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 no 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. Every 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, it’s not the doctor who punishes you. It’s the

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 fulfil 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 intrinsic and
extrinsic 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.