by R. Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg
The Rambam includes an unusual phrase in his description of teshuvah which, when analyzed, completely refocuses and redefines the repentance process. The Rambam writes (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4):
Although blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a decree of Scripture,A commandment of the Torah for which there is no obvious rationale. there is a subtle message in it, as if to say, “Wake up, you sleepers, from your sleep. And you slumberers — stir from your slumber. Examine your actions and return in penitence, and remember your Creator.”
According to this, the shofar should arouse a person to take three steps: 1) “examine your actions,” 2) “return in penitence,” and 3) “remember your Creator.” Step one must obviously precede step two. A person must first review his conduct over the course of the year to identify the things he did wrong. Only after recognizing his sins can a person go on to “return in penitence.” But what about the next step, “remember your Creator”? What is left to do in terms of remembering the Creator after having done teshuvah? And why not remember the Creator before doing anything else? Is it not the impetus that spurs a person to teshuvah rather than its result?
To answer these questions, let us see how the Rambam deals with the idea of remembering the Creator elsewhere. The Rambam mentions remembering the Creator earlier in Hilchos Teshuvah (2:1):
What is complete teshuvah? This is when the situation in which a person has sinned arises, and he has the possibility of doing it, yet he refrains and does not do it because of teshuvah – not because of fear or lack of ability… This is what Shlomo refers to when he says, “And remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of evil will have come, and the years in which you will say, ‘I have no desire in them’ (Koheles 12:1)”… Even if [a person] transgressed all his life but did teshuvah on the day of his death, all of his transgressions are forgiven… If he remembered his Creator and repented before he died, he is forgiven.
In this halachah the Rambam refers twice to remembering the Creator. He first uses it in the quotation from Koheles which he adduces to show that the complete teshuvah can be done only when someone is still young and has the ability to repeat his sin. The verse in Koheles makes no explicit mention of teshuvah. The Rambam views the verse’s words “remember your Creator” as virtually synonymous with complete teshuvah itself. He mentions remembering the Creator again at the end of the halachah – “If he remembered his Creator and repented before he died, he is forgiven.” But here, unlike the halachah we quoted earlier [3:4], the Rambam has remembering the Creator preceding repentance. How can we explain this discrepancy?
The Rambam mentions “remembering the Creator” in Mishneh Torah in only one other context (Hilchos Berachos 1:3-4).
Just as we make blessings over receiving enjoyment, so we make blessings over each and every mitzvah, and then we perform them. The Sages instituted many blessings by way of praise and exaltation and by way of making a request in order to remember the Creator constantly even when not receiving enjoyment or performing a mitzvah. It thus turns out that all blessings are of three types: blessings over receiving enjoyment, blessings over mitzvos, and blessings of thanks in a manner of praise and exaltation in order to remember the Creator constantly and fear Him.
These halachos show clearly that by “remembering the Creator,” the Rambam means being conscious of His presence at all times. The Sages instituted blessings in which we address God in the second person in many situations we encounter throughout each day so as to constantly remind ourselves that at every moment we are involved in a dynamic relationship with Hashem.
The Rambam stated that the shofar reminds us to “examine your actions and return in penitence, and remember your Creator.” By placing “remember your Creator” after “return in penitence,” the Rambam puts teshuvah in its proper perspective. The practical side of teshuvah focuses on sin. But the expiation of sin is not its ultimate objective. Sin originates from a flaw in man’s relationship with God. Had the individual been conscious of His presence, he would not have committed the sin. Sin can occur only if the individual ignores God. By doing teshuvah, man undoes his sin. But beyond that, he is capable of undoing his obliviousness to God. By focusing on the gravity of his transgression, man can renew and intensify his awareness of the One Who commanded that he not transgress. “Return in penitence and remember your Creator.”
This is why the Rambam writes in his prefatory comment to Hilchos Teshuvah that it contains “one positive commandment, and that is, that the sinner should repent of his sin before Hashem and confess.” It is imperative that teshuvah be done as part of a give and take with God, for its goal is the awareness that life is a constant give and take with God.
Rav Shneur KotlerCited in Kunteres Hagus Teshuvah by Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler p. 12. uses this idea to explain the centrality of confession in the Rambam’s view of teshuvah. For it is not the rectification of the sin that is the consummation of teshuvah, but rather the ability to address God once again and cling to Him after the sin has been rectified. Rav Aryeh Malkiel KotlerIbid., p. 17. uses this idea to explain the Sifrei Zuta cited by the Rambam in Sefer HaMitzvos (Mitzvos Asei, 73) that considers (and ultimately rejects) the possibility that the commandment to confess sins can be fulfilled only in the Beis HaMikdash or in the Land of Israel, for it is there that the presence of God is felt most intensely.
All the above is true under normal circumstances. Teshuvah is a stepping stone to higher spiritual perception. But there is one situation in which the order is reversed. The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah 2:1 quoted above speaks of teshuvah on the last day of a person’s life. Faced with imminent death, a person needs no further reminder that he stands in the presence of his Maker. In this particular situation, the individual is instructed to take advantage of his enhanced state of cognizance and use it to rectify the specific mistakes of his past. At such a time, remembering the Creator leads to teshuvah rather than the other way around.