Now is a special time; “The ten days of repentance”, a span of the Jewish calender beginning with Rosh Hashannah and concluding with Yom Kippur, is the period of time the Torah says is singularly auspicious for repenting.
But what is repentance?
In answer to this the question, the author of the Tanya writes:
The commandment to repent requires only that one abandon sin…..namely, that he commit wholeheartedly to never again rebel against the King, committing never again to transgress any royal commandment (G-d forbid), whether it be a commandment to do something or a commandment to refrain from doing something.
Although we find in Torah various prescriptions addressed to the penitent; for instance, there is a requirement to regret sinning, to confess the sin before G-d, to appease anyone unjustly harmed, and to make monetary restitution where warranted; nevertheless, the Tanya makes the bold assertion that all said prescriptions are essentially peripheral to repentance itself and that one can achieve penitence simply by committing to sin no more.
One of the Talmudic proofs for this approach is the well known law that “if anyone (even someone wicked) marries a woman on the expressed condition that he is completely righteous, we treat the woman in many ways as married, as we cannot be certain whether or not he had thoughts of repentance at the time of the marriage.”
When we examine the law previously mentioned, we see that, according to the Talmud, even a Jew who is known to be wicked can by the force of a momentary penitent thought be transformed into a “completely righteous” person.
Upon close scrutiny, however, it becomes clear that the approach is at least as stringent as it is lenient; true, repentance consists exclusively in a mere commitment, and, true, even one who is wicked will be transformed thereby into a completely righteous person, but this commitment must pertain not only to the particular sin he has transgressed but also to all sinning in general. He must commit “never again to transgress any royal commandment….”
Why need one commit never to sin in order to repent for any sin? And why does a mere commitment suffice to render him completely righteous when he has yet to rectify the evil that he has wrought through sinning; he may well have yet to confess before G-d, appease he whom he has unjustly harmed or repay what he has stolen?
The issue will become more clear after a few prefatory remarks regarding the somewhat dual nature of sin.
On the one hand, not all sins are alike. Sins differ greatly in the harm they do the world. They differ in the impact they have on the sinner. Some sins effect other people; while others effect only one’s self. We get a glimpse at the relative gravities of sins by taking into account the punishments alloted in the Torah; there are capital crimes, crimes that require flogging and crimes that command no punishment at all.
On the other hand, though, all sins, whether they be grave or trivial, have one thing in common: they are all acts of defying the royal command of G-d. They are all, without exception, acts of rebellion against the King of all kings.
Accordingly, when one wishes to make amends for his past conduct he must set about about doing two related but different things. He must of course fix what he broke. This may entail regretting and confessing. And it may even require that he be punished(the Torah sees punishment not only as a deterrent but also, and mainly, as a rectification of damage done to the soul.) And until he has so done he has indeed not cleaned up his mess. But most importantly, he must accept upon himself G-d’s sovereignty. A commitment to avoid this or that particular sin will not suffice. Because as long as he will not commit “never again to transgress any royal commandment (G-d forbid), whether it be a commandment to do something or a commandment to refrain from doing something,” he is basically saying that he is independent, that he will decide what commandment he wishes to obey or to disobey. This person is in open revolt against the sovereignty of G-d. But on the other hand, when he makes this commitment, thereby tendering himself as loyal subject to the King of all kings, he is indeed “completely righteous.” Though he still may have a whole lot of cleaning up to do.
(Adapted from the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson.)