There’s a thought that makes me worry when I think about the mitzvah of repentance. The Rambam (Maimonides) says that true repentance is when “The One who knows what is hidden will testify on his behalf that he repeat this sin anymore.” Without this he is “immersing in a mikvah while still holding onto the impurity” Who can really reach that level? That G-d testifies on his behalf that he won’t do that sin anymore? Doesn’t that make you want to give up? So what do I do?
The approach many sages take is not that true repentance is when a person won’t sin anymore forever. Rather at that moment in time deep in regret and repentance it is clear that he has no plans to repeat that sin anymore. His regret and pain over what he did is so great that for that time there’s no chance he will sin.
Another approach taken is that the Rambam discusses the loftiest level of repentance in which G-d testifies he won’t do that sin anymore. But even someone who doesn’t reach that level has still repented. The Talmud says that a man who betroths (marries) a woman on the condition that he is totally righteous, though he was wicked we still consider his betrothal valid for perhaps he had thoughts of repentance. This tells us that even thoughts of repentance move a person many steps forward.
These approaches can help us calm down and give us a wide spectrum of opportunity to repent. It will make us feel repentance is “not in the heavens, nor is it on the other side of the ocean.” That being said, the basic meaning of the Rambam’s words is still true. It is within the power of a person to really reach the level that he leaves the sin never to come back to it with G-d’s testifying to that, precisely because the sin is so scary.
Take a look at addicts that left their addiction behind totally. True the saying goes, ‘once an addict always an addict and they know they can easily fall back into the abyss if they’re not careful. But the feeling that they can fall again is what keeps them away from going near the temptation altogether. With that understanding they built themselves new lives.
The same is true with repentance. We are addicted to sinning! If we weren’t we’d have stopped already, right? But the biggest sins are the easiest to repent for because the person is so scared to fall back into that pit. But we should still beware of the small sins too for they can slip under our radar.
Leaving sin is difficult; we are addicted. But the 1st step toward repentance is to recognize the power of sin to sweep us into it and to realize how hard it is for us to leave the sin to the point G-d testifies we left it. Isn’t that sentence about G-d testifying scary? When we recognize the power of sin and don’t take that power lightly we get the strength to distance ourselves from it. It is similar to leaving addiction. The hardest part is to recognize what the substance does and that you are powerless when facing it. Only then does his battle start and not a minute beforehand.
Now we need to build a new life for ourselves, literally. The Rambam has a program to follow that will help us get there. A person that truly repented has adapted the following behaviors for himself:
1. “He cries before G-d” meaning that he prays with a lot of concentration with the idea of remembering G-d and feeling his presence more.
2. “He distances himself from what brought him to sin.” Just like an addict knows he can easily fall. Our sages use the expression: “He who was scalded by boiling water stays away from lukewarm water too.” A person who was just scalded has sensitive skin that will hurt even if the water hitting him now is only lukewarm. Therefore he stays away from it. So too, one who repents will stay away from the sin and anything associated with it.
3. “He changes his name” meaning he sees himself a different person from the one he was when he sinned. “I am not that sinner anymore” he constantly repeats to himself. I’ve acquired a new identity. This is a psychological effect which empowers a person against the sin. (There are therapies that work with the principle of giving the person a new identity.)
4. “He changes all his actions for the better” which again reinforces the “new person” he became.
With these new approaches to repentance and the tools the Rambam gave us with which to repent may we all be successful in becoming the people we want to be and come close to G-d this Yom Kippur to change our entire year and lives for the better!
Gmar Chatima Tova, May You be Inscribed for Good