Rabbi Bernard Fox
“If a person violates any commandment of the Torah – a positive or a negative command – whether this violation is intentional or unintentional, when one performs repentance and repents from the sin, he is obligated to confess before G-d, Blessed Be He … This confession is a positive command.” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, laws of Repentance 1:1)
The period from Rosh HaShannah through Yom Kippur is devoted to the process of repentance. Each of us must attempt to engage in this fundamental process. What are we attempting to accomplish? What do we hope to achieve through this process?
Maimonides, in his Mishne Torah devotes ten chapters to the Laws of Repentance. The quote above is a portion of the first law in this section. Maimonides explains that the violation of any commandment engenders a requirement to perform teshuva – repentance. Whether we sin through commission or omission, whether the sin is intentional or unintentional, we are required to repent. This repentance must be followed by vedoi – a verbal confession of the sin and a commitment to change our behavior. Maimonides emphasizes the importance of this verbal declaration. He explains that this declaration is a positive commandment of the Torah.
In short, Maimonides teaches us that wrongdoing requires a twofold response. We must perform teshuva and vedoi. Vedoi is a verbalization of the process of teshuva. We put into words our regret for past behavior and our commitment to change.
Which of these two responses is more fundamental – teshuva or vedoi? We would imagine that teshuva is the more essential element. However, Maimonides seems to indicate that vedoi is the more fundamental component. He explains that the vedoi is a positive command.
Apparently, Maimonides maintains that repentance requires that a person address the Almighty and declare one’s contrition. Without the declaration, the process of repentance is incomplete. An unstated, internal sense of regret is inadequate. The repentant person must address Hashem and accept responsibility for his or her misdeeds.
This suggests that the process of teshuva is a prerequisite to vedoi. A person cannot make a meaningful declaration without an internal commitment. Therefore in order to perform vedoi, teshuva must occur. Maimonides confirms this interpretation of his comments in the next chapter of his discussion of repentance. There, he explains that one who performs vedoi without an internal commitment to change accomplishes little or nothing.
“What is repentance? It requires that the sinner abandon the sin. And one must discontinue any contemplation of it. One must commit to not return to the behavior … In addition, one must regret the past … One should call upon Hashem as a witness that he will never return to the sin … And one must declare these matters to which one has made an internal commitment.” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:2)
Here, Maimonides describes in detail the process of repentance. He identifies five elements within the process. First, one must discontinue the sinful behavior. Second, one must refrain from even contemplating or fantasizing about the behavior. Third, the person must review past behaviors and feel sincere regret. Fourth, one must make a firm commitment to not return to the behavior. Maimonides then adds the person must verbalize these matters. This is the process of vedoi.
What is Maimonides telling us about teshuva and vedoi? Maimonides begins with a question. He asks, “What is teshuva?” The then responds. He explains that the verbal vedoi must follow the internal process. This is part of his description of teshuva. This strongly suggests that vedoi is part of the process of teshuva. It completes the process. How does vedoi complete the process? It seems that vedoi provides substance and finality to one’s commitment. Through expressing one’s thoughts in word, the person becomes more firmly committed to change.
It seems that Maimonides provides two different views on the role and significance of vedoi. In this chapter vedoi is characterized as a part of the teshuva process. It is the element that lends finality to the process. This is a very different characterization than that provided in the first chapter. That characterization is described above. In the first chapter, Maimonides explains that vedoi is the fundamental response to sin. Teshuva is a prerequisite to a meaningful vedoi. How can these two views be reconciled?
“One should not imagine that teshuva is limited to sins that involve some action – for example promiscuity, theft or larceny. Rather, just as one must repent from these, so one must seek out one’s improper attitudes and repent from them – for example from anger, hatred, jealousy …” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance 7:3)
In order to answer our question, we must consider another apparent contradiction in Maimonides’ treatment of repentance. We have discussed Maimonides description of the process of repentance. Let us now consider his position regarding the type of behaviors that require repentance.
In the law quoted above Maimonides explains that the requirement to repent is not engendered solely by the violation of a commandment. We are also required to repent from improper attitudes or character traits. For example, we must attempt to abandon our hatreds and to temper and control our anger. We must evaluate all of our attitudes, identify our character flaws and address them. In other words, even if a person has not violated a specific commandment, teshuva is required.
This conclusion does not seem to agree with Maimonides’ statement in the opening law of this section. In that law, Maimonides explains that teshuva and vedoi are required when a person violates a law of the Torah. This means that the violation of a commandment engenders the requirement to perform teshuva and vedoi. Some commission or omission must occur. This implies that poor attitude alone does not create an obligation to repent! How can these two positions be reconciled?
Let us return to our opening question. What are we attempting to accomplish through teshuva? What do we hope to achieve through this process? First, we must recognize that in sinning we violate the Torah. We disregarded the will of the Almighty. We rebel against the ultimate King. The vedoi that accompanies teshuva begins with the acknowledgment that we have sinned against the Torah. Through repentance, we attempt to earn atonement for this sin. We wish to avoid retribution or unpleasant consequences. In short, one objective of teshuva is atonement – kapparah. But does teshuva have any other objective?
“Since one is granted volition … one should endeavor to perform teshuva and vedoi in response to sin …” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance 7:1)
Maimonides does outline another objective in the process of teshuva. In order to identify this objective, we must consider the above quote. Maimonides explains that human beings are unique. We are endowed with freewill. We have the ability to choose between right and wrong. He explains that as a result of this faculty we are required to engage in teshuva.
Why does the element of human volition engender an obligation to perform Teshuva? Freewill means that we are in charge of our self-improvement. To a great extent, we determine the degree to which we fulfill our individual potential. We decide whether we will squander our talents and lives or whether we will strive to fulfill our potential.
We can only achieve personal fulfillment through an ongoing process of teshuva. In this process we constantly reevaluate our lives and attitudes. We reconsider our personal mission and constantly seek self-improvement. The objective is not to atone but to purify – tahara.
In short, teshuva has two objectives. One objective is kapparah – atonement for our sins. The second objective is tahara – personal improvement.
This explains Maimonides’ position regarding which sins engender the obligation to perform teshuva. In the first chapter, Maimonides indicates that teshuva is a response to violation of the law. Maimonides is discussing the teshuva of kapparah. Atonement is required when the law is violated. If the law has not been violated, the obligation to seek kapparah is not engendered.
However, Maimonides teaches us that we should repent from improper attitudes and character traits. This is because in addition to kapparah, teshuva has a second objective. This objective is tahara – self-improvement. In order to achieve this objective, we must engage in an ongoing process of introspection. This process requires that we consider and evaluate our attitudes and character traits.
We can now explain Maimonides’ treatment of vedoi. In the first chapter of the Law of Repentance, Maimonides is explaining the process of atonement. In this process the vedoi is the fundamental element. We have sinned against Hashem’s Torah. It is appropriate to verbally appeal to Hashem for forgiveness and atonement. Accordingly, vedoi is fundamental to achieving atonement. In this context, the vedoi is not merely the final step in teshuva. It is the essential element in the process of kapparah.
However, teshuva is not merely a prerequisite in the process of achieving atonement. It is also a process that purifies and improves a person. In this process, the internal element is essential. Self-improvement requires thorough introspection. In the second chapter of the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides is explaining the process of teshuva. He describes it as a process of self-improvement. Its objective is internal change. In this context, vedoi completes and teshuva. It finalizes the internal commitments that result from the process of introspection. Therefore, in this context Maimonides describes vedoi as the final element in the process of teshuva.