How To Do Teshuvah?
Why Do We Need To Confess Our Sins?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The Steps To Teshuva
Teshuvah, or repentance, is a personal and emotional process. Laws are impersonal; they are objective and unbiased. The law doesn’t care about subjective feelings. Nevertheless, Judaism has many laws for our steps to repentance. How can there be laws for something so intrinsically personal?
In this video, the first of the course, Rabbi Fohrman presents the essential question regarding repentance that will guide the rest of the course: Can there really be a “right” and “wrong” way to repent?
So here's a problem I want to share with you. An actual law (you can find this codified in standard books of Halacha, like, say, the Aruch HaShulchan) that you're supposed to be standing on Yom Kippur when you say the vidui prayer.
Hilchot Teshuvah: Laws for Our Steps to Repentance
The vidui prayer is that prayer in which we strike our chest and say, "al chet shechetenu lefanecha", we confess various sins that we've done over the year. And you're supposed to be standing while you say that prayer, and then the halacha continues by saying, "You're not really supposed to be leaning."
Now, it's one thing to come across a halacha like this in the abstract, and to see it written in a book. But let's actually imagine what this halacha looks like in real life:
So here it is, it's Yom Kippur. "Al chet", vidui, this prayer of confession, it's one of the most intensely personal prayers of the year. Imagine yourself really doing this right. Imagine there you are in shul, your eyes are closed, you've been really thinking about your year, evaluating yourself very seriously, you found painful, searing mistakes in the past, tears streaming down your cheeks, as Shmoneh Esrei draws to a close you have that sense of catharsis: "Things are going to be different going forward."
You felt like for the first time in years, Yom Kippur's really been meaningful, transformative.
And then, as you begin to take your three steps backwards, you realize, "Oh my Gosh! I've been leaning!"
You've been leaning! So what?
So now let's just try to understand. Does this mean that this whole thing just doesn't count? I mean, this whole half hour, this transformation, none of it matters? You just have to do it over again? How could that even be? How do you understand this?
How Can There Be Hilchot Teshuvah?
The question I want to pose to you is really larger than this. This is just an example, its an example of "Hilchot Teshuvah". "Laws of Teshuvah"? The very term just seems entirely self-contradictory. Law is the most objective thing that you can imagine. Law is 'we don't care what you feel, this is the law.' It doesn't really matter what's going on with your inner emotional world.
But Teshuvah is about the inner emotional world. There's nothing more spiritual, more emotional, more personal than the process of return and repentance; of change. How could Teshuvah, of all processes within Judaism, be regulated by law? Laws of Teshuvah, such a strange idea! But laws of Teshuvah there are.
Here's another law: When you say Vidui, you are supposed to say it out loud. And you can ask "Why? Who am I taking to in Shmoneh Esrei when I'm saying Vidui? I'm talking to God. Well, if God's all-powerful, can't He read my thoughts? Imagine I have these very, very deep, personal, spiritual thoughts – it doesn't count? God knows what I'm thinking, why doesn't this count?
These two issues – leaning during Vidui, saying it out loud – they're just two possible examples. But the whole idea of Laws of teshuvah sounds strange. If you open up the Rambam, Maimonides, there's a whole section of his code of Jewish law that's devoted to Hilchot Teshuvah.
What I want to do with you over this series of videos is to actually look carefully at Rambam's Hilchot Teshuvah. I think that if we jump in and actually see what's written there, we will find that contrary to what we might have believed, there are right ways of doing Teshuvah, and wrong ways of doing it.
There are pitfalls in the process of Teshuvah that are subtle, that can actually make the process destructive – destructive for you, destructive for those around you.
Teshuvah is not just amorphous. It's not whatever it is you want it to be. There's a real path here, there's something to achieve, and there's a way to achieve it. If you look carefully at Hilchot Teshuvah, we'll actually discover that path. Jump in with me, let's take a look.
Rambam's Mishneh Torah on Hilchot Teshuvah
I want to begin by asking us to consider a question. Do you think that there's a command to do Teshuvah? If a person has sinned, has committed some sort of wrong, is this one of the commands of the Torah, to actually go and repent for your wrongdoing?
You know, on the one hand, you might argue that Teshuvah's very fundamental; it's a very important thing, that there's got to be a command for it. On the other hand, if you think about it, there's a problem with the very notion of there being a Mitzvah to do Teshuvah.
I'll come back to that problem in a moment. Before I do, let's actually jump in and read the Rambam and see what the Rambam has to say about this.
“Kol mitzvot shebeTorah – all commands in the Torah – bein aseh bein lo taaseh – whether we are talking about a positive command or a negative command, an imperative to do something or an admonition not to do it – im aver adam al achat mehen – if somebody actually transgressed one of these commands – bein bezadon bein beshegegah – whether you did it on purpose or did it by accident – k’shyaaseh teshuvah v'yashuv mecheto – when he repents, when he does Teshuvah – chayav lehitvadot lifanei haKel Baruch Hu – he is obligated to confess what it is that he has done before the Almighty. Vidui zeh mitzvat aseh, this act of Vidui, this confession, is, in fact, a positive command.”
And then he goes and he talks about exactly what is the language that one uses to perform Vidui to confess in this way, but let's come back to just these first few lines that we talked about before. Just listening to them, does it seem to you like the Rambam treats Teshuvah – the act of repentance – as a Mitzvah in the Torah?
So on the one hand, the Rambam certainly defines something here as a Mitzvah, right? The interesting thing is though, that he doesn't actually define Teshuvah itself as a Mitzvah. He defines an element of Teshuvah as a Mitzvah, and that element is called Vidui – confession.
Maimonides' Definition of Teshuvah
Rambam is actually going to later set out the different elements of Teshuvah:
- There's azivat hachet, letting go of the sin;
- there's kabalah laatid, deciding you are not going to do it in the future;
- there's chartah, the 'feeling bad for what you've done';
- and there's vidui, and there's confession.
These are four different elements. Strangely, the Rambam focuses on one of them, and says that one thing, Vidui, confession is one of the 613 commandments.
So, it seems strange. Why is he doing that? Why is he picking out one element of Teshuvah and only one element of Teshuvah, and saying that's the Mitzvah? What about all the other elements? What about Teshuvah as a whole? How do we make sense of this?
So, I want to suggest a theory to you. Let's come back to the question I asked: Is Teshuvah a Mitzvah? And this time, instead of examining it from the perspective of the Rambam, let's just examine it from the perspective of logic.
Rationally speaking, do you see any difficulty in the notion that one of the commandments in the Torah should be to repent, to seek forgiveness, and change one's ways from one's wrongdoing?
What Is the Meaning Behind Teshuvah Law?
So, on the one hand, you might say, "Sure! What a great Mitzvah; very spiritual, very wonderful." But I can raise an objection to that: Under what conditions would such a mitzvah apply? The act of Teshuvah, the act of repentance, by definition, only takes place in the wake of a transgression. It takes place after you've disregarded one of the other Mitzvahs of the Torah.
I can't command you to stop disregarding the command, so the notion that there's a Mitzvah to do Teshuvah is itself problematic. And, the Rambam never says there is such a Mitzvah.
The theory I want to suggest to you is that Teshuvah actually a choice! It's a choice that we make, it can't be commanded. It's something you just have to decide you want to do. What the Rambam is saying is, if you decide you want to engage in an act of Teshuvah, at that point, the Torah defines for you a right way of doing Teshuvah, and a wrong way of doing Teshuvah.
The Mitzvah is: if you're going to do Teshuvah, do it the right way. And the Rambam says, "What does doing it the right way mean? It means, including Vidui, confession."
Why does the Rambam say that that one piece of Teshuvah is the Mitzvah? Why not any of the other pieces of Teshuvah? That is a very interesting question, and that will require us to take a deeper look at the four elements of Teshuvah, and Vidui's place within them.
When we do this, I think we're going to discover that laws of Teshuvah are not technicalities that get in the way of our inner emotional experience; but they are beacons that help guide us in the productive path, to transform some of our most important relationships.
Let's come back and take a look.