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The Depths of Teshuva

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

The 613 mitzvoth of the Torah are comprised of 248 positive mitzvoth and 365 negative ones. The punishment set out in the Torah for violation of a negative mitzvah is lashes administered by the bet –din.

There are, however, exceptions to the above rule. For example, one does not receive lashes for a "lav sh'ein bo ma'aseh"; a violation of a negative mitzvah which does not involve a physical action is exempt from lashes. Therefore, one who makes a vow to do a certain action, but neglects doing it, would be exempt from lashes as the violation occurred by the person being passive and not doing what they vowed. Similarly, violating the prohibition of "You should not hate your brother in your heart"[1] would also not incur lashes for the same reason.

Another exception to the rule of lashes is a "lav hanitak la'aseh", a negative commandment followed by a positive commandment.

This is best explained by example. The Torah states regarding Korban Pesach, "And you shall not leave over any of it until morning and whatever is left over of it until morning, you shall burn in fire."[2] There is a prohibition to leave over any of the korban Pesach, however if one did leave over of the korban, the Torah instructs to burn it in the morning.  For negative commandments of this nature, there are no lashes.

Another example is the prohibition of stealing which is followed by the positive mitzvah to return the stolen object.

The rationale behind this exception is explained by Rashi: "the Torah, by commanding the positive instruction after the negative one, is teaching that the `punishment` and correction of the violation is not lashes, rather the fulfillment of the positive action". [3]

What has all of this to do with Teshuva?

Based on the above halachic grounding, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, commonly known as the Chida, asked a fascinating question. He claims that since it is a positive mitzvah to do Teshuva after one sins it turns out that all the negative mitzvoth of the Torah in fact fall into the category of a "lav hanitak la'aseh", a negative commandment followed by a positive commandment. It therefore follows by force that it would never be possible to implement lashes at all since all negative mitzvoth are followed by the positive mitzvah to do teshuva! Yet the Torah does instruct to give lashes for the violation of negative commandments! How can this be reconciled?

Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, based on the writings of his father Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, answered the Chida's question and by doing so illuminates the concept of teshuva.

We usually view teshuva as something to be done as a result of sin. If I transgress a prohibition, or neglect the performance of a positive mitzvah, then I must do teshuva. The act of teshuva is associated with returning back to where I was before the sin.

Rav Kook however, based on the statement of Chazal that Teshuva preceded the creation of the world, and therefore preceded even sin itself,  understands teshuva to be the primal and underlying force that exists in the world and causes the ongoing never-ending desire of mankind to improve, perfect, advance and strive toward the infinite source of perfection itself - G-d. The true meaning of Teshuva is the yearning of all that exists to return, and ascend to the infinite, never ending "good" and "perfection" of G-d himself.

It therefore follows that Teshuva is really a lekatchila (a chosen, best case) situation embedded in the nature of creation. Its use in the situation after sin is also obviously necessary, but it is also independent thereof.

Therefore, the positive commandment of teshuva cannot be considered like all other positive mitzvoth following negative mitzvoth, as they are only to be performed after the negative mitzvah has been violated. The Torah actually prefers one not to even reach such a situation. Teshuva however is the life force of mankind and we are commanded to be constantly engaged in Teshuva, certainly if a wrongdoing has been done, but also regardless thereof.

In conclusion, two quotes from Rav Kook's Orat Hateshuva:

The world is guaranteed to come to full repentance. The world is not static; it continues to develop. True, complete development must bring about total physical and spiritual health, which will bring with it the light of the life of teshuvah. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:3)

Teshuvah comes from the longing of the entire universe to become better and more pure, stronger and more elevated than its current state. At the core of this drive is a life-force that triumphs over the limited, weak character of natural existence. The repentance of an individual, and certainly of the community, draws its strength from this life-force, which flows unceasingly, at full strength. (Orot haTeshuvah 6:1)

Wishing you all a meaningful "Aseret Yemei Teshuva", Shabbat Shalom


[1] Vayikra 19;17.

[2] Shmot 12;10.

[3] Rashi on Makot 14;b.


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