Is there an actual mitzvah that we do teshuvah?


This Sabbath is Shabbat Shuvah, when our spiritual efforts are focused on returning to Hashem. The Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah is one of the most celebrated works on teshuvah. Therein, he notes that teshuvah is comprised of four essential elements:

“What constitutes teshuvah? A sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart never to commit them again, as the text states, ‘May the wicked abandon his ways.’ Similarly, he must regret the past, as the text states, ‘After I returned, I regretted.’ … [And] he must verbally confess and state these matters which he resolved in his heart.”

In sum, teshuvah consists of four inextricably connected parts: Abandonment of the sin, regret for having performed the prohibition, confession before Hashem, and heartfelt acceptance and determination that he or she will never commit the transgression again.

While nearly all classic halachic authorities accept this definitional structure of teshuvah, they differ as to whether or not there is a mitzvah to engage in the teshuvah process. As is well-known, the Rambam does not consider teshuvah a mitzvah in and of itself; instead, he conceptualizes it as a complement to vidui (confession).

This approach was embraced by a number of illustrious Acharonim, including the Avodat HaMelech, the Minchat Chinuch and Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate).

In his Commentary on the Torah, the Ramban champions the contrasting view that teshuvah does, in fact, constitute a mitzvah. His bases this approach on his interpretation of the pasuk: “For this commandment (ki hamitzvah hazot) which I command you this day is not concealed from you, nor is it far away.”

In general, Chazal view the phrase, “ki hamitzvah hazot,” as referring to the entire Torah because of its proximity to the expression, “lo bashamayim he (it — the Torah — is not in Heaven),” as found in the next verse.

The Ramban, however, suggests that this approach is grammatically incorrect, for if “ki hamitzvah hazot” did refer to the totality of the Torah, it should have stated, “kol hamitzvah” (every commandment),” as we find in the pasuk: “Every commandment (kol hamitzvah) that I command you this day you shall keep to do, that you may live and multiply, and come and possess the land that Hashem swore to your forefathers.”

Based on this reading, he opines that since the Torah writes, “ki hamitzvah hazot,” it must refer to a single mitzvah, namely, teshuvah.

The single greatest factor militating against the Ramban’s view that teshuvah constitutes a mitzvah is the manner in which teshuvah is presented in these verses. Normally, a commandment is stated in an imperative construct.

For example, in reference to Yom Kippur we find: “It is a Shabbat of rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves. It is an eternal statute.” In our verses, however, teshuvah is presented in a narrative format lacking any mandated action. This challenge, however, does not deter the Ramban from maintaining the mitzvah-status of teshuvah, as he suggests that this mode of presentation gives powerful voice to Hashem’s promise that nothing stands in the way of teshuvah, and that in the future, the entire nation will return to Him:

“And this [mitzvah of teshuvah was stated] in a narrative formulation to hint at the fulfillment of the promise that in the future the matter will be so [that is, the Jewish people will universally undertake the teshuvah process]. The underlying reason for this is to inform us that even if we are scattered about to the very ends of Heaven, and we are under the hegemony of the non-Jews, we will be able to return to Hashem and fulfill all of the mitzvot that ‘I command you this day.’ For the matter of doing teshuvah is not beyond us or distant from us, rather it is very close to us indeed — and we may begin the teshuvah process at any time and in any place.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was fond of the Ramban’s theological positions. Little wonder, then, that he often stresses the idea found in Tachanun that Hashem is the pota’ach yad b’teshuvah (the Holy One blessed be He continuously reaches out to us with the promise of teshuvah). Like the Ramban, the Rav emphasizes that “we may begin the teshuvah process at any time and in any place.”

May the time come soon and, in our days, when the Jewish people will join together as one, and return to Hashem in heartfelt teshuvah. V’chane yihi ratzon.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah.