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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays The Essence of Rosh Hashana

Understanding Repentance

The atonement granted in return for repentance is a favor which extends beyond the line of strict justice; it is the result of God's desire that we return to Him.
Dedicated to the memory of
R. Avraham Ben David
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1. It is Possible to Repent for Anything
2. Believing in the Power of Repentance

It is Possible to Repent for Anything
a. "That which is crooked cannot be made straight."
The Torah teaches us that it is possible to repent and repair the misdeeds of our past. Repentance, or Teshuva , is capable of atoning for any transgression whatsoever, even the most extreme sin imaginable - even murder. Yet, how is it possible to repair, through Teshuva, an act like murder? Obviously one cannot bring the dead back to life. In this vein the Book of books itself attests that, "That which is crooked cannot be made straight."

b. Providence or Free Will?
Answering this question calls for us to clarify the nature God's providence in light of man's free will. On the one hand, God bestows man with free will; man may choose good, or, if he like, the opposite. The freedom to do wrong to another person is also included in man's free will.

On the other hand Divine Providence governs the world, and nobody is harmed unless it has been decided upon from above. One man's desire to injure another cannot come to fruition without God's having decreed it first, for man is not punished unless he sins. - It is not, teach us our Sages, the wild ass that kills, but man's own iniquity. Similarly, it is not the wild ass in the form of a human being that kills. Either man's own misdeeds bring about his death or, for reasons hidden from us, his hour to die has simply come. Man does not die as a result of another person's - be he wicked or righteous - decision to kill him.
If so, where is man's freedom? How can freedom of will be resolved with Divine Providence?

c. The Paradox Resolved
God runs the world in such a way that when an evil person wants to transgress "Thou shall not kill," a person whose time has come to die is placed at the murderer's disposal. In this way the one who is murdered is done so according to the divine plan, while the free will of the wicked murderer is in no way violated.

The sages, as a matter of fact, teach that, "Merit is brought about through the meritorious, condemnation through the condemnable." That is, that for a man who is deserving of punishment God finds an evil person who wants to perform evil and allows him to carry out the "condemnation of the condemnable."

The same is true with regard to good. For the one who is deserving of reward God finds a benevolent person who desires to do good, and has the good carried out through him. As such, the one who is deserving of reward according to the divine scheme, receives it, and the one who wishes to do good is allowed to do so in accordance with his free will.

d. Pinpointing Man's Freedom
Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, The Ramban , explains, with regard to a pair of corrupt witnesses, why it is that witnesses who bring about an innocent man's death through death sentence, are not, according to Jewish law, themselves sentenced to death. Once the accused has been put to death, says the Ramban, it becomes clear that his death came as punishment for his own transgressions, for had he been worthy God would not have abandoned him in his time of need, as it is written: "The Lord will not abandon him in his hand, nor allow him to be condemned when he is judged" (Psalms 37:33). That is, there exists a Divine plan, and the will of a wicked person can't bring about the death of another unless it has been decided so by God.

Concerning this the sages teach that, "Everything is foreknown, yet freedom is granted." What is meant by this famous maxim is not merely that God knows in advance how man will act. Rather, the Almighty himself arranges his world; everything is directed by Him and nothing escapes His providence. One of the things which God arranges is man's freedom to do good or bad. Man's will is completely free, yet the form which this will actually takes is directed by God, and remains in keeping with the Divine plan.

According to this, the area of man's responsibility his will, and his will alone. It does not include repercussions, since they would have at any rate transpired. Man is declared guilty only for having chosen bad.

e. How Repentance Works
Now we can understand how a person can repent for an act which is impossible to fix, for the "crooked," as the verse says, "that cannot be straightened." He can repent and fix his will changing it to good. By doing so he separates himself from the act which had been carried out, for the act would have at any rate transpired. When, then, a person repents it is as if he had not done the evil. This is because he was responsible for willing and desiring the evil, and now he has repaired this desire, and therefore his repentance is accepted.

Of course, the greater the evil which a person desired to perform, the greater the repentance which is needed in turn. Yet even so, upon fulfillment of the four stages of atonement, one's repentance is accepted "...and return and be healed" (Isaiah 6:10).

Believing in the Power of Repentance
a. Beyond the Line of Strict Justice
Common sense dictates that one who transgresses must be punished, and it seems illogical that through repentance one be exempted from paying the price for his actions. All the same, the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud teach us:
Wisdom was asked, "A sinner, what be his punishment?" and he answered, "Evil shall pursue the wicked."
Prophecy was asked, "A sinner, what be his punishment?" and he answered, "The one who sinned must die."
Torah was asked, "A sinner, what be his punishment?" and he answered, "Let him atone by bringing a sacrifice."
God was asked "A sinner, what be his punishment?" and He answered "Let him atone through repentance."

The above expository tale, or Midrash , teaches us that although it seems illogical that repentance atone for our sins - Wisdom says, "evil shall befall the wicked" - all the same repentance does atone, for such is God's desire. The Almighty takes personal interest in our repenting and therefore goes lightly on us when it comes to returning to Him through Teshuva. And even though prospective repenters may not be worthy of the atonement offered them, God is willing, because of the effectiveness of this method in bringing sinners to repent, to forgive them. Similarly, the State of Israel, in order to persuade Jews who have left the country to return, offers them special benefits, despite the fact that they really don't deserve them. So it is with repentance: despite its irrational nature, it assists in the Divine objective of fixing the word. In the words of the Psalms: "Good and upright is the Lord, therefore he instructs sinners in the way." God is good in that he guides man, returning him to the straight path. God is good and He influenced man to be good, pulling the lovingly to Him.

And so, atonement granted in return for repentance is a favor which extends beyond the line of strict justice; it is the result of God's desire that we return to Him. The Sages, too, instituted reforms in order to allow wrongdoers to mend their ways. For example, the Sages, acting leniently towards thieves, freed them from the obligation to return the object which they had stolen, allowing them to return money instead. This was done in order to make the act of returning easier.

b. Thoughts of Repentance
We must, then, view the strength of repentance in light of what the Torah teaches us and not according to human logic. According to the Sages even thoughts of repentance are enough to repair a lot. The thought alone, even though it hasn't resulted in any action, already changes a person from evil to righteous. You may be saying to yourself, "These are simply words of consolation in order to encourage the sinner to repent, for what change can mere thoughts effect. I could understand if a person repented completely, stood the test and refused to repeat his sin - this could be termed repentance which had transformed the man from evil to righteous. But of what value are mere thoughts of repentance?"

The Sages, though, established that the thought of repentance alone transforms the man, by definition, from evil to righteous. This has implications when it comes to Jewish law. If we could imagine a man proposing to a woman by saying, "Behold, you are betrothed to me on the condition that I am righteous," even if he is actually completely evil, she would, according to Jewish law, be considered betrothed - for perhaps he had thought of repentance.

If, after deciding to repent, one does not manage to live up to his decision, stumbling, once again, into transgression, the effect of his repentance is not nullified. He hasn't merely returned to where he started out from, rather he has fallen anew. Repenting for sins is like laundering clothing. One doesn't refrain from washing children's clothing because, "Why bother, as soon as the children put them on they'll be dirtied all over again." The purpose of washing them is so that the filth not accumulate. So too, repentance purifies, refines, and prevents the accumulation of sins, even where it's not complete and perfect repentance, from which one never stumbles.

Therefore, one should not think to himself, "What good are these decisions I make to improve myself, and to repent completely, if I'm not capable of maintaining my repentance?" One should not say, "Last year, during the High Holidays, I decided to abandon forever my repulsive ways, and in a short time I had returned to my old self. Should I lie to myself, taking on resolutions which I'm not capable of living up to?" This sort of thinking is incorrect despite its apparent honesty.

Every thought of Teshuva has significance. Every positive desire has value, even if it is never fully played out; the desire itself has tremendous impact. We have already mentioned the fact that the estimation of Teshuva's strength cannot be gauged according to human rationale. Rather, it must be viewed in light of God's Will. God desires our repentance and is happy at our mere thoughts of Teshuva. In deciding to repent man has already done God's Will. This fact ought to fill man with great joy. One should be delighted by his own virtuous desire to return to God. The more a person believes in the value of thought, the more the strength of thoughts of repentance will grow. These thoughts will become more powerful, and will eventually bring in their wake positive actions.
Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed
Rosh Yeshiva of the Bet El Yeshiva, was the head of the Yesha rabbis board and rabbi of Bet-El, founder and head of Arutz 7.
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