The Mitzvah of Teshuvah and its purpose

Parshas Naso


The Mitzvah of Teshuvah and its purpose

 [Likkutei Sichos Vol. 37 p. 18]

Parshas Naso discusses a number of Mitzvos, some of which are repetitious, having been already discussed in previous Parshiyos. One of these Mitzvos is the command associated with one who sinned against his fellow, and swore that he does not owe him money, or does not have an item which he found or was entrusted with for safekeeping’s.[1] If in truth the person owes the money and claimed under oath that he does not, or if in truth he has the item and claimed under oath that it is no longer in his possession, such as that it was stolen, then the Torah dictates a procedure of repentance for the person to atone for his sin. If he admits to the sin, then the Torah obligates him to pay back the rightful owner for the full price of the object, as well as an additional fifth of its worth, and, in addition, he is to bring an Asham offering to the Temple. This Mitzvah is called Asham Gezeilos, and was already discussed in Parshas Vayikra. Nonetheless, the Torah repeats it here for certain novelties that it now introduces into this law. One of these novelties is that the person is only liable to pay an extra fifth to the victim, if he admits to his sin. The verse states “And they shall confess the sin that they committed and return the money or item plus an additional fifth.” It is evident from the verse that the paying of the additional fifth is contingent on a confession, and if the person claims his innocence, he does not pay an additional fifth, even if witnesses testify that he stole the object and he is found guilty in court. The reason for this is because the additional fifth is only necessary as a measure of atonement and is thus only relevant to one who recognizes his wrongdoing and seeks rectification. From this verse, the Poskim learn a major Mitzvah in the Torah, the Mitzvah of Teshuvah, which includes the obligation to confess one’s sins. In this talk the Rebbe analyzes the Halachic requirement of Teshuvah, and whether one is truly obligated to repent. Is a sinner commanded to repent, or do we leave it to his authority, and simply give him the option to do so, if he so chooses? If one dies without repenting does he also get punished for transgressing a command to repent, or not? Also, what relationship does confession have with repentance, is it a main ingredient, a minor detail, or a totally separate aspect? The journey of discovery on this matter leads us to an interesting dialogue as to the true purpose of Teshuvah, and its effect on one’s future actions and state of religiosity. Is Teshuvah mainly a state of emotional recognition of wrongdoing or is it a reform of all one’s future actions? Also, how deeply seeded must the emotional aspect of Teshuvah be, and how far reaching must it be in his soul?           



Explorations of the Sicha:

1.      Is repentance a Mitzvah in the Torah? Is one commanded to do so? Why doesn’t the Rambam list this Mitzvah as one of the 613?

2.      What is the relationship between confession and repentance? Are they two separate Mitzvos, or do they interconnect as part of the general Mitzvah to repent?

3.      Is Teshuvah a state of emotional recognition of wrongdoing and desire for change, or is it a reform of all one’s future actions?

4.      How does Teshuvah work and how does it cure the damage created through sin?

The Mitzvah of Teshuvah-Confessing one’s sins:

The Rambam writes in his Sefer Hamitzvos[2] that the 73rd Mitzvah in the Torah is “Hashem commanded us to confess before G-d our sins and inequities. This confession is to be said alongside one’s repentance. It is learned from the verse in Naso “And they shall confess the sin that they committed and return the money or item plus an additional fifth.” While the counting of the Mitzvah of confession as one of the 613 commands does not seem puzzling in it of itself, it certainly is perplexing that the Rambam makes no mention of Teshuvah itself as being one of the 613 commands, and only lists the aspect of confession as a Mitzvah. Certainly, confession alone does not suffice for repentance, as repentance must include regret and resolve to change. Accordingly, how can a minor detail, and more secondary aspect of repentance be counted as a Mitzvah while the main ingredients of repentance, which is regret and resolve, remains un-commanded?  The Mefarshim on the Rambam deal with this question, and offer three solutions.    

First approach-Teshuvah is not a Mitzvah/Command:

Some Mefarshim[3] explain that in truth there is no Mitzvah or command to repent, and hence the Rambam does not list it as one of the 613 commands. The Torah left the act of repentance to the full authority and choice of the sinner and does not instruct him either way in how he should act regarding his sin. Nonetheless, when a person decides to repent, Hashem commands them to do so with confession. Thus, while the repentance itself is not a Mitzvah or command, the confession is commanded of anyone who wants to repent.  This is similar to many Mitzvos in the Torah, of which the general action is not commanded upon the person, and is left to his discretion, although if one decides to perform that action, then certain bylaws become applicable as commands. For example, there is no command to divorce one’s wife, or to do business with another. If, however one desires to divorce one’s wife or to do business with another then the Torah gives commands as to the valid methods in which this can be accomplished. Accordingly, there is no positive command, Mitzvah, or obligation to repent, but simply a command to confess, if one desires to have a valid repentance. 


A Parable:

A son disobeyed his father and went to a certain friend’s home without permission, telling him that he had an extra class in school that day. The father confronted his son, and told him that he has shown himself to be untruthful and had broken his trust, and therefore decided to ground the child from extracurricular activities until further notice. The child asked his father until when he would be grounded, and the father replied that it is dependent on his son. The father desired that his son recognize on his own the wrong that he did, and regret and resolve not to repeat such actions in the future, and only then would the father feel comfortable in entrusting his son once more. The father however did not tell this to his son, as he found it futile if he needed to instruct his son to confess and regret his actions and come to a resolve. How true would such regret be and how lasting would such resolve be, if the father instructed his son to do so. The father wanted the son to come to his own recognition and understanding of what he did wrong and only then would he be able to accept the true change of his child. Eventually, the son did approach his father with remorse for his actions, and asked his father how he can make it up. The father told him to write down exactly what he did that was wrong, and how he understands his mistake and what his resolve would be for the future. Once the son showed interest in repenting, the father became open to instructing him with the tools of doing so. The same applies towards repentance from sin. For G-d to command a sinner to repent, compromises the repentance, as Hashem wants to see the person repent on his own accord.  Nonetheless, once one approaches Hashem to repent before Him, Hashem instructs him how to do so, and that is through confession. 


Second approach-Teshuvah is a Mitzvah Koleles-a general command:

Another approach is that there is a command and Mitzvah for a sinner to repent. However, it is not listed as one of the 613 commands being that it is a general Mitzvah applicable to all the 613 Mitzvos, if transgressed. Furthermore, the Mitzvah of Teshuvah is not to simply repent a particular sin, but a general repentance of being rebellious and disobedient to Hashem, and entails a general change in character to reaccept the yoke of Heaven for all his future Torah observance. The Teshuvah of every sin must carry this resolve and hence it is a general Mitzvah of Torah observance, and cannot be counted as simply another one of the detailed Mitzvos of the 613. However, the confession is a specific detail and action which is relevant to a particular sin, and therefore it is counted as one of the Mitzvos of the 613. Accordingly, the omission of the Mitzvah of Teshuvah from the 613 is not because one is not commanded to do so, but rather because it is far loftier and encompassing than the detailed Mitzvos which enter the list of the 613. 


Third approach-Teshuvah is a positive command with two ingredients:

Other Mefarshim[4] explain that in truth there is a Mitzvah and command to repent, and this Mitzvah is included in the Mitzvah of confession. The Mitzvah to confess a sin is not just to pay lip service, but to verbally express one’s regret and resolve, as without these two ingredients the confession is worthless. Hence, included in the command to confess one’s sins, is the command to regret the sin and make resolve for the future. Accordingly, when the Torah commands a Jew to confess, in essence it is commanding the Jew to regret his sin and make a future resolution. Confession is the general Mitzvah of repentance with all its details, and the Torah commands a sinner to regret, resolve and then confess his sins before Hashem. Thus, the Mitzvah to repent is a command and is listed as one of the 613 commands. Of the three approaches, this is the most sensible approach, and is how the Alter Rebbe rules in Igeres Hateshuvah[5], as he writes “The Biblical command of Teshuvah is to resolve not to sin.”


The spiritual meaning of each approach:

While the third approach written above seems the most plausible and in tune with the wording of the Rambam, nonetheless, each approach has a spiritual aspect in Teshuvah that it emphasizes, and these aspects are all true and correct.  

Teshuvah touches the essence of the soul and fixes the blemished spiritual limb:

The Sages[6] state that the 248 positive commands and 365 negative commands correspond to the 248 limbs and 365 sinews found in the body. The same way the body contains these 613 parts, so too, the soul contains 248 limbs and 365 sinews, for a total of 613 soul powers. Each Mitzvah one performs and each command that one observes, helps create and preserve the spiritual health of that corresponding limb. However, one who transgresses a command, blemishes that corresponding limb of his soul. The power of Teshuvah is that it has the ability to rehabilitate the damaged spiritual limb. This power is given because Teshuvah touches upon the essence of the soul and elicits from it new vitality for the damaged limb. This is why according to some approaches, Teshuvah is not listed as a Mitzvah, being that the listed Mitzvos each correspond to a specific limb of the soul, while Teshuvah corresponds to the essence of the soul. This also explains why according to some opinions, Teshuvah is not a Mitzvah at all, as for something to come from the essence of the soul it must come on its own initiative, and not due to a command and the like. 

The need for action:

Although Teshuvah is a lofty Mitzvah that touches the essence of one’s soul and has ability to rectify all blemishes, it must be attached with practical action. This is the emphasis of the third approach which lists Teshuvah as a detailed Mitzvah of the 613. The first two approaches can lead one to believe that the main aspect of Teshuvah is to feel great pains of regret and make a strong resolution for the future, but not necessarily impact one’s future actions. He may continue his routine of Torah and Mitzvos the same way as before, simply focusing not to stumble again on the sin for which he did Teshuvah, but not anything further. Likewise, one who becomes a Baal Teshuvah may decide to segregate himself from the world and social contact, having now reached a state of spiritual bliss and content. The third approach emphasizes that the true purpose of Teshuvah, of the deep seeded emotion of return and closeness to G-d, is to change one’s everyday observance of Torah and Mitzvos, and that his Mitzvos become filled with new light, energy, and vitality, thus making a total revolution in his religious conduct. He must remain in the world and effect change in it, and not run away from the world. Teshuvah cannot remain aloof, as a mere emotional reawakening and attachment with G-d, but must find expression in one’s everyday actions. This is why Chazal state in many instances the term “Teshuvah and good deeds”, as the Teshuvah must then lead to deeds that are good, and shining with new light and energy. This is why the third approach lists Teshuvah as a particular Mitzvah, as it must lead to an increase in quality and quantity of one’s daily Torah and Mitzvos. We find this idea further emphasized in the story of Reb Elazar Ben Durdaya, as it is explained by the Arizal.


A story:

In the times of the Bolshevik revolution, there were various persecutions against the study of Torah and gathering of students in Yeshiva. Every gathering was viewed with suspect of treason and as a plot to overthrow the government. Due to this, it became exceedingly dangerous for the Yeshiva students to gather together to learn. Rav Shmuel Gronam Estherman, one of the famed Mashpiaim of the Lubavitch Tomechei Temimim Yeshiva, had a group of pupils which he taught during this era. They learn in the basement of a certain building and had hideouts and students to stand guard to warn the other students of any oncoming police or authorities. One day, Rav Shmuel Gronam was having a solemn and earnest discussion with his students, impressing on them to improve their ways and character. The students took the words of their beloved teacher very much to heart and many began crying with sincere feelings of Teshuvah and remorse. All of the sudden, they heard a loud knock on the door and everyone quickly dispersed and fled to all directions, fearing that it was the authorities. The watchmen quickly came down and announced to everyone that it was just a passerby and there was nothing to fear. When the students all returned to their table of study, the Mashpia asked them why they all ran away when they heard the knock. Puzzled by the strange question, the students did not reply. Rav Shmuel Gronam continued, and explained his question as follows: Why when we began discussing the spiritual defects that some of you contain did you immediately confine to bouts of uncontrollable crying, while when you heard a knock on the door you immediately resorted to quick action to deal with the situation. If something really touches the core of one’s soul, and he really cares about the matter, his main focus must be to change his actions and get the matter done. Remorseful crying may be therapeutic for one’s conscious, but it does not bring about the change required for repentance. Rav Shmuel Gronam impressed upon his students that the main focus must be on the action, on doing things to improve the character and not simply to resort to tears of remorse.     


The emotional Teshuvah of Rav Elazar Ben Durdaya and its deficiencies:

The Gemara[7] tells over the following spectacular Teshuvah performance of a Jew by the name of Rav Elazar Ben Durdaya. Reb Elazar was indulged in immorality and promiscuity. There was not one harlot in the world that he was not intimate with. One time, he heard of a very expensive harlot who lives on an island, and would take a bag full of gold in exchange for her services. Rav Elazar heard of her name and decided to visit her. He took with him a bag of gold and crossed seven rivers to reach her. During their interaction, the harlot flatulated and told Reb Elazar that just as the flatulence has left and will never come back, so too Elazar Ben Durdaya is a lost case and his Teshuvah will not be accepted. After hearing this, Elazar went and sat between two mountains and asked them to beseech G-d for mercy on his behalf. The mountains replied that they are in no position to do so, as they themselves are in need of mercy. Reb Elazar went on to ask various other creations to beseech mercy from Hashem and their reply was the same as the mountains, leading Reb Elazar to state that his Teshuvah is dependent only on him. He therefore went and placed his head between his knees and cried to Hashem until his soul left his body. A Heavenly voice then stated that Elazar Ben Durdaya has a portion in the world to come. The Arizal[8] questions how Rebe Elazar could merit a portion in the world to come simply through his emotional repentance, if he did not get the chance to prove himself in action? This is not because there is a defect with emotional Teshuvah, but rather because in order to enter Olam Haba one must have appropriate garbs, and those garbs are one’s Torah and Mitzvos. Without Torah and Mitzvos, one lacks the criteria for which entrance to Olam Haba is granted, even if he cleansed his sins through Teshuvah. The Arizal thus answers that Elazar Ben Durdaya was a Gilgul of Yochanon Kohen Gadol, who had served G-d for 80 years until he became a Tzeduki heretic. Yochanon was then reincarnated into the body Reb Elazar Ben Durdaya, and when Reb Elazar performed Teshuvah and died in its performance, he now completed the work of the soul of Yochanon Kohen Gadol who had already attained the garments needed for entrance to Olam Haba during his 80 years of service. This is why the Heavenly voice declared that he would enter Olam Haba. From the above story, and explanation, we see that Teshuvah alone does not suffice and must be followed by change and action in one’s daily life, in which he adds to his performance of Torah and Mitzvos in both quality and quantity.        



Lessons of the Sicha:

·         True Teshuvah is something that one must do on his own, due to his own initiative, and should not wait to be instigated by an occurrence, whether positive or negative, which triggers its initiation. This is why according to some approaches, Teshuvah is not a Mitzvah or command, as it must be done out of one’s own accord.

·         True Teshuvah must reach the deep recesses of one’s soul and express his utter regret for his actions to the point that it reaches his essence. This is why according to some approaches, Teshuvah is not listed as one of the 613 Mitzvos, as it reaches a depth of the soul which is unparalleled by other Mitzvos.

·         Even True Teshuvah which was done on its own accord, and reached the depths of one’s soul, must find expression in one’s actions. It does not suffice to remain satisfied with one’s regret or resolve and he must use his Teshuvah to lighten his good deeds with fresh new energy and increase in their quality and quantity. This is why according to the final ruling, Teshuvah is listed as one of the 613 commands, as the true purpose of Teshuvah is to bring an increase in one’s actions of Torah and Mitzvos.



[1] See Naso 5/5; Rambam Hilchos Gezeila Veaveida 7

[2] Mitzvah 73; Other Riashonim however do not list repentance or confession at all as one of the Mitzvos. See Rasag, Bahag, Yireim.

[3] Minchas Yitzchak 364

[4] Mabit, in Kiryat Sefer beginning of Hilchos Teshuvah

[5] Chapter 1

[6] Makos 23b

[7] Avoda Zara 17a

[8] Likkutei Torah and Sefer Halikkutim on Tehillim 32

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