Regret and Redemption

  • Rav Ezra Bick



                     REGRET AND REDEMPTION

                        by Rav Ezra Bick

	One of the great principles of teshuva is that it is not 
a right but a privilege, an act of mercy which defies natural 
law.  Mesillat Yesharim puts it as follows:

	According to strict justice, there should be no 
	correction at all for a sin, for in truth, how can a 
	man straighten that which he has made crooked, when 
	the sin is already done?  If a man murdered his 
	neighbor ... how can this be corrected?  Can he wipe 
	out the act from existence? ...  Rather, repentance 
	is granted to sinners as an act of pure 
	lovingkindness, so that the cancellation of the will 
	be considered the cancellation of the act.

	In other words, history is history.  Even if regret 
itself is worthy of approval and reward, it should not have 
the power to erase the actual transgression.  In fact, human 
justice embodies this very principle.  Once a crime has been 
committed, the mere expression of regret and repentance does 
not suffice to protect the criminal from conviction (though it 
might be a mitigating factor when meting out punishment).  
Repentance, then, and its ability to wipe the slate clean and 
return a man to a state of innocence, belongs not to the realm 
of justice or law, but to that of mercy.  God, in His infinite 
grace, redeems undeserving man from the results of his own 
actions, relying on his change of heart ("the cancellation of 
will") to effect a change in history ("the cancellation of the 

	Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Maamarim, p.23) posed the 
following question to the Chofetz Chaim concerning this 
principle:  The Gemara in Kiddushin (40b) states that even one 
who was righteous all his life can lose all merit if he rebels 
at the end.  The Gemara asks:  Should he not be considered as 
having a mixed record; i.e., have his mitzvot count, with the 
sin of his old age added to the record.  "Resh Lakish said:  
This refers to one who doubts the earlier actions (i.e., he 
regrets the mitzvot he performed)."  We see here that regret 
obliterates the mitzvot performed as though they never 
occurred.  Since mercy and grace are not at work here, does 
this not indicate that it is justice which demands that regret 
cancel good deeds?  If so, it should surely cancel sins by the 
same token.

	Rav Elchanan records that the Chofetz Chaim answered that 
it depends on the nature of the teshuva.  The Gemara states 
that teshuva me'ahava (repentance out of love; i.e., heartfelt 
regret) results in the transgressions being transmuted into 
merits, whereas teshuva miyir'a (repentance out of fear) 
results in transgressions being transmuted into shegagot - 
unintentional lapses.  Justice indeed requires that one who 
genuinely regrets his actions not be held accountable for 
them; however, that the transgressions be considered as merits 
is an act of pure mercy.  Hence, one who does teshuvah 
me'ahavah is forgiven out of justice, and mercy is required 
for him only in order to reach the higher level where his sins 
are transmuted into merits.  On the other hand, one who simply 
fears imminent punishment but does not genuinely regret his 
misdeeds, has no claim to justice and the efficacy of his 
teshuvah is completely dependent on God's mercy.

	Rav Elchanan rejects the applicability of this answer to 
the statement of the Mesillat Yesharim, which indicates that 
even one who has completely and sincerely regretted his 
actions requires the attribute of mercy in order for his 
repentance to be effective.  Rav Elchanan therefore suggests 
another answer, based on a distinction of the author of the 
Mesillat Yesharim in another section.  All mitzvot and all 
transgressions have two aspects.  The first is that they 
represent obedience or rebellion vis-a-vis the word of God.  
This is expressed in the Talmudic statement that one who is 
commanded and performs a mitzva is greater than one who 
volunteers.  The second is the positive or negative influence 
that the action has on his soul.  Every commandment of God has 
a value and effect for the one who performs it.  Rav Elchanan 
suggests that logically, regret corrects the aspect of sin 
whereby one has rebelled against God.  Having repented, one's 
relationship with God can return to its earlier pre-rebellion 
state.  However, the actual consequences of the act are 
unaffected by one's psychological regret.  Here, the 
miraculous mercy of God shines forth, and He repairs the 
damage to the sinner, to his soul, and to the world, granting 
him atonement and purification as a response to his 

	The distinction on which Rav Elchanan bases his answer is 
central to the idea of repentance, and is in fact implied by 
the answer of the Chofetz Chaim.  Sin is not merely the cause 
of God's displeasure with the sinner.  It is a stain, a 
corruption, in the soul of the sinner.  Repentance is not 
merely mending one's fences with God, but, in the similes used 
by Tanakh and Chazal, it is cleansing, purification, 
catharsis, and healing for the sinner who is defiled, impure, 
corrupt, diseased.  It is precisely this aspect of sin which 
requires the transformation into merits mentioned in the 
answer of the Chofetz Chaim.  Shegagot - unintentional acts - 
are not deserving of punishment.  God forgives them.  But they 
nonetheless leave their mark.  Ramban, for instance, states 
that apparently undeserved suffering is intended to cleanse 
man of the impurities in his soul caused by unintentional 
transgressions.  This idea is also portrayed in a midrash 
about Avraham Avinu:

	Your people come forward willingly on the day of 
	your battle; in majestic holiness, from the womb, 
	from the dawn, yours was the dew of youth (Ps. 
	110:3)".... Yours was the the dew of youth - For 
	Avraham Avinu was anxious, saying:  Do I bear a sin, 
	since I was an idol worshipper all those years?  God 
	said to him:  Yours was the dew of youth - just as 
	the dew evaporates, so your sins evaporate. 
	(Bereishit Rabba 39:8)

	Avraham knew that since he had repented, he had no reason 
to fear being punished for his early sins.  The idolatry of 
Avraham's youth was, in any event, the result of his 
upbringing.  Halachically, he was the classic tinok 
shenishbah, literally brought up among the heathens, whose 
status is that of shogeg.  But Avraham was anxious about the 
residual stain upon his soul; he felt a heaviness which 
weighed him down.  Hence the promise, not of forgiveness in 
the usual sense, but evaporation, returning Avraham to the 
unsullied state of his youth.  This Avraham did not expect,for 
it is not a logical, natural process, but rather one of grace 
and mercy.

	Presenting this aspect of teshuva in the character of 
Avraham is important, for Avraham is Avinu, the archetype of a 
Jew.  Rejuvenation is hence the hallmark of our relationship 
with God.  The Midrash depicts rejuvenation as the central 
symbol of Avraham:  "Avraham's 'coin' was circulated in the 
world.  What was his coin?  An old man and woman on one side, 
a young man and woman on the other" (Bereishit Rabba 39:11).  
The aspiration to freshness and purity is much more than a 
desire to escape punishment or rejection.  This everlasting 
hope to return to the dew of one's youth even after years of 
weary toil and defeat is an integral part of the Jewish 
experience from its inception.

	Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitchak, Rosh Hashana, 74) advances a 
different answer to the question.  He explains that the Gemara 
in Kiddushin does not support the conclusion that regret can 
cancel sin in any sense, for the paths leading from evil to 
good and that leading from good to evil are not analogous.  
The Torah teaches us that the dichotomy of good and evil is 
equivalent to that of life and death.  The evolution of life 
into death is a natural, universal phenomenon.  However, the 
opposite is unknown, so much so that techiyat hameitim, the 
resurrection, is considered the greatest of all miracles.  
Life must be constantly supported with food, water, and air, 
whereas death is a self-sufficient state which requires no 
effort to maintain.  The same is true of good and evil.  Good, 
even after it has come into being, must be sustained, else it 
loses its vitality and progressively decays.  The food, the 
sustenance, of good, Rav Hutner teaches, is the faith of man 
in its value.  A man who regrets the good he has done, who no 
longer believes in it, destroys its foundation of existence in 
this world of natural law.  The opposite is not true, however.  
Like death, evil, once it comes into existence, will continue 
to exist by means of inertia, and there is no natural way to 
transform it.  Only God's infinite power and mercy can restore 
life where once it has been removed, and replace evil with 
good.  Hence, teshuva depends totally on God's grace.

	Rav Hutner's explanation highlights the extraordinarily 
precarious nature of good.  True, we believe that good comes 
from God and that ultimately evil has no basis in reality.  In 
this world, however, a world of natural law separate from God, 
good can only exist where man, the image of God, struggles to 
give it life by investing reality with his faith, his effort, 
and his commitment.  One of the attributes of God (for 
instance in the conclusion of Yishtabach), is "chai" - life, 
meaning that God is life itself and all life requires the 
presence of God to support it.  Sin is death because it drives 
a wedge between God and the sinner.  It is not difficult to 
cut off something from life; hence the tzaddik can negate a 
lifetime of virtue in an instant.  To recreate a connection to 
life, transcendance is required.  "Great is teshuva," state 
Chazal, "for it reaches up until the throne of glory."  It 
must reach up until the throne of God or else it will be 
ineffective in resurrecting the tired souls, the dying and the 
dead.  On the other hand, even inattention, apathy, or loss of 
faith is sufficient to undo the good that already exists.  It 
is a law of nature that any system left uncared for will 
become chaotic and any organism left unfed will tend toward 
death.  Even great accomplishments of the past will stagnate 
and decay if they are not continually supported by the faith 
and the efforts of man.  In God's world, all is life; in this 
world, life can only exist where man brings the name of God.
	May it be His will that we be inscribed for a year of 
life and redemption, for us and all Yisrael.


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