The Mabit (Rav Moshe of Trani), in his Beit Elokim (Sha’ar Ha-teshuva, chapter 6), raises the important question as to the status of a sinner’s genuine repentance if he later repeats the offense. Very often, we sincerely regret and confess our wrongdoing, and commit ourselves to never repeat the sinful act, but at some later point we find ourselves breaking our commitment and violating the transgression again. Does this retroactively render the repentance meaningless, demonstrating that the commitment was not sincere? Or, was the repentance sufficient to achieve atonement for the misdeed, and the repetition of the act is viewed as a new, separate offense?
The Mabit writes unequivocally that one who sincerely repents and makes a wholehearted commitment to avoid the transgression in the future achieves full atonement even if he later repeats the violation. He draws proof from a famous passage in the Gemara (Ta’anit 16a) which compares repentance to immersion in a mikveh. The Gemara comments that if a person confesses without repenting – meaning, he confesses to having acted wrongly, but does not resolve to avoid the misdeed in the future – then he is like a person immersing in a mikveh while holding a carcass that transmits tum’a. No matter how many times this person immerses, he will not divest himself of his impure status until he throws away the carcass. Likewise, if a person does not resolve to change his conduct, his confession is meaningless, and he does not earn atonement. But once a person genuinely repents, the Gemara writes, he is considered as having thrown away the carcass and then immersed, such that his immersion is effective. The Mabit notes that if we extend the Gemara’s analogy further, we can compare one who repeats his offense after sincere repentance to one who comes in contact with a carcass a second time after having attained purity through immersion. Clearly, in such a case, the person is deemed impure not retroactively from the time of his initial handling of a carcass, but only from the moment he touched a carcass the second time. By the same token, the Mabit writes, one who genuinely repented and then repeats the offense is considered as having sinned anew, and his repentance for the initial transgression is still deemed effective in achieving atonement.
One may, at least at first glance, question the Mabit’s attempt to prove his stance from the Gemara’s analogy. The argument for retroactively disqualifying a sinner’s repentance after he repeats the offense is rooted in the fact that the second offense perhaps reflects a fundamental deficiency in the initial repentance. Once the offender repeated the sin after allegedly repenting, we must conclude that his repentance was not wholehearted and sincere, and thus is retroactively deemed meaningless. This person immersed – he confessed – but did not actually throw away the carcass. How, then, could the Mabit draw a comparison between a repeated offense after repentance and contact with impurity after immersion? How does the Gemara’s comment prove that the repeated offense does not undermine the value of the initial repentance?
The answer is found in Rashi’s comments to the Gemara’s discussion, which the Mabit in fact cites in this context. Explaining the Gemara’s reference to the case of a sinner who confesses but does not repent, Rashi gives the example of a thief who confesses but does not return the stolen goods. The process of repentance includes repairing the damage done by the sin, whenever this is possible. Confessing a sin without taking measures to reverse the damage is akin to immersing while still holding onto the carcass, and is this ineffective and valueless. However, the Mabit notes, in other instances, where there is not any tangible damage caused by one’s sin which he could repair, all that could be expected is the genuine desire not to repeat the offense. Rashi gave the specific example of a thief because when it comes to sins which have no tangible damage to repair, sincere regret and resolve qualify as “throwing away the carcass,” such that the “immersion” – the repentance – is valid. The fact that Rashi resorted to this particular example – of a thief who confesses but keeps the stolen goods – demonstrates that otherwise, when there is no practical rectification to be made, sincere remorse qualifies as ridding oneself of his “impurity,” and the “immersion” is thus valid even if the “impurity” resurfaces subsequently through the repetition of the forbidden act.
Tomorrow we will iy”H discuss the Mabit’s position further.