By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
In this week’s Torah portion, we are told the following about “teshuva” - repentance: “It is not in heaven... and it is not across the sea... Rather, the matter is very close to you.” [Devarim 30:12-14]. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook wrote as follows: “Repentance is on one hand the easiest thing to do, since even a hint of a thought to repent is already accepted as repentance. And on the other hand it is one of the most difficult tasks of all.”
Ramchal writes the following about the difficulty of repentance: “By strict law it would be appropriate for a sinner to be punished immediately, and that the punishment should show stark anger. For how can a human being mend what he has done? He has committed murder or adultery, how can he go back and fix the real world? However, due to the trait of mercy... rooting out the original desire is considered as if the act itself has been revoked.” [Messilat Yesharim 4].
In another place Ramchal writes that every mitzva and sin can be viewed in two different ways: (1) That the person is revolting against G-d, a matter of simple discipline; or (2) Engraving the essence of the evil action into the human soul.
The Natziv calls these two alternative viewpoints “A royal decree” and “A physician’s advice.” A royal decree refers to nothing more than a matter of discipline. One who revolts against a king is punished. A physician, on the other hand, does not mete out punishment to anybody who refuses to accept his advice. Rather, the person himself acts in a way to make the illness more serious. For example, one who eats forbidden food has caused himself spiritual damage, beyond the fact that he revolted in his actions, almost as if he had eaten poison. The Sages have written: “From the time that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, ‘Behold, I have put before you today a blessing and a curse,’ [Devarim 11:26], He does not have to do anything else. Rather, the mitzvot accomplish their goal and the sins accomplish their goals.”
It is true that one part of repentance, removing the punishment, is a relatively easy thing to accomplish, but to eradicate the effect of a sin on the soul is very hard to do, since the damage has already been done! The Creator has been kind enough to us to cause repentance to be like a medical treatment, as is written, “And he will repent, and he will be cured” [Yeshayahu 6:10]. Repentance has the power to erase an effect which took place in the past.
In the terminology of the Tanach, these separate aspects of repentance are called “atonement” (kaparah) and “purification” (taharah). Atonement removes the punishment of the sinner, while purification erases the impurity of the soul which was caused by doing a sin.
And this can help us understand the difference between the mitzva of repentance all year round and the mitzva of repentance on Yom Kippur. Since we have been commanded all year long to repent, we might well ask what is special about Yom Kippur. The answer is that all year round, if a person who has a pile of evil deeds repents from one sin and does not touch the others, he is observing the mitzva of repentance. However, this is not true for Yom Kippur, when the command is, “You shall purify yourselves before G-d from all your sins” [Vayikra 16:30]. On this day the mitzva is purification, and this must include “all your sins.” One who immerses himself in a ritual bath but leaves a single hair out of the water does not become pure. The mitzva on Yom Kippur is for a sinner to repent all the sins. Purification must be all-inclusive.
Based on this reasoning, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote that even according to the opinion of Rebbe – that “the essence of the day brings atonement” without a need for repentance – such a sinner will not be accepted the day after Yom Kippur as a proper witness. Yom Kippur leads to “atonement” but not to “purification.”