The Miracle of Teshuvah

Teshuvah involves
recognizing that you did something wrong, stopping to do it, regretting having
done it, and resolving never do it again. In addition, the mitzvah of teshuvah
involves vidui—confession—a verbalization of that recognition, regret
and resolution. But why should it have to be put into words? You know what you
have on your mind. G-d knows what you have on your mind. Why verbalize it?

The Rambam does not list teshuvah as a separate mitzvah. When
a person sins, he violates G-d’s command. There is not need for a separate
command to tell him not to do it again. When a person violates a command, he
does not exempt himself from it, even if he violates it again and again and
again. Even violation is a new avera. If he ate a forbidden food once, he’s
not allowed to eat it a second time. The commandments require obedience, and
that is the reason he has to stop doing averos. That’s the reason he has to do
teshuvah. There’s no need, according to the Rambam, for a command which
directs us to do teshuvah.

But, of course, there’s more to teshuvah than just stopping
to do a sin. When a person sins, there are consequences: he damages himself and
his relationship to G-d. The damage from a sin can persist long after he has
changed his ways. The mitzvah of teshuvah relates especially to the correction
of that damage. And the Torah commands us to do that with a verbal confession:
the vidui.

The rabbis tell us that in giving us the possibility of doing
teshuvah G-d was very kind to us. But we might ask ourselves, “What’s the
big deal?” If you hurt a friend—spoke lashon hora about him—and then
tearfully, with complete sincerity, in a way that he could see that you really
mean it, asked his forgiveness and promised that never do it gain, wouldn’t he
forgive you? And if he didn’t, wouldn’t he be in the wrong? Certainly! Only
a cruel person would withhold his forgiveness from a person who is sincerely
contrite. The G-d of Israel is a G-d of mercy. That G-d should forgive us seems
natural. So why did the Rabbi’s so emphasize G-d’s mercifulness in allowing
us to do teshuvah?

There are two ways of looking at mitvos. We can think of them
as the commands of a king or as the advice of a doctor. G-d is the King and we
keep his commands because, since He is the King, we are obligated to obey his
will and concern ourselves with the welfare of His kingdom. The advice of a
doctor is for the benefit of his patient. G-d knows what’s good for us and
what harms us. He commands us to do what is good and prohibits what’s bad. Of
course, G-d is both a king and a doctor. He has decreed, as king, that we do
what is beneficial for us. His commands guide us to what is best for us as
though they were the advice of our doctor. If we think of mitzvos as the
commands of the king, the reward for keeping them or the punishment for
violating them is extrinsic: it comes from the outside. It comes from the king
who rewards obedience and punishes disobedience. So, for example, a king who
hated bananas might forbid them to be eaten in his kingdom. There is nothing
intrinsically wrong with bananas, but If you eat a banana and the king finds
out, he might behead you for disobedience. If he doesn’t find out, nothing is
going to happen to you. The punishment doesn’t come from the action itself.
But when a doctor gives a command, the situation is entirely different. The
punishment for violating his command is intrinsic. It is a natural consequence
of what you’ve done, of doing something that is harmful to you. If, after the
doctor tells you that you’re allergic to bananas and forbids you to eat them,
you eat a banana and get sick, its not the doctor who punishes you. It’s the
banana.

Since G-d is both king and doctor, the reward and punishment
for most mitzvos is both intrinsic and extrinsic. The mitzvah rewards you with
the benefits it confers and the King rewards you for your obedience. These two
aspects of mitvos are implied in the concepts of yiras shamayim (fear of
Heaven) and yiras chet (fear of sin). Yiras shamayim regards
mitzvos as the commands of the King. Yiras chet recognizes the intrinsic
benefit of mitzvos and the punishment which is intrinsic to violating them. With
this in mind it becomes clear why a person who does a mitzvah which he is not
commanded to fulfill gets less reward than the person who fulfils it because he
is commanded. The person who is commanded is doubly rewarded. He receives the
intrinsic reward of doing something beneficial as well as the reward for his
obedience to the king. The person who was not commanded receives only the
intrinsic reward. Since he did the mitzvah voluntarily, there’s no basis to
reward him for obedience. So the one who was commanded gets a greater reward
than the one who acted voluntarily. This distinction between extrinsic and
intrinsic reward and punishment also explains why a person needs atonement for
unintentional sin. Even when a person sins unintentionally he violates the
command of the king, but, since he has no intention of being disobedient, since
he wouldn’t have done it if he’d realized that he was violating the king’s
command, the king has no reason to be hard on him. He’s not going to punish
him. There will be no extrinsic punishment for his misdeed. But imagine that the
king had prohibited something that was intrinsically harmful. The forgiveness of
the king won’t diminish the harm that the person caused himself by violating
the king’s wise command. His misdeed carries its own punishment—the harm
intrinsic to the act he did. Through teshuvah we avoid both the extrinsic and
the intrinsic punishment for sin, for we are forgiven by the king and receive an
antidote for the damage which the sin caused to the soul. Teshuvah is a
tremendous kindness, a mercy far greater than any that a human king could bestow—a
miracle–because it is an antidote to the harm intrinsic to sin. It saves us
from the destructive consequences of our misdeeds.