Some Teshuvah-Themed Lomdus

There seems to be a dispute about the nature of teshuvah. The Semag (916) and Semak (57) state clearly that there is a mitzvah to do teshuvah and that part of this mitzvah is viduy, or confession. Rambam (93, Teshuvah 1:1) and the Sefer HaChinuch (364), however, state that the actual mitzvah is only viduy itself. This latter opinion seems to imply that there is no actual mitzvah to repent; the only mitzvah is the confession. Perhaps we can infer from this that Rambam believes that there is an intrinsic psychological need within humans to repent when they commit a sin, and thus no explicit mitzvah is necessary. As every sin is a rebellion against the King, it should thus be obvious to anyone to repent if there is a chance for the King’s mercy. Given that logic tells us to repent, the Torah comes only to instruct on how, exactly, to do so; namely, viduy.

The Semag, however, might well see such a perspective as an affront to our free will. As all humans have the ability to choose to do right or wrong, suggesting that repentance is somehow an automatic response would contradict the notion of free will and therefore cannot be true. Thus, the Torah does, in fact, need to instruct us in the very concept of teshuvah itself — with viduy as merely a detail of the larger commandment.

Perhaps given the above we can now understand another dispute about the topic of teshuvah. According to Rambam, the word “teshuvah” derives from the root word meaning “return.” Chovos HaLevavos, on the other hand, believes that the word “teshuvah” is best explained as “fixing oneself [to serve God].” Since the very purpose of the Torah (and certainly learning it) is to bring us closer to God, we certainly do not need a specific commandment to return to God. As Rambam understands teshuvah to mean just that, it would make no sense for this to be its own mitzvah. The Semag, then, must understand the word “teshuvah” like Chovos HaLevavos does — that it means “fixing oneself” — for which it certainly makes sense for there to be a specific commandment.

However, it is, of course, obvious that none of the above necessarily must be the case. With a little bit of thought, we can harmonize all opinions.

It is the hope of this author that as we approach the time of the year focused on teshuvah that we at the very least think deeply about what our main work during this period of time should be.

May we all be zocheh to do full teshuvah and accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven.

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