The Torah in Parashat Ki-Teitzei (23:19) introduces the prohibition of etnan zona, which forbids offering as a sacrifice an animal that was used as payment for prostitution, calling such an offering an “abomination to the Lord your God.” Intuitively, of course, the reason for this prohibition would seemingly lie in the inappropriate association between the sanctity of the Beit Ha-mikdash and the sinfulness of harlotry. The Ramban, however, offers a different explanation for this law. He writes that it was common for prostitutes to use a percentage of their earnings for sacred purposes, figuring they could thereby atone for their immoral lifestyle. Accepting these animals as sacrifices, the Ramban writes, would encourage harlots to continue practicing their ignoble profession under the delusion of achieving atonement through sacrifices. The Torah therefore forbade the use of these animals as sacrificial offerings.
Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Mesilot Chayim, notes that conceivably, the Ramban’s theory should warrant expanding this rule beyond the narrow context of prostitution. The conclusion we might reach in light of the Ramban’s comments is that charitable donations, such as contributions to synagogues and Torah institutions, should not be accepted from unrepentant sinners who think they can achieve atonement through their charity. Like the women described by the Ramban, these people make their contribution in place of repentance. Instead of resolving to change their conduct, they delude themselves into thinking they can offset their wrongdoing by donating to an important charitable cause. Conceivably, then, according to the Ramban’s understanding of the etnan zona prohibition, it would be inappropriate to accept donations from such people. (It should be clarified that this refers only to donations made with the specific intent of atoning for conduct which the donor has no intention at all of changing.)
Regardless of whether or not this actually the case, the Ramban’s comments serve as an important reminder – one which is especially relevant during the month of Elul – regarding the nature of repentance. There is no shortcut to the process of growth and change. Teshuva requires making real changes in one’s life, not ceremonial gestures that one hopes can magically negate guilt and culpability for wrongdoing. It is about identifying bad habits that need to be reversed, or behaviors that must be avoided in the future, and working to achieve these goals. God has no interest in our “sacrifices” if they are not accompanied by a sincere desire and attempt to change our behavior. Repentance requires a genuine quest for improvement, and cannot be substituted by simple gestures.