Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5780


How easy is teshuva?[1]

כי המצוה הזאת אשר אנכי מצוך היום לא-נפלאת הוא ממך ולא רחקה הוא וגו’ כי-קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשתו
This mitzvah which I command you today is not beyond you, nor is it far away…Rather the matter is close to you in your mouth and in your heart to perform[2]

Which mitzvah is our verse telling us is close to our mouth and close to our heart to perform? The Ramban explains[3] that it is referring to what was mentioned a few verses[4] earlier. ושבת עד-יקוק אלקיך, you shall[5] return to Hashem, your G-d. The Torah is telling us that the mitzvah of teshuva, sincere repentance for our sins, is very easy. It’s close to our mouths and to our hearts. Meaning, there are four requirements for complete teshuva: cessation of the sin, committing never to do it again, regretting the sin, and vidui, confessing one’s sin[6]. The Torah is alluding to two of these requirements[7]. Teshuva is close to our mouths, to perform vidui, and our hearts, to accept in our hearts never to do this sin again. Why is the Torah alluding to only these two, and not the other two?

We must say that regretting the sin is included in vidui[8]. A person wouldn’t confess their sin unless they regretted transgressing it. This is alluded to when the Torah says teshuva is close to our mouths. Further, we must say that ceasing the sin is included in accepting in our hearts never to do it again. This is alluded to when the Torah says that teshuva is close to our hearts. However, we could still ask: why did the Torah allude to the four aspects of teshuva this way, by selecting two, which include the other two?

Now, the Torah is telling us that teshuva is very easy to accomplish. But is that really so? I wouldn’t have thought so. We all know how difficult it is for someone to abandon a bad habit that they have (to say the least). How can a person easily overcome their desires? How can they break free from the inertia of sin? It’s so hard to go against one’s nature, even if they know its wrong.

Perhaps then the Torah isn’t alluding to all four aspects of teshuva. Maybe the two that it mentions are truly the ones that are easy, but the ones it doesn’t are in fact very difficult. It’s very hard to stop sinning. It’s very hard to honestly feel regret for one’s actions. If a person is stuck in a bad habit, they’ll have a terribly difficult time breaking free from it. However, once the lion’s share of the work is done, they’ll have an easy time. Once a person truly regrets their actions, and stops sinning, it should be very easy to take the next step. It’s no big deal to verbally confess that they did wrong. If their regret is genuine, it should be simple to commit to never do it again. To this the Torah says that teshuva is close to one’s mouth and close to one’s heart.

However, if we contemplate a bit further, we’ll realize that all the requirements of teshuva are in fact very easy to fulfill. Why is that? Let’s imagine for a moment that there was no concept of teshuva. Hashem wouldn’t forgive people who transgress the Torah, and there would be no way of rectifying past mistakes. Even still, it would be necessary for a person to consider regretting their sins, and ceasing to transgress them. Every sin comes with its requisite punishment. Even if there’s no way to atone for prior sins, does that mean they should continue to accumulate them? Does it make sense that they should continue their lifestyle without considering the consequences? The only logical choice is to change one’s ways. Why make the situation worse than it already is? All the more so once we know that there is a concept of teshuva, where past mistakes can be rectified.

While it’s true that conquering one’s inclinations can be very difficult, but that has nothing to do with teshuva. Even if teshuva didn’t exist, it would be the best idea to consider improving one’s ways! The fact that it’s part of teshuva doesn’t make it any more difficult. Once a person realizes the severity of their situation, and commits to improve, then teshuva will be very easy. Regretting their actions and abandoning their sins will come naturally. However, the mitzvah of teshuva adds two more requirements, which a person may not have thought of on their own. They must commit to never transgress the sin again. One could have thought that every moment they just need to be careful from transgressing, but not necessarily committing to anything. Further, they must verbally articulate what they did wrong.

Coming back to the verse we started with, we can understand now why it specifically alludes to committing never to sin and vidui, and not the other two requirements for teshuva. Regretting one’s sin and ceasing to transgress it are logically required even without the concept of teshuva. The verse doesn’t mention them, as it’s focusing on what is unique to teshuva. While regretting one’s sin and ceasing to transgress it, after careful consideration and contemplation, are very easy, perhaps the additional teshuva requirements are in fact quite hard. The verse tells us not to worry. It’s something that’s not far from us. It’s very close to our mouths and our hearts to perform. Vidui and committing not to sin again, once the first hurdle is accomplished, come quite naturally. There’s nothing holding us back then from complete teshuva. It just depends on our resolve to improve.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Ohr Yisroel Kochavei Ohr § 6, by Rav Yitzchok (Peterburger) Blazer

[2] Deuteronomy 30:11,14

[3] To v. 11. Cf. Rashi to v. 12,14, who understands that it’s referring to the Torah. This is also how Bava Metzia 59b understands it

[4] V. 2

[5] The Ramban understands this verse to be a command. Cf. Rambam in Mishneh Torah Hilchos Teshuva 7:5 who understands this to be a prophetic promise that the Jews in the future will repent for their sins. Some understand that the Rambam doesn’t hold there’s a mitzvah of teshuvah (Minchas Chinuch 364:2, HaEmek Davar to v. 11, Meshech Chochmah to Deuteronomy 31:17), as he writes ad. loc. 1:1: כשיעשה תשובה וישוב מחטאו חייב להתודות. It sounds like there’s a mitzvah of vidui, confessing one’s sins, but not teshuva itself. This also seems apparent from his Sefer HaMitzvos Aseh § 73.  He also cites Leviticus 5:5 as a source for the mitzvah, which discusses vidui when bringing one’s offerings. Nevertheless, many hold that there is indeed a mitzvah of teshuva, such as this Ramban, Sha’arei Teshuva 1:1 and 4:17, Semak § 53. However, some say that the Rambam agrees that there is a mitzvah of teshuva, as we see from his words at the beginning of Hilchos Teshuva: מצות עשה אחת והוא שישוב החוטא מחטאו לפני ה’ ויתודה. This could also explain why the Ramban doesn’t include a mitzvah of teshuva in his list of the 613 mitzvos. Perhaps he understood the Rambam included this in his mitzvah of vidui. See L’Dofkei BaTeshuva to Hilchos Teshuva 1:1:10 for various approaches on how to resolve the phraseology and opinion of the Rambam

[6] Mishneh Torah Hilchos Teshuva 2:2

[7] Reishis Chochmah Sha’ar HaTeshuva Chapter 1. See also Ramban loc. cit.

[8] See L’Dofkei BaTeshuva loc. cit. § 27 and Sha’ar HaTziyun ad. loc. § 191 that this could be alluded to in the Rambam’s text of vidui