repentance, is a simple one: regretting the past, a decision for the future, and all this, as we shall explain below, articulated in words.
III. Teshuvah and Confession of Sin
ג. כל המתודה בדברים ולא גמר בלבו לעזוב הרי זה דומה לטובל ושרץ בידו, שאין הטבילה מועלת עד שישליך השרץ. וכן הוא אומר "ומודה ועוזב ירוחם." וצריך לפרוט את החטא, שנאמר "אנא חטא העם הזה חטאה גדולה ויעשו להם אלהי זהב."
3. Whoever confesses verbally, but has not concluded in his heart to abandon the sin, is like one who immerse himself in the mikveh [purifying bath] while holding an impure reptile in his hand. For immersion is not efficacious until he casts away the reptile. And it also says, “‘He who confesses and abandons them [i.e., his transgressions] shall have mercy” [Prov 28:13] And he needs to specify the sin, as is said, “I beg You, this people has done a grave sin and have made themselves a god of gold” [Exod 32:31].
The last sentence of the previous section already mentions verbal confession as a sine qua non of teshuvah. The penitent needs to specify, to articulate his sin. This law was already stated at the very beginning of Hilkhot Teshuvah, in 1.1. But whereas there it serves to define teshuvah as an act of kaparah, of atonement, of restoration of a state of harmony with God, here it appears as part of the inner psychological process of self-restoration known as teshuvah. Verbal confession is needed for oneself as much as it is for God. Until a person puts things into words, it is not clear whether it’s altogether real. (Thus, to mention another area of halakhah: in the laws of neder and shevu’ah, of oaths and vows, words spoken in a certain format must be fulfilled, whereas an oath or undertaking made in ones heart is not “real” in the same sense. But if I utter the words aloud, even in private, they must be carried out, or else rescinded according to proper halakhic procedure.)
Some philosophers of language go so far as to argue that we can’t even think certain things without the words to do so. Indeed, the distortion of language affects our ability to think. George Orwell dramatized this in his description of the “Newspeak” used in the futuristic totalitarian society described in 1984. I often feel that today’s PC language in fact performs precisely that role; thus, the invention some twenty years ago of the word “homophobia” has made many people feel conflicted in relation to Lev 18:22. See Rav Adin Steinsaltz’s excellent little book, Simple Words, which focuses on the problem of our often murky use of terms to describe basic life experiences.
This halakhah deal primarily with the problem of empty or insincere confession, “from the mouth outwards.” The question, of course, is: what about the standard Yom Kippur Viddui (Confession)? Often, a person may feel that he is reciting confession because the halakah requires him to do, or because it’s printed in the Mahzor. A person may leave Yom Kippur with the feeling that he hasn’t really done teshuvah, because he knows that next year he will be back in shul with the same Viddui. We shall return to this issue in the next week or two when we discuss the halakhot further on in this chapter in which Rambam deals specifically with “seasons of teshuvah.” For the moment, let us suffice with noting that the teshuvah discussed in all these sections is that of a person who has a definite, powerful sense of wrong-doing, of a specific nature.
Let me pose a question which may sound heretical: Is every Jew required to see himself as always imperfect, as perpetually needing to search his soul to find sins for which to do teshuvah? One of the daily papers recently described the atmosphere during the month of Elul in the classic yeshivot, which in our day are influenced by the Musar movement: an atmosphere of seeking out new scruples, of heaviness, of fear and guilt. The Hasidic response, by contrast, is that “He who thinks about muck will remain in the muck”; that one should avoid preoccupation with guilt, because of the psychological dangers of depression, sadness, and general heaviness of spirit which drains a persons’ energy and spirit. But this is a radical break and reinterpretation which takes us too far afield from understanding the plain meaning of our text, which is our first task here.
Ii seems possible that, while every person may needs to improve himself and take periodic moral stock, the process of teshuvah described in these halakhot is directed mostly to “heavy duty” sinners: the profligates, the men of violence, the thieves and cheats and connivers (both those who “rob you with a six-gun, and with a fountain pen,” in the words of the American folk song) who have really done their neighbors a bad turn. The feeling gained here is that one is not dealing with the ordinary, fundamentally decent person who examines his conscience during Elul and the 10 days and comes up with some points requiring improvement during the course of the year, but of a person who has undergone a deep, traumatic personal upheaval in light of the awareness that he has lived his life in a fundamentally wrong way, or done some truly dastardly act. (Crimes, not Misdemeanors, in the language of the Woody Allen film) Hence the drastic measures discussed in the next halakha—exile, constant tears and breast-beating, changing ones name, creating a new identity. Here Elisha ben Durdai is paradigmatic. It is important to bear this in mind as we turn to the next halakhah, which many will doubtless find extremely “heavy.”
Two Kinds of Teshuvah: A Digression
Before continuing our translation and exposition of Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah, I would like to make some general comments, taking up from where we stopped last week. At times, people read texts with certain preconceptions, reading into them certain ideas which are not actually there. This makes it difficult for them to see what the text itself is saying. Such misconception are rife regarding teshuvah: e.g., the idea that teshuvah as such is integrally related to Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, and that doing teshuvah is an obligatory mitzvah incumbent upon all.
A careful reading of these halakhot reveals a rather different picture. On the most basic level, teshuvah is not an obligatory mitzvah, but a process that sometimes happens, which the halakhah describes in conditional terms. Thus, Maimonides opens the very first halakhah of this book with the words: “When a person sins…. when [if?] that person repents of his sin, he should do and say thus-and-such.” Teshuvah, at least in this initial definition, is only pertinent to those who have in fact committed some specific wrong, and feel guilt and contrition in relation to it. (Not infrequently, a perfectly decent, upright person may become obsessed with guilt and the need for atonement—but that is another subject, which has more to do with the darker recesses of the human soul than it does with halakhah.) Moreover, it is difficult to describe even this process as a mitzvah, because it is essentially an internal process of awareness and cognition, culminating in contrition and regret in relation to the past, and resolve to change one behavior in relation to the future. It isn’t clear whether such a process can even be commanded, as it depends entirely upon the individual’s inner consciousness of wrongdoing and of the need to change—and such things cannot be artificially commanded from without. At most, the halakhot may provide some sort of outline or guideline of the process to be undertaken, and stipulate a formal ritual of confession, as a kind of expression or concretization of this inner motion.
Secondly, the process of teshuvah as described by Maimonides can take place at any time, and is not limited to any particular season of the year. The confession proscribed by Rambam in 1.1 is a personal one, recited privately by the individual penitent, specifying the particular sin, and is unrelated to our Yom Kippur Confession (Rambam takes it from the Temple ritual, as per Yoma 36b). This kind of teshuvah, which for want of a better term might be called “specific teshuvah,” forms the subject of Hilkhot Teshuvah 1.1-2.5 (or 2.6), 2.9-11. The ordinary person, who lives a decent, upright, honest life, and has no specific transgression weighing on his conscience, in theory need never concern himself with this kind of teshuvah.
But there is a second kind of teshuvah as well, which might be called “general teshuvah”: namely, that associated with the season of the Days of Awe, with which we are all familiar. As there is no human being who is free of shortcomings, confrontation with our own failings forms an important part of the moral and spiritual life. Hence, the halakhah has set aside a certain period of the year when every person ought to be concerned with teshuvah. There is even those Jewish ethical thinkers who hold that every person, even the one who is seemingly decent, should always be engaged in teshuvah. There is likewise a mystical vision of teshuvah as a movement of the entire cosmos towards God (as in the memorable description in Rav Kook’s Orot ha-Teshuvah). But this kind of teshuvah belongs more to the realm of personal stock-taking, and working on character deficiencies, than to the more focused, specific teshuvah that involves regretting and abandoning a specific transgression. In any event, this latter type of teshuvah is the subject of Teshuvah 2.6 [or 7]-8 (the Days of Awe); 3.1-4 (“each person should see himself as half guilty and half innocent”); and 7.3 (teshuvah involving character improvement). The rest of the book, notwithstanding the title, does not deal with concrete laws of teshuvah, but with other, more aggadic aspects of teshuvah, or with related theological issues.
In addition to the human propensity towards failure and imperfection, teshuvah as an ongoing, “general” process is important because certain obligations of the Torah are open-ended, and as such invite constant improvement. Interestingly, the conflation of the Mishnah and Tosefta from Pe’ah 1.1, traditionally recited every morning after the Blessings for the Torah (“these are the things for which there is no measure….”), includes representatives of the three major categories of Divine service: acts of kindness to others (gemillut hasadim), the direct service of God through focused prayer (iyyun tefillah), and Torah study, which is seen as most important (talmud torah keneged kulam). Every person can learn more Torah; he can be more “proactive” in helping others; and he can attempt to daven with more attention and concentration (a constant, life-long battle).
We shall now return to our translation and commentary on Rambam’s text:
IV. “The Ways of Teshuvah”
ד. מדרכי התשובה להיות השב צועק תמיד לפני השם בבכי ובתחנונים, ועושה צדקה כפי כוחו, ומתרחק הרבה מן הדבר שחטא בו, ומשנה שמו, כלומר אני אחר ואיני אותו האיש שעשה אותן המעשים. ומשנה מעשיו כולן לטובה ולדרך ישרה וגולה ממקומו, שגלות מכפרת עוון מפני שגורמת לו להיכנע ולהיות עניו ושפל רוח.
4. Among the ways of teshuvah is for the penitent to be constantly crying out before the Lord with tears and supplication. And he gives charity according to his ability, and distances himself greatly from the thing in which he sinned, and he changes his name, as if to say, I am different and not the same person who did these things. And he changes all his deeds towards the good and towards the straight path, and he exiles himself from his place. For exile atones for transgression, as it makes him submissive, humble and low-spirited.
This halakha clearly relates to a radical act of type of teshuva, in which the person undergoes a profound inner change, one that completely turns about his whole manner of being in the world. Such radical change is a searing, cathartic experience which occurs, at most, only once or twice in a lifetime.
What are the elements described here? First, intensely emotional prayer; tze’akah, crying out to God; a prayer born of a sense of despair, of desperation, of alienation from God, of a sense of shame and unworthiness. A plaintive cry for Divine mercy and restoration of love, perhaps a cry for help to “save one from oneself,” because one does not have the strength to bring ones good intentions to fruition on ones own. Second, a change in identity, symbolized by the change in name. This is a major step, a symbolic break with and rejection of ones past, a discontinuity of identity with the person who did these awful things. Not infrequently, such changes of name are encountered among today’s so-called hozrim bitshuva, “returnees” or newly-pious Jews—although in fact they are more accurately described as converts or neophytes then reformed sinners.
Third, that he should engage in charity and “change all his deeds towards the good.” These three elements—altered behavior, prayer, and charity—are well-known elements of the “routine” teshuvah of the Ten Days as well (note the concluding phrase in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, often read in a shout: teshuva tefilah u-tzedakah); Rambam also mentions them in that context, in 3.4; but here they seem to carry a special intensity. Fourth, exile. The image is that of a successful, accepted member of society, who carries within himself the consciousness of having committed a grievous sin. The deliberate casting off of his comfortable, respected place in society; the abandonment of his familiar environment, of the everyday background to his life, even of the physical scenery that, without us even being aware of it, provide a tremendous sense of security. He becomes a stranger, a wanderer, a person without any pre-existing prestige or reputation, living life, so to speak, in its most fundamental elements. This rejection of comfortable bourgeois life, because it blinds us to the moral and spiritual dimension, is a basic element of monastic mentality; it is reminiscent of the practice, in Hindu culture, of prosperous house-holders who, at a certain stage in mid-life, abandon everything to go wandering and become itinerant monks with begging bowls. (See also my comments about Naziritism in HY I: Naso and HY III: Ekev)
It is regarding this type of radical teshuvah, I think, that the Talmud (Yoma 87b) says “Great is teshuva through which deliberate transgressions become like merits.” True, soul-searing teshuva has the power to change an individual so radically that all the sins he did earlier are forgotten, nay, transformed, because they are the stepping stones to a new self. The classic story in this respect is that of Eleazar ben Durdai, a notorious profligate, who one day was told by one of his paramours that “you are lost to the life of the World to come.” Immediately he left her, went and sat in a valley between two great mountains, place his head between his knees, and wept, bewailing an entire life wasted on the pursuit of self-centered pleasure. As he dies weeping, in an act of teshuva, a heaven voice is heard, “Rabbi (!) Eleazar ben Durdai is invited to Eternal Life.” On this, Rebbe commented, “there is one who earns his place after many years of effort, and one who earns his place in one hour!” (Avodah Zarah 17a)
One more interesting point in this halakha: the phrase “he distances himself from the thing he did.” The act of teshuvah, the decision of the human will, is not always strong enough to prevent relapses into ones old ways over the course of time, particularly in face of the inevitable temptations encountered in ordinary life. For this reason, artificial barriers are useful. Indeed, this is a basic idea in halakha generally: that one should make “fences” around the law—in the area of sexuality, but in many other areas as well. Here, it is advocated as a means of avoiding the known weakness of the reformed sinner. Compare the legends of medieval Christian monks who used to sleep in bed with beautiful young women to test their devotion to chastity. In Judaism such a “test” would be seen as slightly ridiculous, inhuman and unrealistic.
V. Public or Private Teshuvahה. ושבח גדול הוא לשב שיתוודה ברבים ויודיע ואומר להם, ומגלה עבירות שבינו לבין חבירו לאחרים, ואומר להם אמנם חטאתי לפלוני ועשיתי לו כך וכך והריני היום שב ומתנחם. וכל המתגאה ואינו מודיע אלא מכסה פשעיו אין תשובתו גמורה, שנאמר מכסה פשעיו לא יצלח. במה דברים אמורים? בעבירות שבין אדם לחבירו, אבל בעבירות שבין אדם למקום אין צריך לפרסם עצמו ועזות פנים היא לו אם גילם. אלא שב לפני האל ברוך הוא ופורט חטאיו לפניו ומתודה עליהם לפני רבים סתם, וטובה היא לו שלא נתגלה עוונו, שנאמר, אשרי איש נשוי פשע כסוי חטאה.
5. And it is praiseworthy that the penitent should confess in public and make known the thing and tell them, and reveal sins between himself and his neighbor to others. He says, “Verily, I have sinned against so-and-so and done to him thus and such, and today I repent and regret it.” And one who is haughty and does not make his sins known but covers them up, his repentance is not a complete one, as is said, “He who covers his sins shall not succeed” [Prov 28:13]. Of what are we speaking? Of sins between a man and his fellow, but in sins between man and the Omnipresent, there is no need to publicize himself, and it is arrogant to do so if he does reveal them. But only before God, blessed be He, before Whom he details his sins; but he confesses them in public only in a very general way. And it is good for him that his sins are not revealed, as is said, “Happy is the man his transgression is taken away, whose sin is covered” [Ps 32:1].
The fundamental idea here is that certain sins do require public confession, presumably because they were in any event well-known, but Hazal did not wish to encourage a person to wallow in public confession of sins, in the style of Evangelical revival meetings, because they saw in this an act of self-humiliation and even debasement. In any event, there is clear dialectic here between public and private sin. Rav Soloveitchik has written at length about the interplay between the social aspects of teshuvah and the private – internal-psychological aspects. The reprobate loses his trustworthiness, so that, e.g., the gambler, the embezzler, the congenital liar, need make a certain public demonstration of teshuvah to restore their reputation. A whole chapter of the Rav’s book, On Teshuvah, is devoted to this subject.
Let me conclude with a personal experience, shedding important light upon the Rav’s attitude towards this question. In 1973, while I was still living in Boston, I was approached by a journalist friend involved in the then-nascent ba’al teshuvah movement who was preparing a book of personal stories of ba’alei teshuvah associated with various streams within Orthodoxy. Knowing my acquaintance with Rav Soloveitchik, he asked me to approach the Rav so as to solicit the name of a ba’al teshuvah who was among his students, who might tell his story. The Rav’s answer was unequivocal, and went approximately as follows: “Maimonides says that it is the nature of the penitent to be modest and self-effacing, and not to publicize his sinful past. Ours is not the way of Christian revivalists or evangelists, who make a big show of announcing their repentance in public. It is against the nature of a baal teshuvah to seek publicity of this type. Such a book is the very antithesis of true teshuvah.”
6. Days of Penitence
Before Yom Kippur, I would like to share with you my translation and a few brief comments about two and a half halakhot from Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah which specifically address the meaning of the Ten Days. With this, I leave the subject for the present. I hope to return, especially to the subject of kaparah, which is the central theme of Chapter 1, and which I discussed in these pages the Shabbat just past—either next Elul, if God gives me life and strength, or possibly sooner.
ו. אף על פי שהתשובה והצעקה יפה לעולם, בעשרה ימים שבין ראש השנה ויום הכפורים היא יפה ביותר ומתקבלת היא מיד, שנאמר, דרשו ה' בהמצאו. במה דברים אמורים? ביחיד. אבל בצבור, כל זמן שעושים תשובה וצועקים בלב שלם הם נענין, שנאמר, כה' אלקינו בכל קראינו אליו.
6. Even though repentance and crying out in prayer are always good, during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is particularly fine, and is immediately accepted. As is said, “Seek the Lord when he is to be found” [Isa 55:6] Regarding what is this said? Of the individual. But the public, whenever they do teshuvah and cry out with a whole heart they are answered, as is said, “like the Lord our God, whenever we cry out to Him” [Deut 4:7].
In terms of the schema of “specific” or “radical teshuvah” as against “general” or “ordinary teshuvah,” which I presented two weeks ago, this is a kind of transitional halakha. For the person whose heart is deeply burdened with a pervasive sense of wrongdoing and guilt for which he seeks purification, these ten days are a propitious time to turn to God. But it is also a good time for the ordinary person, who lives his life with a general feeling of his own spiritual and moral health, to turn his mind to introspection and thoughts of religious awakening—although, strictly speaking, I’m not sure that Maimonides is saying that here.
What is interesting here (by the way, this halakhah is essentially a restatement of the Talmud at Rosh Hashana 18a) is the distinction between private and public. The Ten Days are special times for individuals: God, who is usually distant, transcendent, is somehow more available then, it is a time when He is “to be found.” By contrast, the collectivity, Knesset Yisrael, has God’s ear, so to speak, whenever needed.
Specifically, this alludes to the halakhic institution of Public Fast Days (ta’aniyot tzibbur)—not so much the statutory fast days on fixed dates, but those days that are declared in times of public distress and travail—drought, war, famine, epidemic, and the like (see what I wrote in HY II: Balak). These strongly parallel the Ten Days of Repentance: both involve an amalgam of intensely emotional, penitential prayer (tze’akah), fasting, and repentance. There is even a liturgical similarity: the recitation of Selihot, the Thirteen Attributes, and Avinu Malkinu. Indeed, there was an old custom, in medieval Ashkenaz, for pious individuals to fast on each of the Ten Days, with the exception of Erev Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and the two days of Rosh Hashana. In fact, the custom of commencing Selihot a minimum of four days before Rosh Hashana (the preceding Saturday night when it falls on Thursday or Shabbat; a week earlier when it is on Monday or Tuesday) is intended to compensate for these four non-fasting days, so that there are always at least ten days of Selihot/fasting/ penitence.
7. Yom Kippur: the Time of Repentance for All
ז. יום הכפורים הוא זמן תשובה לכל, ליחיד ולרבים, והוא קץ מחילה וסלחה לישראל. לפיכך חייבים הכל לעשות תשובה ולהתוודות ביום הכפורים. ומצות וידוי יום הכפורים שיתחיל מערב היום קודם שיאכל שמא יחנק בסעודה קודם שיתוודה. ואף על פי שהתודה קודם שיאכל, חוזר ומתודה בלילי יום הכפורים ערבית, וחוזר ומתודה בשחרית ובמוסף ובמנחה ובנעילה. והיכן מתודה? יחיד אחר תפלתו, ושליח צבור באמצע תפילתו, בברכה רביעית.
7. The Day of Atonement is the time of repentance for all, both individual and the public, and it is the conclusive time of pardoning and forgiveness for Israel. Therefore, all need to repent and to confess their sins on the Day of Atonement.
And the obligation of confessing on the Days of Atonement is such, that he begins on the eve of the day before he eats, lest he strangle during the meal before he confesses. And even though he confessed before he ate, he should confess again on the night of Yom Kippur in the evening prayer, and again in Shaharit, Musaf, Minhah and Neilah. And at what point does he confess? The individual after his prayer, and the prayer leader in the middle of his prayer, in the fourth blessing.
Rambam here leaves the subject of specific, focused teshuvah, and turns to the idea that Yom Kippur as a day of repentance for all and, as a natural corollary of that, as the “conclusive time of pardoning and forgiveness for Israel.” Or perhaps the logical order is the opposite: Yom Kippur is the day of universal, comprehensive forgiveness, the day when God once again reveals His attributes of freely-given mercy (as He did long ago to Moses in the revelation in the cleft of the rock); therefore, it is our obligation to pave the way for this gift by engaging in repentance. In any event, everyone is burdened, on some level or another, with a sense of sin, of failure, with misgivings about how his/her life is lived; as I commented in my sheet for Shabbat, it is a universal human problem. Hence, atonement is a basic need of the spirit.
A careful reading of this halakha reveals that there are two aspects to the act of confession of Yom Kippur: one begins “on the eve of the day”; but then, even though the person has confessed once, he repeats it in each of the five prayers of the day. The Talmud and in its wake Alfasi are more explicit and clearer on this point than is the Rambam: they speak of “the confession of Yom Kippur Eve” (mitzvat vidui erev Yom Kippur). The idea here seems to be that the essence of the day itself is, as its name implies, a Day of Atonement—i.e., of forgiveness, purification, of a gift of Divine love being activated. Hence, the work of teshuvah properly speaking is a prelude to it, that should already be completed before one enters the Holy Day—throughout the first nine of the Ten Days, reaching its culmination in the Vidui recited on the eve of Yom Kippur. In like fashion, the Rav used to speak of Yom Kippur as a rendezvous between man and God, the Confession recited at its very beginning serving as an entry to it. Thus Tefillah Zakkah, a long late medieval prose prayer of confession, was introduced among Ashkenazim as a kind of Vidui Erev Yom Kippur.
This is the reason for the first Vidui, recited at Minhah. But then, in the midst of this elevated presentation of the themes of atonement and forgiveness, we suddenly encounter the rather bizarre halakha that confession must be recited before the meal, “lest one choke”—the basis for the near-universal practice of reciting Minhah on this day in the early afternoon, before the pre-fast meal. What is this all about? Erev Yom Kippur is, and probably always has been, a time of great eating and even feasting—at times exaggerated, perhaps even to the point of hysteria, which one can imagine leading some people to choking on their food. Agnon, in his short story “Etzel Hemdat,” paints a partly-loving, partly-ironic picture of his small eastern European town of Buczacz on Erev Yom Kippur. He describes how a young boy goes to the home of a relative, the local hazan, to spend Yom Kippur, and is taken on a round of feasts and snacks that last the entire day.
The repetition of the Vidui in each of the prayers of the day then serves as an additional halakha, making the Confession part of the nusah, of the formulaic prayers for this day. The individual, who recites his Confession in as a kind of personal meditation, does so after the end of the statutory Amidah; the prayer leader, who recites or leads Confession on behalf of the entire community, does so in the long middle blessing, devoted to the theme of the day. For this reason, the conclusion of this blessing includes the phrase “the king who forgives our transgressions and removes our guilt each and every year,” alongside the reference to the holiness of Yom Kippur.
ח. הוידוי שנהגו בו כל ישראל, "אבל אנחנו חטאנו" והוא עיקר הוידוי.
8a. The Confession which is customary throughout Israel is, “but we have sinned.” And that is the quintessence of Confession.
The Confession here is diametrically opposed to that found at the opening of “Laws of Teshuvah,” where the individual specifies the exact nature of his sin. Here, the sum and substance of confession is the admission of failure, of having fallen short of completeness in ones life—a “declaration of bankruptcy,” in the words of Rav Soloveitchik. Psychologically and spiritually, the important thing is that a human being be capable of admitting, to himself and to his God, that he is not perfect, that he has done things of which he is ashamed, which have harmed himself and others, and that he and no one else is responsible for them. The details are secondary.
Likewise, both Talmuds contain various confessions for Yom Kippur which, in essence, come to the same thing—a declaration of sin, of failure. By contrast, the double-alphabetic Confession familiar to us from our Mahzor strives for comprehensiveness; as such, it reflects a different view of the nature of confession on Yom Kippur .
 Ha-Aretz, August 22, 2002, B4.