“Great is teshuva (repentance) for it brings a person close to the Divine Presence, as it is stated, ‘Return, Israel, unto the L-rd your G-d’ (Hosea 14:2). It is [also] stated, ‘…yet you have not returned to Me, says the L-rd’ (Amos 4:6). And it is stated, ”If you repent, Israel,’ says G-d, ‘repent to Me’ (Jeremiah 4:1). Meaning, if you will return through repentance, to Me you will cleave.
“Repentance brings close those who are far. Yesterday this one was hated by G-d, detestable, distanced, and abominable. And today he is beloved, precious, close, and befriended. And so too you find that in the language that the Holy One, blessed be He, distances the sinners, with that [same language] He brings close those who repent, whether an individual or the community. This is as the verse states, ‘And it will be in place of it being said of them ‘you are not My people,’ it shall be said to them ‘[You are] the children of the Living G-d” (Hosea 2:1).
“Also regarding Yechanya (Jeconiah in English, also known as Jehoiachin (Yehoyachin). He and many of the notables of Jerusalem were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar 11 years before Jerusalem’s destruction.), it states regarding him during his wickedness, ‘Write regarding this man that he shall be devastated, a man who will never succeed in his days, [for none of his descendants will ever succeed to sit on David’s throne and rule again in Judah]’ (Jeremiah 22:30). ‘If Chanyahu son of Yehoyakim King of Judah would be a seal on My right hand, [yet from there I would tear you off, and give you in the hands of those who want your life] etc.’ (v. 24). And after he repented in his exile (in Babylonia) it is stated regarding Zerubbabel his son, ”On that day,’ says the L-rd of hosts, ‘I will take you Zerubbabel son of She’alti’el My servant’ says the L-rd, ‘and I will place you as a seal, [for you have I chosen]’ (Haggai 2:23).”
This week’s paragraph continues the theme of the earlier ones, discussing the greatness of teshuva (repentance), and how it can instantly transform G-d’s hatred of a person into love. The very language G-d used in castigating the wicked He uses in endearment after they repent.
One point which is clear from the Rambam is one that we’ve made many times before, especially in discussing this chapter — that repentance on one level can be instantaneous. Yesterday the sinner was despised by G-d, while today he is beloved, precious and close. How can a person change so quickly? It is as we’ve discussed in past weeks. All teshuva really is at its core is self-awareness. It is getting in touch with your inner self, realizing that your sins were never whom you really wanted to be. Once a person realizes whom he really is, when he identifies with his true soul rather than his outer self, G-d will love him. He is one of G-d’s precious and devoted servants. G-d treasures such a person and looks forward to his service.
True, such a person has many debts to pay up and many sins he must atone for. As we saw in Chapter 1, achieving full atonement for our sins — as well as retraining our faulty behavior patterns — may well take a lifetime. Such a person has much work before him to truly achieve expiation. But loved by G-d? That can be achieved almost immediately. All it really takes is understanding whom you truly are — a person who deep down wants nothing other than goodness and closeness to G-d. And as much work as the follow-up will be, that and that alone is the most critical first step.
Further, as the Rambam teaches us here, it is not just we may can change our attitude so quickly. If we do so, G-d will feel the same way about us. If I correct my own self-perception and realize I am a good person who has just made mistakes, G-d will love and embrace me in kind. He will deal with me as I see myself. If I realize I care for G-d and regret not living up to our relationship, He will see me as His devoted servant — who has just made some mistakes, or even many mistakes. Sure, making it up to the G-d I love will be a lot of work, but I can become G-d’s beloved right now. He doesn’t “hate” me until I make it up to Him. He cares for me and wants me to improve even more than I do myself. And all it takes to start the entire process is seeing myself for whom I truly am.
Here the Rambam introduces a related idea — that G-d uses the very same language He employed in reprimanding the wicked as terms of endearment when they repent. In the Rambam’s examples, “you are not My people” became “you are My people,” and “if you were a seal on My palm I would tear you off” became (regarding Yechanya’s son) “I will place you as a seal.”
The implication of this is fascinating. Even my very bad qualities now somehow become precious to G-d. The same language G-d used to criticize my faults He now uses to compliment me. And this seems counter-intuitive. I can understand that G-d is willing to overlook my past faults now that I’ve demonstrated I no longer want any part of them. But how could those very negatives become positives? How could they be a cause of my becoming close to G-d? Weren’t they sins? Shouldn’t any reference to them remind G-d, so to speak, of my past lapses and distance me further?
The Talmud (Yoma 86b) distinguishes between two forms of repentance — that which is performed out of fear of G-d and that which is done out of love. Repentance done out of fear causes one’s intentional sins to be counted as if they were unintentional, whereas repentance through love causes one’s intentional sins to be counted as merits. What does this mean?
To explain, let us first understand the type of sins we are dealing with. The Talmud refers to someone who sins intentionally. That means the person knows G-d forbade a certain action — but does it anyway. And we’re not talking about a person who lacks basic knowledge of G-d and Judaism — who is not aware that G-d watches and judges his actions. He knows full well (at least on some level) that G-d will punish him for what he is doing, yet he cannot control himself. He feels that the momentary gain or pleasure he will get from doing this action is “worth it.” He’d rather just enjoy himself now and worry about the consequences later.
Now when such a person comes round to repenting, there are two primary motives which may be driving him. The first is fear. When he sinned he was lax, not really allowing himself to reflect on his actions and their consequences. He knew on some level that what he was doing is wrong — and he also knew deep down that G-d’s justice would certainly catch up to him, but he let himself be carried away by the moment. He did not allow himself to think and choose wisely. The Talmud states that a person never sins unless a “spirit of madness” enters him (Sotah 3a). No sane person would trade a few fleeting moments of pleasure for the spiritual agonies of purgatory. It’s like coming to a rest stop off of the highway and shelling out $50,000 for a can of coke. (Maybe a dated example. At least in my day it wasn’t that high. In truth, though, sinning is actually much, much worse — because you’re dealing with incomparable currencies.)
Now when such a person comes to this realization, he will repent out of fear. Had he any idea how terrible the aftereffects of sin are he would have never fallen. To realize how much punishment is in store for him, how much Divine anger is pent up against him, and how much potential bliss he passed up on — all for a few moments of pleasure which were forgotten almost as soon as they were had, he would literally want to kick himself around the block. Such a person will be angry — and bitter. Not only will he be furious at himself for his failure, but he’ll be scared stiff — of what is now in store for him. He will have to either bear the agonizing Divine punishments for his sin, or undergo an equally gut-wrenching process of regret and change — of repenting before it is too late.
Regarding such a person, when he repents, the Talmud states that his intentional sins are knocked down to unintentional ones. At the time he sinned, his actions were intentional. He was stupid enough to think the fun was worth it — either that or careless enough to not allow himself to think of the consequences he knew were coming. But with his new-found knowledge he would have never sinned. His sins are now considered unintentional — because had he any idea back then of what he knows now, he would have never done them. They were accidental — done without the knowledge he has now so painfully acquired.
But there is an entirely higher level of teshuva (repentance) — that which is performed out of love. In the above few paragraphs we described — completely accurately — how any sensible person will feel about himself after failing. He will be angry at himself; he will be scared of the Divine wrath in store for him. Such reactions are totally appropriate, but they only look at how such a person will feel about himself. He has harmed himself terribly with his poor choices, and now he had better pay up, or suffer the consequences.
Repentance out of love is where the person opens up his eyes and looks beyond himself — to G-d. He no longer thinks about how stupid he was himself. He thinks about how he could have acted this way towards G-d. G-d has done everything for him. He created the beautiful world he inhabits, He granted him his life and all the blessings he has, and He continues to sustain him, constantly throughout his life — even while he sins. When a person realizes how good G-d has been and continues to be towards him, he will feel a tremendous sense of love and closeness come over him — and terrible over how he betrayed G-d’s goodness. He will realize that he owes it to G-d for failing to observe the commandments G-d only gave him for his own good in the first place.
And when such a person repents, it will be out of love. He will want to make it up to his Creator — to amend the wrongs he has done to His G-d and G-d’s great hopes in him which he has disappointed. And at that point, his past sins will become merits. Why merits? Because every bit of bad he had done before he will use to bring himself back to G-d. The worse he was before, the worse and more remorseful he will feel now and the more that feeling will catapult him closer to G-d. Every past failure will make him feel more terrible — and will strengthen his resolve ever stronger to trek on the path towards reconciliation. And thus, his sins will become merits. The very wrongs he had committed before he will use to bring himself back.
This is perhaps the Rambam’s intention when he writes that G-d uses the same language He used to castigate the wicked in praising the penitent. A person who truly repents uses his very bad past to bring himself closer to G-d. Thus, the very evil which G-d had so thoroughly abhorred in him becomes merits which G-d admires in him. And this is the totality of the change the truly repentant can bring about within themselves.
As a final conclusion, I’d like to point out that this provides us with a new way of looking at this entire chapter. Earlier we defined this chapter as one which describes teshuva for self-fulfillment, as opposed to teshuva as a religious obligation. We can now view this chapter from a different, equally valid, perspective: teshuva done out of love rather than out of fear. When our teshuva was G-d-focused, as the earlier chapters depicted it, it could reach the level of fear alone. We did wrong and we became obligated to make it up to G-d. When we look at repentance from that perspective — of how much we owe G-d, it has a very heavy, almost intimidating sense to it — of how indebted we are to G-d and how badly we have failed Him.
This chapter, however, which describes the enormous potential teshuva has and how beloved a person can become to G-d once he repents, brings an entirely new perspective to teshuva. When one realizes how great he can be if he repents, his teshuva will assume an entirely higher dimension. It will not just be an obligatory penance but a heartfelt expression of love. The same G-d who created him and gave him all his blessings likewise has afforded him the means of achieving true fulfillment via repentance. And such a person will not repent only for his own fulfillment. He will feel an enormous sense of love and devotion to the G-d who gave him so much and is so available to him — who is literally standing there with hand outstretched, waiting for His beloved child to return to Him. And such a person will reach out towards his G-d with an enormous sense of reciprocal love, with the elated sense of how much G-d has given him and how fulfilling life can be for him — if only he taps in to his own tremendous potential. And as the Rambam describes here, all we need to do is make ourselves aware of this intensely powerful reality — and the love will begin to flow.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org