At the end of his introduction to Mishneh Torah, the Rambam lists all of the twenty-four sefarim that comprise his great Halachic work. He briefly discusses the content of each one and explains his rationale for each title. For example, he writes, “In the Third Book, I shall include all of the mitzvos which occur at determined times, such as Shabbos and the Holidays. I have called this book Sefer Zmanim (Book of Times).” While this classification seems eminently reasonable, the Rambam has a problematic description of the contents of Sefer Ha-mada (Book of Knowledge). He writes, “In the First Book, I shall include all of the mitzvos which pertain to the fundamentals of the Religion of our teacher Moshe, which a man must know before anything else — such as, for example, the Unity of His Name, blessed be He and the prohibition of idolatry.”
Given that the the notion of monotheism and the prohibition of idolatry form the bedrock of Jewish faith and additionally inform and shape the Jewish experience, one can readily understand why these constitute two of the “fundamentals” of Judaism and why any Jew ought to know them “before anything else”. However, one section in Sefer Ha-mada’ — Hilchos Teshuvah (The Laws of Repentance) — does not appear to fulfill either of these criteria. Why should teshuvah constitute a fundamental of Jewish faith? I certainly am aware of its importance: Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yemei Ha-Teshuva, and Yom Kippur all point to Teshuva’s immense significance in our theology, Halacha and liturgy. I merely question its fundamentality. After all, we can and do classify many mitzvos — such as Terumah, Tamid and Tefillin, for example — as important. Being important, however, does not make the mitzvah a fundamental.
Furthermore, even if we could somehow explain why Teshuva ought to be considered a fundamental of our faith, surely it should fall short of the Rambam’s second criterion: those mitzvos “which a man must know before anything else”. Whatever fundamental property Teshuva does have, surely man must actually do the Teshuva “before anything else”, not just know that Teshuva is a mitzvah. Knowledge of the notion of monotheism and the prohibition of idolatry do indeed influence one’s understanding of Judaism and define the parameters of religious experience. But Teshuva?
In order to answer this question, we must define the Mitzvah of Teshuva precisely. In the beginning of each of of the subsections of Mishneh Torah, the Rambam deliniates all of the mitzvos contained therein (usually called the koteret). In Hilchos Teshuva, he writes: “There is a single positive commandment: The sinner must return (yishuv) from his sin before Hashem.” The mitzvah of Teshuva, in the Rambam’s conception, has two dimensions. The first, and more obvious of the two, is of course mere repentance. The second, and more striking, dimension is that Teshuva must be done “before Hashem”. Repentance alone does not suffice. One must repent with Hashem. One needs to involve Hashem in the process in order to fulfill the mitzvah.
This second dimension, I argue, not only influences our understanding of the nature Mitzvah of Teshuva, but has ramifications on how we understand man’s relationship with his Creator. That we must involve Hashem in Teshuva points to Hashem’s desire to be involved in our lives. Hashem is very much invested in our spiritual growth. He is not an uncaring, detached deity who merely demands our subservience to him, but Hashem also genuinely cares to be with us and to participate in our development as Jews and people.
In Teshuvah, though, it’s much more than that. For, by repenting, we reveal our darkest secrets. Those we do not — dare not — tell anyone. Those that we hide from ourselves. Hashem demands that we involve Him in admitting these secrets to ourselves, and admit them to Him.
Revealing our tormented soul to God puts us in a precarious relationship with Him. On the one hand, of course, God is always imperceptible, often distant, and forever beyond us. Yet, on the other hand, when we force ourselves to tell Him of what we have done, He becomes our Secret Keeper. An intimate friend who will forever listen, often reply, and always forgive. A God who resides in the inner crevices of your heart, eternally present, eternally comforting.
This is indeed a fundamental of the Jewish faith. One that everyone must know “before anything else.”