Is Teshuvah a Mitzvah?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

Presumably, Rambam wrote Hilkhot teshuvah to elaborate on a requirement to do teshuvah. But Avodat HaMelekh (R. Menachem Krakowski, d. 1930) notes something peculiar – Rambam’s language does not indicate that teshuvah itself is a mitzvah:

רמב”ם הלכות תשובה פרק א

כל מצות שבתורה בין עשה בין לא תעשה

אם עבר אדם על אחת מהן בין בזדון בין בשגגה

.כשיעשה תשובה וישוב מחטאו חייב להתודות

All commandments in the Torah, whether positive or negative,

if a person transgressed one of them, whether intentionally or unintentionally, when the person does teshuvah and repents from that sin, the person is obligated to confess.

It seems here that the obligation associated with teshuvah is the confession!  There is an assumption here that one will do teshuvah, but Rambam never says that there is an obligation to abandon sins and engage in a process called teshuvah.

The problem is sharpened when one looks at Devarim 30:1-2::

וְהָיָה כִי יָבֹאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה

הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ

וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ

:בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחֲךָ יְקֹוָק אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה

וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד יְקֹוָק אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ

כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם

:אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ

It will be that when all these things come upon you –

the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you –

then you will take it to your heart

among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you;

and you will return to Hashem, your God, and listen to his voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with your heart and all your soul

Ramban understands the second verse as presenting a mitzvah of teshuvah (30:11), “you must return” rather than you will return.  In Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:5, however, Rambam sees this verse purely as a promise that G-d will redeem us and that we will do teshuvah.

What is the nature of teshuvah if viduy is the commandment, not teshuvah itself?

Avodat HaMelekh suggests that teshuvah is assumed by definition if one is going to keep the Torah at all. If one has violated a mitzvah, obviously one has to abandon that path! We do not need a verse to teach us that – it is unfathomable to think otherwise, it is the foundation of the entire Torah. Rather, the Torah elsewhere (Bamidbar 5:6-7) teaches the chiddush that teshuvah requires verbal confession, and Rambam asserts that is the emphasis here as well.

A person wishing to make a proper change in behavior going forward cannot assume that wishing will make it so. One has to verbally commit to making that change happen, and to making a conscious effort to act cautiously to avoid making future mistakes. For Rambam, lack of confession undermines the entire teshuvah process.

Minchat Chinukh disagrees (Mitzvah 364).  He holds agrees that there is a mitzvah to confess, and by not confessing one has not fulfilled that particular mitzvah – but if one genuinely repented in his heart without verbally confessing, one has fulfilled the separate commandment of “you must return”, and one has still properly atoned for one’s sins.

Whether or not the verses in our parasha speak of an actual mitzvah of teshuvah, it is certainly tied to redemption.  When we return to G-d, G-d will end the exile and bring us back to Eretz Yisrael. By working to strengthen our observance of mitzvot, and thereby reversing course when we have not met all of our obligations, we come closer to G-d (Rambam 7:6). As the Yamim Noraim approach, may will all merit to do our own teshuvah and to come together as a united people in doing teshuvah, to come closer to G-d, and to reap the benefits of the promises G-d made with our ancestors.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is in his third year at RIETS and his second year at the Bernard Revel Graduate School, concentrating in medieval Jewish history.

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