Understanding the Gift
For this mitzvah that I am prescribing to
you today is not too mysterious or remote from you.
It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, "Who will go
up to heaven for us, - Nor is it overseas, [for you]
to say... - For the matter is extremely close to
you; in your mouth and in your mind to fulfill it.
A poetic and moving description indeed! One
technical question that the careful reader may
wonder - what exactly is the subject of our text -
for "this mitzvah" remains quite ambiguous.
Many (Ramban, Seforno, ibid) assume that our parsha
refers to the teshuva (repentance, return)
imperative. For these commentators, teshuva
is not merely a good idea; it's the law. More
precisely formulated, teshuva, for the
sinner, becomes an obligation akin to other positive
mitzvos. Failure to engage in teshuva might
be equivalent to nullifying a positive mitzvah, just
as one who neglects to lay tefillin for a day.
Teshuva, however, is far more than a mitzvah;
Whereas a mitzvah operates in the contours of the
present, teshuva, famously and mysteriously,
transcends time barriers to transform our past. It
would almost seem that the greatness of Teshuva
flows davka from its irrationality. Witness
the following Talmudic comment.
Rabbi Pinchas said: ".They inquired of Wisdom,
"What is the punishment of a sinner?" Wisdom said:
"Evil pursues the wicked"(Mishlei, 13:21). They
inquired of Prophecy, "What is the punishment of the
sinner?" Prophecy said "The sinful soul shall
die"(Yechezkel,18:20). They inquired of the Holy
One: "What is the punishment of the sinner?" He said
to them "Let him repent and he shall be forgiven".
At its very core, the midrash is teaching
that teshuva defies intellectual reasoning,
and transcends prophetic wisdom - for how can one
possibly undo what was? Quite simply, teshuva
is a Divine gift.
Similarly, a compelling Talmudic account
records that the wicked King Menashe,
after being taken captive to Babylon, turned to his
righteous father's (Chizkiyahu) God to engage in a
last-resort, pragmatic teshuva. Hashem, above
the angels' protestations, accepts his teshuva -
for, not to accept Menashe's petitions would
cast doubt in the minds of all aspiring returnees.
Here too, teshuva defies angelic
comprehension - residing solely in the domain of the
A cryptic piece of Talmud (Pesachim 54a) now becomes
things were created before the world was created
... : The Torah, Repentance, the Garden of Eden,
Gehennom, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the
name of the Messiah. Repentance, for it is written,
Before the mountains were brought forth,
If Teshuva "preceded" the natural world, it
does not and need not conform to natural law.
Indeed, Mesilas Yesharim explicitly formulates
that teshuva's novelty is its ability, via
thought, to wipe away a past action.
And yet ... A striking piece of Talmud seems to
overturn this notion:
R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Even if he is perfectly
righteous all his life but rebels at the end, he
destroys his former [good deeds], for it is said:
The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver
him in the day of his transgression. ... Said Resh
Lakish: It means that he regretted his former deeds.
Just as one who engages in proper teshuva may
remove his past sins, so too one who has charata
(regret)may wipe away previous mitzvos. If
teshuva were a gift, would it also redound to
our detriment? Apparently, rather than being a
special gift, teshuva merely conforms to the
Divine playbook; a manifestation of some
metaphysical notion that subsequent thought can
erase prior deed - in either direction!?
This very question was posed by Rav Elchonon
Wasserman to his Rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim - who
responded by reformulating the gift of Teshuva in
light of a classic teshuva dichotomy.
Resh Lakish said: Great is repentance, for
because of it, premeditated sins are accounted as
errors (unintentional sins), but didn't Reish Lakish
also say that repentance is so great that
premeditated sins are transformed into merits, That
is no contradiction: One refers to a case [of
repentance] derived from love, the other to one due
to fear.(Yoma 86b)
Teshuva from fear (teshuva m'yir'ah)
mitigates the sin and limits its damage - just
as regret of mitzvos can undo their reward. God's
gift to His people is to be found in the stunning
notion of Teshuva from love (teshuva
mei'ahava). Rather than blotting out the past,
teshuva elevates and redeems it! In
explaining the spiritual metaphysics of teshuva
mei'ahava, Rav Dessler formulated that the depth
of the sin created within the sinner a sense of
alienation from a God that provides all; That crisis
- sparked by sin, ultimately propelled him to come
closer to Hashem than ever before. Ironically then,
sin becomes a rung in the sinner's ladder of
Rav Elchonon Wasserman offered a second approach:
Sin and Mitzvah have multiple residual effects. Of
course, sin begets punishment and Mitzvah yields
reward. But there is more. Sin is metamei; it
besmirches the soul and leaves it distant from God.
Conversely, Mitzvah refines the soul and draws it
nearer to the Divine.
While regret of a mitzvah might serve to revoke the
reward; the neshama remains in close
proximity to its Creator, and, as such, is - able to
bask in the enduring light of having performed the
mitzvah. . It is simply not possible to wipe away
the "soul effect" of a mitzvah.
Here, says R. Elchonon, lies the secret of the
Teshuva gift. Not only does it mitigate punishment,
it dissolves the soul stain, bridging the gap
between man and God, and creating incredible
In this vein, Rambam's comments
are indeed striking:.
How great is Teshuva that it brings man close to
the Shechina... Yesterday he was hateful in the
sight of Hashem - despised, forsaken and repulsive-
and today he is beloved desirable, near and
Where lies the gift of teshuva? Is it to be
found (a) in its ability to nullify our past; (b)
elevate our past; or (c) dissolve our past stains?
The correct answer is probably, all of the above.
The undeniable notion of teshuva: Hashem
desires a relationship with us, and as long as
we live, it is never too late. For many, that
message of eternal hope which springs from the
fountain of teshuva, might just be its
greatest gift of all.
beautiful last Shabbos of the Year to all
 Cf. Rashi who understands the
section to be referring to accepting all the
mitzvot of Torah; Rambam [Talmud Torah, ;
Netziv (in one approach) understands the
section to be referring to teshuva
 In reality, this is a matter
of debate. From Rambam (Teshuva 1:1),
it appears that it is the confession, not
the act of return that constitutes the
formal mitzvah of Teshuva (see
Minchas Chinuch 364). Thus not returning
would not violation a positive mitzvah.
Yerushalmi Makkot,2: 6
 Yerushalmi Makkot, 10:2
 Amongst his many heinous
crimes was placing an idol in the Beis
Hamikdash. Cf. Melachim 2:21,10-15. Also,
Cf. Divrei Hayim 33:1-20 and a fascinating
Talmudic dispute (Sanhedrin, 101b) between
R. Yochanan and the Sages regarding whether
Menashe ultimately has a share in the World
 Teshuva is also listed
separately from Torah, implying that some
aspect of Teshuva also transcends the
 Of course, this approach to Teshuva
is risky and one should not attempt this
trick in their own home. je
 A similar point is made by
Rav Soloveitchik in Al HaTeshuva, in
his article entitled Kaparah & Taharah