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?
Answering the question, 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.
The Torah makes various prescriptions regarding a penitent: We find, for instance, a requirement to regret the sin, to confess the sin before G-d, to appease anyone unjustly harmed, and to make monetary restitution where warranted. It’s somewhat puzzling, therefore, that 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, the reason being that we cannot be certain as to whether or not he had thoughts of repentance at the time of the marriage.”
Looking closely at 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 alone be transformed into a “completely righteous” person.
When we examine the Tanya’s wording, however, it becomes clear that its approach is at least as stringent as it is lenient: true enough, repentance consists exclusively in a mere commitment, and, yes, it is also true that even someone wicked will be transformed thereby into a completely righteous person, but the Tanya requires that this “mere” commitment pertain not only to the particular sin he has commited but also to sinning in general. He must commit “never again to transgress any royal commandment….”
Why need one commit never to sin again in order to repent for any sin at all? And why, indeed, does a mere commitment suffice to render him completely righteous when he has yet to rectify the evil that he has wrought through sinning; after all, he may have yet to confess before G-d, to appease he whom he has unjustly harmed or to 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. They differ greatly in the harm they do the world; and they also differ in the impact they have on the sinner. Some sins effect other people; while others effect only one’s self. The Torah punishments, themselves, attest to the differing relative gravities of individual sins: there are capital crimes, crimes that require flogging and crimes that command no punishment at all.
On the other hand, however, 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:
1. He must of course fix what he broke; and this may indeed require regret, confession and restitution. 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. Truly, until he has so done he has not cleaned up his mess.
2. But more important than all, perhaps, the ‘sinner’ must accept upon himself G-d’s sovereignty; only through this can he be considered righteous. And to this end, 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 his own sovereign, that he alone will decide what commandment he wishes to obey or to disobey. In the end this person stands in open revolt against the sovereignty of G-d.
Therefore, when a Jew makes the complete commitment, thereby tendering himself as loyal subject to the King of all kings, he is indeed “completely righteous.” That he still may have a whole lot of cleaning up to do, notwithstanding.
(Adapted from the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson.)