In this week’s sidra, Nitzavim, the Torah continues its discussion of man’s free will – a theme that also runs through the Torah portions of Re’eh and Ki Tavo. (See my commentary on Re’eh, posted on 10 August 2009.) But in Nitzavim, the Torah adds a new idea: repentance. Man has free will, but man is fallible. What, then, happens when man chooses incorrectly, as Adam and Eve did? In the portion of Nitzavim, the Torah tells us how we can correct our errors: “You shall return and listen to the voice of the Lord, and do all the mitzvot that I command you today” (Deut 30:8). Then God will receive us again with joy (Deut 30:9).
Actually, the concept of repentance is not new at all: God created repentance before He created the world, for without the ability to correct errors, we would quickly succumb to our fallibility. Also, the possibility of repentance is implied in the fact that God forgave the Israelites for the various transgressions committed during the years in the desert. Nevertheless, it is not till the portion of Nitzavim that the Torah explicitly enunciates the concept of teshuva (repentance) and states it as a mitzvah.
The mitzvah of teshuva, however, differs fundamentally from most other mitzvot in that intention of the heart is critical to its performance. Certainly, intention of the heart is desirable for all mitzvot, and it is necessary for optimal observance of mitzvot; but for most mitzvot, intention of the heart is not a requirement for minimum fulfillment. For example, if a person says Kiddush without thinking about what he is saying, he has still fulfilled the mitzvah, although not in optimal form. Similarly, taking an example from the negative commandments, if a person has an almost-overwhelming desire to murder somebody but overcomes his desire and refrains from murder because of fear of punishment and not at all because the Torah forbade murder, he has nevertheless observed the commandment against murder.
But teshuva is different: like the Sh’ma, repentance also requires intention of the heart, and without such intention, the mitzvah is not fulfilled even minimally. It is not enough merely to refrain from committing the same sin in the future: “. . . for you shall return to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut 30:10).
The Torah tells us (Ibid., 11) that this mitzvah of teshuva is not concealed or distant from us. It is not something for which we have to search in the vastness of heaven, or in our own world but external to ourselves. (See Ibid., 12-13.) Rather, the faculty of repentance is embedded in our very nature. “For this matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it” (Ibid., 14).
In what way is the faculty of repentance embedded in our nature? The answer lies in the source of the Neshama – the God-given part of the human soul. (For further discussion of the soul, see the posting of 1 September 2009 on my other blog – http://traditionalkabbalah.blogspot.com.) The Neshama is described as chelek Elokah mima’al – part of the divine upper world; and even when it resides within a human body, it maintains its connection to the upper world. The upper world consists of ten strata, and the source of the Neshama in the upper world is the level known as Bina (Understanding). Bina is the level of the spiritual world that God used to create the physical universe. It is the source of time, the source of the days of creation, the source of the Neshama, and the source of the faculty of repentance. Therefore, repentance, deriving from the same source in the world of spirit, is part and parcel of human nature and is embedded within the human soul. Thus it should now be clear (if it was not already self-evident) why intention of the heart is prerequisite to the fulfillment of the commandment of teshuva, for it is only through application of our faculty of Bina (Understanding) that we are able to achieve repentance.
© Copyright 2009 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.