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Posted on April 3, 2006 By Rabbi Dr. Azriel Rosenfeld | Series: | Level:

5. Repentance – Teshuvah

a) Reward and Punishment

Every person is free to choose between good and evil ways, as it says “Man has become like one of us to know good and evil”.1 G-d does not decree in advance who will be good and who wicked, as it says “Evil and good do not come out of the mouth of the High One”.2 This is a great principle of the Torah, as it says “Behold, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil”, 3 and it says “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse”4 — the choice is in your hands. All of a person’s actions are under his control; nothing compels him. A person is therefore judged according to his actions — if he does good deeds he is rewarded; if he does evil deeds he is punished.a

The reward that is in store for the righteous is life in the world to come — life that is not accompanied by death, and good that is not accompanied by evil, as it says “In order that it go well with you and your days be long”5 — “in the world that is all good and endlessly long”, 6 i.e. the world to come. The punishment of the wicked is that they do not earn this life but are cut off and die; this is the punishment of “cutting off” referred to by the Torah, as it says “That soul shall surely be cut off” — “cut off in this world, cut off from the world to come”.7,b Those who have no share in the world to come include one who denies the existence or unity of G-d or denies revelation or prophecy or the Torah; one who sins wilfully and defiantly or abandons the Torah for another religion or causes many others to sin; one who abandons the community of Israel and conducts himself like one of the nations; one who betrays others; or a leader who rules despotically. All other Israelites, as well as the pious men of other nations, have a share in the world to come after they are punished in accordance with their sins.c

If we observe the Torah with joy we are promised that all obstacles to its observance will be removed; we will receive all the good things of this world and be supported to observe it without having to occupy all our days with our bodily needs. But if we abandon the Torah evil will come upon us and will prevent us from observing it, as it says “Since you did not serve Ha-Shem your G-d in joy and goodness of heart from an abundance of everything, you will serve your enemies that Ha-Shem will send against you”.8 It is this that the Torah means when it promises rewards in this world if we obey and punishments in this world if we do not; but those rewards are not the final reward nor are those punishments the final punishment. It is also for this reason that all Jews yearn for the days of the Messiah, when they will no longer be subordinate to other kingdoms and will be able to occupy themselves properly with the Torah and the commandments in order to earn life in the world to come.d

One should not say “I will fulfill the commandments of the Torah in order to receive all the blessings that are written in it or in order to earn life in the world to come; and I will abstain from transgressions in order to be saved from all the curses that are written in the Torah or in order not to be cut off from life in the world to come”. This is serving Ha-Shem out of fear; but when one’s understanding has grown he can serve out of love.e

b) Repentance

If a person repents and confesses his sins and dies repentant he earns life in the world to come.f Repentance atones for all sins; even if a person is wicked all his life and repents at the end, his wickedness is all forgotten.g A person should always think of himself as about to die so that he will repent immediately.h If a person’s sins are very great or very many so that he deserves to receive punishment, he may be prevented from repenting, as when G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart 9,i; therefore as long as a person has free choice he should strive to repent.j

The repentant sinner should not think that on account of his sins he is far beneath the righteous. Rather, he is beloved by G-d as though he had never sinned; moreover, his reward is great since he has tasted sin and overcome his inclinations and abandoned it.k Repentance brings one close to G-d, as it says “Return, O Israel, to Ha-Shem your G-d”.10,l Israel will not be redeemed except through repentance, as it says “And when all of these things come upon you… you shall return to Ha-Shem your G-d… and Ha-Shem your G-d will return you from captivity…”.11,m

When a person repents he is required to confess before G-d, as it says “If a man or woman commits any sin… they shall confess their sin that they did”.l2 One who confesses must specify his sin and state that he regrets doing it and will never repeat it, as it says “Let the wicked man abandon his way […and return to Ha-Shem]”.13,n The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is a time for all to repent and confess, as it says “For on this day He will atone for you [to purify you from all your sins]”.14,o

If a person violates a positive commandment and repents he is immediately forgiven. If he violates a negative commandment and repents, the repentance suspends his punishment and the Day of Atonement atones for it. But if his sin is one which carries the punishment of “cutting off” or the death penalty, repentance and the Day of Atonement only suspend his punishment and he does not have complete atonement until he has borne suffering; and if he desecrated the Name when he sinned, only his death gives him complete atonement.p For sins toward one’s fellow-man one is never forgiven until he has compensated his fellow-man and appeased him.q Certain sins make repentance difficult or impossible; they include causing others to sin (or not preventing them from sinning), sinning with intent to repent later, abandoning the community, deriding the commandments, despising the wise, hating to be rebuked, sinning against an unknown fellow-man (so that it is impossible to appease him), or committing sins that one does not regard as sins or that become fixed habits.r


1. Gen. 3:22 a. 5:1-4
2. Lamentations 3:38 b. 8:1
3. Deut. 30:15 c. 3:5-13
4. Deut. 11:26 d. 9:1-2
5. Deut. 22:7 e. 10:1
6. Kiddushin 39b, Chulin 142a (on Deut. 5:16) f. 3:14
7. Num. 15:31 and Sifrei on it g. 2:1
8. Deut. 28:47-48 h. 7:2
9. Ex. 4:21 i. 6:3
10. Hosea 14:2 j. 7:1
11. Deut. 30:1-3 k. 7:4
12. Num. 5:6-7 l. 7:6
13. Isaiah 55:7 m. 7:5
14. Lev. 16:30 n. 1:1, 2:2
o. 2:7 1:3
p. 1:4
q. 2:9
r. 4:1-5