Is Repentance a Commandment?
“For this mitzvah is not far from you; it is not in heaven that you shall say ‘Who will ascend for us to the heavens…’” (Deuteronomy 30:11) Nachmanides states in his commentary that this verse refers to the positive commandment of repentance. He cites two verses as sources for this mitzvah: Deuteronomy 4:30 “…you shall return to the L-rd your G-d…”, and Deuteronomy 30:1, “And you shall return to your heart…”. He writes that the Torah’s use of verbs that can be understood as either future tense or as imperatives indicates that Repentance is both a promise for the future and a positive mitzvah as well.
Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona writes at the beginning of Gates of Repentance “We have been exhorted to repent by the Torah in a number of places.” He clearly implies that aside from the tremendous kindness that G-d has shown us in giving us the opportunity to repent, He has also commanded us to repent.
The language of Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance 1:1) suggests that he does not consider repentance to be an independent mitzvah. “All the mitzvot in the Torah, whether positive or negative; if a person transgressed one of them, whether intentionally or unintentionally, when he repents and returns from his sin, he is obligated to confess in front of the L-rd, Blessed is He.” It would seem that the mitzvah here is confession at the time of repentance, but not repentance in and of itself. He also does not list “Repentance” as a mitzvah in his Book of the Commandments; in Mitzvah 73 he lists only “confession” as a mitzvah. (Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 364)
Rav Meir Simchah Hacohen of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochmah, Deuteronomy 31:17) agrees with the Minchat Chinuch’s interpretation and offers a rationale for Maimonides’ position. He says that the fact that a person has transgressed does not diminish his obligation to desist from sin or to fulfill mitzvot. In the words of the Meshech Chochmah, “The first prohibition that prevented him from sin before he sinned, prevents him from sinning also after he has sinned.” Hence the sinners obligation to rectify his ways is really intrinsic to every mitzvah. What does the process of “Repentance” require of the returnee that is not required of him by the original mitzvah that he transgressed?
Rav Meir Simchah answers that even if one has ceased sinning and has indeed mended his ways the Torah requires that he confess his sin before G-d. His resolve never to return to the sin for which he is repenting is part of the attitude necessary for sincere confession of his sin. Thus, that which is unique to this mitzvah is only the obligation to confess, and therefore Maimonides counts “confession” as a mitzvah but not “Repentance”.
He adds that the process of Repentance can sometimes impose an obligation upon the penitent beyond abandoning sin and beyond confession. Most character traits include extremes of behavior that are not only undesirable but that also lead to sin. Maimonides (Shmonah Perakim, Ch.4) writes that a “healthy” person should choose the “middle path” in character traits. A person who suffers from the “sickness” of sin is obligated to cure himself by going to the opposite extreme in the area in which he sinned. According to Rav Meir Simchah part of the Repentance process is the obligation to react to sin by striving to reach its “opposite pole”; this temporary “extremism” will achieve the ideal of the “middle path” without fear of stumbling in sin again.
Maimonides’ heading for the Laws of Repentance reads, “One positive commandment, and that is, that a sinner shall repent his sin before G-d and confess.” The Kiryat Sefer (ad loc) maintains that confession and Repentance are two equally obligatory aspects of one mitzvah. Repentance, which involves regret for past sins and resolve not to repeat them, is the start of the process of purification; sincere confession of sin is the conclusion of the Repentance process and is analogous to immersion in a mikveh. Maimoinides’ heading seems to support the interpretation of the Kiryat Sefer.
Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (On Repentance Pp. 78-80), explains the concept of Repentance based on a tradition from his great-grandfather, the author of the Beit Halevi. According to the tradition, Maimonides understands that Repentance is indeed a mitzvah, as is strongly implied by the many verses in the Torah commanding the Jewish people to do Repentance. In the words of Rav Soloveitchik “But do we really need evidence of this sort? Can one really contemplate the possibility that confession be considered a precept while repentance is not? What would be the significance of confession without repentance?”
Rav Soloveitchik explains that there are two parts to the process of Repentance; the action required by the mitzvah, which is confession, and the fulfillment of the mitzvah which is Repentance. Maimoinides only counts as a mitzvah the action that is required by the mitzvah even though he maintains that Repentance is an intrinsic aspect and final goal of the mitzvah.