The Laws of Teshuva (Repentance)
The month of Elul is the Month of Mercy and Forgiveness when all, including men and women, are obligated to scrutinize their actions as much as possible during these days and to repent before Hashem. When we come before Hashem for judgment on Rosh Hashanah, He will be filled with mercy for us and will grant us a good and blessed new year. It is improper for any intelligent person to delay repenting, as the Sefer Mesillat Yesharim writes that only ignoramuses delay the repentance process. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes in the name of the holy Ari z”l that it is especially worthy to concentrate on the “Blessing of Repentance” in the Amida prayer (“Hashivenu”, the fifth blessing of the Amida) during these days and to pray for those who have strayed from Hashem’s path, especially if they are one’s relatives, for these days are especially auspicious for repentance as Hashem’s hands are wide open to accept all those who repent.
The Mitzvah of Confession
The Rambam writes (in the beginning of his Hilchot Teshuva) that if one transgresses any of the Torah’s commandments either knowingly or unknowingly, when one repents, one must confess one’s sin before Hashem, as the verse states, “If a man or woman shall perform any sin etc. they shall confess the sin which they have committed” which refers to actually confessing one’s sin verbally. This confession is actually a positive Torah commandment. How should one confess? One must say, “Please Hashem, I have sinned, transgressed, and have committed iniquities before you and I now regret and am ashamed of my actions and I shall never again do this (meaning that one must accept upon himself never to commit this sin again).” This is the primary aspect of the confession. The more one confesses and speaks lengthily in this manner, the more praiseworthy one is.
This was indeed the practice when the Bet Hamikdash stood when a sinner would bring a “Chatat” or “Asham” offering to atone for his sin, he would confess his sin upon the offering, for if one does not repent for one’s sin, one will not achieve atonement even if one brings one-thousand offerings to Hashem. Confession is an integral part of the Teshuva process and one who has not confessed his sin has not fulfilled the Mitzvah of Teshuva.
Nowadays when the Bet Hamikdash unfortunately lies in ruins and we have no Mizbe’ach (altar) to offer our sacrifices on, all we have left is Teshuva. Indeed, one who repents fully shall not be reminded at all of one’s sins on the Day of Reckoning.
Commitment for the Future
Another provision of the Mitzvah of Teshuva is that the repentant individual must accept upon himself never to return to his sin again, for instance, if one transgresses a negative Torah commandment, such as Shabbat desecration or if one ate foods requiring checking for worms without checking or if a woman was lax about the modesty of her clothing and the like, one must whole-heartedly accept upon one’s self never to repeat the sin. Similarly, if one has transgressed a positive Torah commandment, such as one who has not recited Kiddush on Shabbat or if one did not adequately honor one’s parents and the like, one must accept upon one’s to perform these Mitzvot properly from now on. However, if one says “I shall sin and I shall repent, I shall sin again and repent again,” he will never be afforded the opportunity to repent.
One must likewise feel remorse for the sins one has committed by realizing the wickedness of one’s actions and how much one has angered his Creator Who bestows so much good upon him. However, if one does not regret one’s deeds, even if one forsakes the sin completely and never performs it again and even if one has confessed one’s sin, one has not fulfilled the Mitzvah of Teshuva and one will remain unforgiven for his sin.
Based on the above, there are three primary aspects of Teshuva: Verbally confessing one’s sin, accepting upon one’s self never again to commit these sins, and truly feeling remorse for the sin in one’s heart. If one does all of these things, one has fulfilled the Mitzvah of Teshuva and is beloved by his Creator. About such a person did Rabbi Akiva exclaim: “Fortunate are you Israel! Before Whom are you becoming purified and Who is purifying you? Your Father in Heaven! As the verse states, ‘The Mikveh (hope) of Israel is Hashem’- just as a Mikveh purifies the impure, so does Hashem purify the Jewish nation.”