Teshuva: The Promise of Hope, By Rabbi Seth Grauer

As we approach Rosh Hashana and get ready to begin saying selichotI would like to explore a well-known Rambam and perhaps offer a possible insight into the Teshuva process.

The Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva, Perek 2 Halacha 2 that there are four stages within the Teshuva process:

  1. Azivat HaChetwhere a person decides to stop the sinning and cease from the aveira.
  2. Kabbalahwhere a person commits to not commit the aveira
  3. Charatawhere a person regrets the past.
  4. Viduiwhere a person actually verbalizes the sorrow and regret around the aveira.

What is particularly curious is that others, such as the Chovot Halevavot, also enumerate these same four steps in the teshuva process, but they reverse steps 2 and 3 and place regret before a commitment to not commit the aveiraagain. Their rational, which is in many ways intuitive, is that a person is generally motivated to decide to not sin again only if she or he truly regrets their sin. The reverse emphasizes this even more- if one doesn’t regret the sin, why would one commit to not violate it again?! First, we decide to stop sinning, we then regret the sin and only then we decide and promise to not commit the aveira again.

Why would the Rambam write that we should commit to stop the sin before regretting the fact that sinned?

Maybe the Rambam is trying to teach us a vital and important message around Teshuva and one that is particularly important for the start of a new school year.

We live in a world in which regret is a lost art. In many ways, we are taught to never feel guilt and instead to rationalize all decisions that we make and all actions that we do, irrespective of if they are ultimately right or wrong. As such – true regret is incredibly difficult to come by. Some have suggested that the concept of gam zu letovahas been abused to justify all mistakes and find a positive and rosy spin on every mistake made.

Perhaps the Rambam was therefore ahead of his time in recognizing that confronting past mistakes and truly regretting them is in many ways actually harder and more difficult than simply promising and committing to not engage in them again. A commitment to stop the sin requires no internalization on my part, no sense of self introspection and most significant – no requirement at all that I admit that I was wrong.

Maybe the Rambam is teaching us that only after I cease the sinful actions and change my ways, will I then truly regret the previous sin and my previous actions.

As we start a new year, we enter with new goals, new optimism and new dreams of how this coming year will be better than last. I will learn more. I will be nicer to others. I will work harder to reach my potential. Each and every one of us has our own hopes and aspirations.

The same should hopefully be true in our world of shemirat hamitzvoth. The Rambam is teaching us that we shouldn’t have to regret all past actions and mistakes before making changes in our lives. The regret and realization might come with time – but start with the commitment to change and start with the actual changes in our actions.

May this Rosh Hashana and the New Year that is upon us, bring us all renewed energy and renewed promises towards realizing and recognizing all our hopes and ambitions in all aspects of our lives.

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