Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur

The Concept of Teshuva

by Rabbi Michoel Schoen
Can our past sins really be erased??
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

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Teshuvah, repentance, seems illogical. True, a sinner must change his ways to avoid further punishment. Yet by what logic can a previous sin be forgiven? Why shouldn’t he be punished for the bad he has done?

One might answer that Hashem wipes away our sins because He is all-merciful. This answer, however, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For, consider the fact that a person can also erase his good deeds if he sincerely regrets them. As Rambam states: "Whoever regrets the mitzvot he has fulfilled...and says to himself: ‘What did I get out of doing them? I wish I hadn’t done them,’ loses all of them, and no merit is remembered in his favor." (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:3)

The Rambam’s insight shows that Hashem’s "forgetting" our past is not merely a question of His mercy, for the concept can work against us as well. How, then, does teshuva work?

When G-d judges a person, He doesn’t simply weigh his sins and mitzvot on a scale. Rather, Hashem judges the individual himself. What is he? What does he represent? Does he embody good or evil?

True, a person’s essential being depends on his past actions; but he is actually judged for the gestalt of his being, the whole and not the parts.

When a person truly regrets his past, he is stating that those actions do not embody him. When being judged for what he represents, those sins that he regrets — or those mitzvot — are not factors in judgment, since they do not represent him anymore.

This understanding is apparent in the following statement of the Rambam: "When a person’s sins and merits are weighed, the first sin that he sinned is not counted, nor the second. But the third and on [are counted]. If it is found that his sins — from the third and on — are greater than his merits, then the [first] two sins are included and he is punished for them all." (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:5)

Why should Hashem "ignore" the first two sins? Bearing in mind our explanation of teshuvah, the reason is quite clear: It is a principle of Jewish law that for an action to establish a status quo (chazakah), it must occur three times. Thus, the first two times a person sins he had not indicated that he is a person who embodies that particular transgression. He simply gave in to his evil inclination. Only when he transgresses three times can one say that he represents the sin itself, and can thus be judged for his embodiment of the evil, not for one particular sin.

Among the ways to repentance, the Rambam mentions changing one’s name, "as if to say: I am another, and am not the same person who did those deeds." (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4)

How can one change his name and claim to be someone else? According to our explanation, this is exactly the point of teshuvah. One must resolve that those moments spent in sin do not represent him. He is a different person, represented by mitzvot.

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