The Power of Teshuvah

Sponsored by Fred and Judy Farbman in honor of the recent yahrtzeit of Fred’s mother, Regina Farbman. May her neshomah have an aliyah.

Parsha Halacha – Parshat Nitzavim VaYelech

From Rasha to Tzadik in an Instant

For a printable version click   here  
The Torah portion of Nitzavim contains one of the most important mitzvot in the Torah, that of doing teshuvah (repentance), as the verse says, “And you will return to the L-rd your G-d, and you will listen to His voice… with all of your hearts and all of your souls.”[2]
The Ramban (Nachmanides) opines[3] that the Mitzvah of teshuva is taken from the following verse: “Because this mitzvah that I am commanding you today is not concealed from you nor far away from you… For this matter is very near to you in your mouth and in your heart so that you can fulfill it.”[4] Thus the Ramban explains, “Even if we are dispersed to the ends of the heavens and are under the dominion of foreign powers, we can return to G-d and do everything He has commanded us today. This matter is neither removed nor distant from us. It is very easy for us to do this at any time and in any place.”
This article will focus on several aspects of the mitzvah of teshuva.[5]
Equivalent to all Mitzvot
The Ba’al HaTurim writes that the mitzvah of teshuvah is comparable to all of the mitzvot of the Torah.[6] [7] The reason for this is that through teshuvah one can repair any sin in the entire Torah.
Why No Bracha?
The commentaries wonder why the sages did not institute a bracha on the mitzva of doing Teshuvah.[8] Several answers are offered:
  • Some say[9] we don’t make a bracha on any mitzvah which came through an aveirah (sin) such as returning a stolen object. This would include the mitzvah of teshuvah which, necessarily, must be preceded by a sin.
  • Others explain[10] that it is not proper to do teshuvah for the sake of a mitzvah. It is best done out of sincere regret for having disobeyed the will of the Almighty. This can be compared to a son who disrespected his father. If the son asks the father for forgiveness but says that he’s doing so because his father wants him to do this, his father will not be very impressed. Rather, the son should recognize that what he did was wrong and regret it. This is the proper way to seek forgiveness. Since to make a bracha on a mitzvah one must perform the act with the intention of performing a mitzvah, no bracha was instituted for the mitzvah of teshuvah.
  • Some say that we don’t say a bracha on any mitzvah that can be fulfilled in one’s heart, such as nullifying chametz (leavened bread).[11] Thus, no bracha is said when doing teshuvah since it is primarily done in one’s heart.[12]
  • Another reason that has been given is that one cannot make a bracha on a mitzvah that is dependent on others. This is why we do not say a bracha on the mitzvot of giving tzedakah or loans as the recipient may choose not to accept the help being offered. Similarly, only G-d Himself decides if He will accept one’s teshuvah. Since one cannot know for sure if and when He will do so, we cannot say a bracha.[13]
Instantaneous Transformation from Rasha to Tzaddik
The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin says[14] that if a person who is known to be an absolutely wicked person (rasha gamur) betroths a  woman on the condition that he is an (absolutely) righteous person (tzadik gamur),[15] the betrothal is valid (see footnote)[16] as he may have done teshuvah in his heart.
Thus, we see that as soon as one decides to change his corrupt ways and lead an upright life, he is instantly transformed to the level of a tzadik.
This concept is expressed by the prophet Yechezkel who said, “And if the wicked man repent of all his sins that he has committed and keeps all My laws and executes justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. All his transgressions that he has committed shall not be remembered regarding him; through his righteousness that he has done, he shall live.”[17]
Repentance vs. Atonement
The Talmud in Tractate Yoma[18] says that in the case of most sins, atonement is not achieved through teshuvah alone. Rather one must wait until Yom Kippur and possibly also go through suffering or even death before achieving atonement. It is clear from the above teaching in Tractate Kiddushin (regarding the betrothal conditional on being a tzadik) however, that one’s teshuvah is accepted immediately when one resolves to better his ways, to the extent that he is considered to be a complete tzaddik.
The explanation is that, although one is immediately forgiven by G-d, there may still be a negative decree present against him. The decree was made when he was still a sinner, and although his repentance was accepted, the decree has not yet been annulled. This is accomplished through the various methods described in Tractate Yoma. Thus, when the Talmud in Yoma says that one achieves “atonement,” it is referring to the annulment of past decrees, not to the acceptance of one’s teshuvah which, as explained, happens instantaneously (if the teshuva is sincere).[19]
What about Lashes?
If a person sinned in a manner which makes him liable for a punishment by a human court, he can still do teshuvah at any time. Hashem, who sees one’s heart and innards, can forgive him completely. As such, he becomes a complete tzadik. Despite this, the human court, which only sees with its eyes, cannot retract his punishment, and thus he is still liable for whipping or even death. This is ultimately the Divine will since otherwise the court would never be able to punish anyone as every sinner would claim that he repented. The entire system of punishment by the court would then cease, and its powerful deterrent against sin would be lost. In truth, since the sin was in the realm of action, the impact of the sin is still felt in the world. The judgment of the court is based on the realm of action, and his punishment is therefore warranted.[20] Thus, it is possible for a person to be a complete tzadik and still be liable for lashes or even death.[21]
What about Confession and Restitution?
The commentaries question as to how an instant teshuvah can transform a rasha to a tzadik when, in order to do a proper teshuvah, one must confess one’s sins (viduy) and, in the case of sins towards fellowmen, ask for forgiveness from those he wronged and make restitution for any monies that he might have stolen.
Several explanations are given for this:
  • Some say that, in order for one’s teshuvah to be accepted, it is essential that one say viduy. When the Talmud says that they may have done teshuvah in their hearts and are already considered a complete tzadik, it means that they may have done teshuvah and said viduy before they betrothed this woman.[22]Similarly, some say that regarding sins towards a fellow man, forgiveness and restitution are absolutely essential. So when the Talmud says that one can become a tzadik instantaneously, it is referring to one who did not sin against his fellow man.[23]
  • Others say that as soon as one does teshuvah and decides that he will return the stolen goods and ask for forgiveness from the person he wronged, he is forgiven and becomes a tzadik.[24] (Of course if he does not follow through on his resolution, he will lose that status.) Similarly, some say that even before doing viduy, one’s teshuvah is accepted and he becomes a tzadik. Despite this, he will not achieve atonement (see above) until he says viduy.[25]
  • The Kotzker Rebbe said[26] that although one must normally say viduy in order to do a proper teshuvah, the case of the Talmud in Kiddushin is different. In that case one is doing teshuvah and getting married. Since a chattan is forgiven for all his sins[27] it is sufficient for him to do tesuvah in his mind alone.
Daily Mikvah
The Ohr Zarua by Rabbi Isaac ben Moshe of Vienna (13th Century)[28] writes that since committing a sin[29] spiritually contaminates a person, when one does teshuvah he should immerse in a mikvah in order to spiritually cleanse himself. He bases this on the Midrash[30] which in turn is based on the words of King David (when doing teshuvah for sinning with Batsheva), “Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin.”[31] The Midrash understands the words “wash me” literally, i.e., one should immerse in a mikvah when doing teshuvah.[32] This concept is echoed in the Magen Avraham[33] who writes that one of the reasons it is customary to immerse in a mikvah on Erev Yom Kippur is in order to do a proper teshuvah on that day.
It has been suggested[34] that since it is proper to do teshuvah every day[35] and it is proper to go the mikvah before doing teshuvah, that this is the basis of the custom of many chassidim to immerse in the mikvah on a daily basis.
May all of the Jewish people merit to do complete teshuvah and be inscribed for a sweet new year with revealed good!

[1] I apologize to my readers for not sending out a Parsha Halacha article last week. My family and I were busy preparing for Hurricane Irma. Baruch Hashem, we are all ok,. as is most of our property. (We had minor flooding and a tree fell on our roof.) Many thanks to the family that hosted us during the storm as well as several others who kept our food from our fridges and freezers. Thank you to all of the people who offered to host us and to help us in other ways. And to all the friends and family members who called, emailed or messaged us to express their concern and caring. It was, and is, most appreciated.
[2] Deut. 30:2
[3] On ibid, verse 11
[4] Ibid, 11:14
[5] I gleaned many of the sources for this article from Pardes Yosef on Nitzavim, siman 34
[6] On Deut. ibid, 11. He bases this on the fact that verse 10 speaks about teshuvah and verse 11 says “this mitzvah that I am commanding you today.” Our sages (see Eiruvin 55a) understand “this mitzvah” to be referring to the entire Torah. Thus we see that the one mitzvah of teshuvah is equivalent to the entire Torah.
[7] See Kovetz Moriyah, Shana 7, volumes 6 and 7, page 45 where Rabbi Michel Huminer cites 71 mitzvot that are equivalent to the entire Torah. They are ahavat yisrael, telling the truth, the four species of lulav, living in Israel, giving bikurim (the first fruits), building the Bait HaMikdash (Holy Temple), gemilut chassadim (acts of loving kindess), cleaving to Hashem, doing justice, derech eretz (treating people respectfully), saying vayechulu three times on Friday night, separating challah, not flattering, not ignoring a cherem (ban) of the sages, fearing Hashem, respecting one’s parents, not coveting, humility, escorting guests, not speaking lashon hara (gossip), feeding a tzadik, helping a tzadik do business, bringing up children to study Torah, honest weights and measures, not libeling other people, doing a brit milah, not remaining uncircumcised, not reversing the brit milah, mezuzah, giving maaser (tithe), being honest in one’s business dealings, studying Mishnah, rendering judgment, the niddah laws, getting married, having children, not having illicit relations, Sukkah, studying the book of Devarim, korbanot (sacrifices), not serving idols, observing the Ten Commandments, Purim, parah adumah (the Red Heifer), giving tzedaka (charity), tzitzit, kiddush halevana (sanctifying the new moon), korban pesach (the Pesach offering), reading the weekly Torah portion on Shabbat, kriat shema (reading the Shema) giving the first shearing of wool to the kohen, not charging interest, not murdering, not tale bearing, not to swear in vain, not to swear falsely, observing the Shabbat, not taking bribes, learning from even the mundane speech of Torah scholars, shemittah, shalom (peace), guarding one’s brit, saying Tehillim (psalms), studying Torah, having simple faith, prayer, Tefillin, and if one fulfills any one of the mitzvot properly and with one’s entire heart, it is considered as if they fulfilled the entire Torah. See there as to the sources for each of these. (I left two out as they seem to be repetitious A.C.)
[8] According to the Ramban (quoted above) it is an actual mitzvah to do Teshuvah. The Rambam (Maimonides) however, is of the opinion (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1) that is it not a mitzvah to do teshuvah per se. Rather the mitzvah is that when one does teshuvah, it is a mitzvah to confess one’s sins. As such, the question would be why we don’t say a bracha when saying viduy.
[9] Rashba, Responsa, vol. 1, siman 18
See Responsa of Maharam Shik, O.C. 336, who uses this Rashba to explain why no bracha is recited on the reading of Parshat Zachor.
But see Responsa LeHorot Natan, vol. 5:47 who questions this explanation. He says that the reason there is no bracha on reading Parshat Zachor is that the brachot were only established on mitzvot which can possibly be done without intention. The bracha ensures (if said with concentration) that the person will have the right intention (see Ritva on Pesachim, 7b). This is not necessary when reading Parshat Zachor since the very mitzvah is to remember. When one does this, he has fulfilled the mitzvah. This differs from an action mitzvah such as laying Tefillin which can be done without any intention whatsoever. This also explains why there is no bracha on the mitzvah of reciting the Shema. (See there regarding Hallel and Migillah.)
[10] Responsa Bait Yitzchak, Y.D. vol. 2:168, ot 12
[11] See Bait Yosef O.C. 432 as to why no bracha is recited when nullifying chametz.
[12] HaDerash Vehaiyun on Deut. Parshat Nitzavim, Mamar 193
[13] Ibid
[14] 49b
[15] The Talmud as we have it says on condition that he is a tzadik and doesn’t mention a case when he says that he is a complete tzadik (tzadik gamur). However various acharonim (later authorities) quote the case of one who says that he is a tzadik gamur (see Responsa of the Bach:102, Minchat Chinuch, mitzvah 364:3 and She’ilat Yavetz, vol. 1:79). It is possible that they had a version of the Talmud that included the word gamur (see Likutei Sichot vol. 19 pg. 394, note 24, citing the Ohr Zarua, Brachot [Hilchot Tefillah], Siman 112). Or that they extended the case of the Gemara to apply to this case.
[16] See Rambam, Hilchot Ishut, 8:5 that it is considered a doubtful betrothal
[17] 18:21 and 22, cited in Likutei Sichot vol. 19 pg. 593
[18] 86a
[19] Ohr Zaru’a, ibid
[20] See Likutei Sichot, vol. 28:pg. 95
[21] Responsa Tuv Ayin  by the Chida, Siman 6
[22] Mishnat Ya’avetz (by Rav Betzalel Zolty) O.C. 55:5 based on ibid
[23] Rabeinu Yerucham, Chelek Chava, Netiv 22, Chelek 4 in the name of some commentators (yesh mefarshim).
[24] Ibid, citing other commentators (veyesh mefarshim).
[25] Minchat Chinuch:364, 1 based on the Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah, 1:1 and 2:2
[26] Quoted in Pardes Yosef ibid, ot 3
[27] See Rashi on Gen. 35:3
[28] Cited in note 15.
[29] Although the Ohr Zarua was talking about a person who had committed the terrible sin of murder, the concept can be applied to lesser sins as well.
[30] Shochar Tov on Tehillim, 51:4
[31] Tehillim ibid
[32] The Midrash actually writes that one should have a sprinkling of the Parah Adumah (red heifer) water as the verse says, “Purify me with a hyssop, and I will become pure (verse 9).” It seems that the Ohr Zarua is extending this to include mikvah since nowadays we do not have the Parah Adumah water.
[33] O.C. 606:6
[34] Pardes Yosef, ibid, ot 12
[35] Pirkei Avot, 2:10
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Good Sweet Year!
Aryeh Citron

Have your say