The Rambam, in a famous passage in his Hilkhot Teshuva (2:2), gives the following definition of repentance: “The sinner abandons his sin, removes it from his thought, and resolves in his heart not to do it again… He also regrets the past…and the Knower of hidden secrets will testify about him that he will never again repeat this sin.”
The final component of this definition – that God “testifies” to the fact that the penitent sinner will never repeat his offense – has been the subject of a great deal of discussion by later writers. The Lechem Mishneh commentary raised the question of how to reconcile this remark with the doctrine of free will. If God “testifies” at the time of a sinner’s repentance that the sinner will never repeat the forbidden act, such that the person is guaranteed not to commit the violation again, then this might indicate that the individual has no free will to sin, contrary to one of the basic tenets of Jewish faith. (Seemingly, we might answer this question very simply by distinguishing between God’s knowledge of people’s decisions in the future, and their ability to choose, a subject addressed by the Rambam later in Hilkhot Teshuva.) Others have noted the question of what the Rambam’s comments say about the very common phenomenon of recidivism. If a genuine penitent later succumbs to temptation and repeats the offense for which he had repented, does this retroactively reveal that his repentance was worthless? From the Rambam’s comment, defining repentance as rejecting one’s sinful conduct to the point where God can attest that He will never repeat the act, we might indeed reach this conclusion. Such a conclusion, if correct, would certainly discourage many of us from undergoing the process of repentance, and take away our motivation to try, given that our failure at any time in the future to fulfill our commitment will render the entire process meaningless. (It should be noted that the Mabit, in his Beit Elokim – Sha’ar Ha-teshuva, 6, addresses this question at length and posits unequivocally that sincere repentance is valuable irrespective of the penitent’s future conduct.)
Some (see, for example, Rav Asher Anshel Schwartz, Ma’adanei Asher, Yom Kippur, 5778, p. 2) have suggested finding the answer to this question in the Rambam’s choice of words in referring to God in this context. The Rambam refers to God not as “Yodei’a atidot” – “Knower of future events,” but rather as “Yodei’a ta’alumot” – “Knower of hidden secrets.” The point being emphasized is not that God knows the future, but rather than he knows what is in our hearts and minds. Thus, the “testimony” described here by the Rambam has nothing to do with the future, with the penitent’s success in permanently changing his conduct. Rather, it has to do with the person’s sincerity, the extent to which the sinner truly intends to abandon the forbidden act forever. As long as the penitent is indeed sincere in repenting, such that God, to whom all silent thoughts are revealed, can attest to his or her sincere desire to never repeat the act, then the repentance is valuable and accepted, regardless of the person’s success or failure in meeting the ongoing spiritual challenges that lie ahead.