Last week’s Torah portion was Parashat Nitzavim, which is always read just before Rosh Hashanah. In that portion, the Children of Israel are given a choice and a duty: “And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee ... and [thou] shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and hearken to his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul” (Deuteronomy 30:1-2). God informs man what the boundaries of free will are and imposes upon him the duty to choose the righteous path. In doing so, God is not limiting man’s options for choice − quite the contrary: The concept of teshuva (repentance), and the dynamics and flexibility it demands of man, could not exist were it not for free will.
In the opening to chapter 5 of Hilchot Teshuva (The Laws of Repentance), in his “Mishneh Torah” (also known as “Hayad Hachazaka”), Maimonides describes a philosophical working assumption that is essential in terms of constructing a philosophy of repentance: “Every person has free will: If he chooses to follow the path of good deeds and to be a righteous individual, he is free to choose this option. Similarly, if he chooses to follow the path of evil deeds and to be a wicked individual, he is free to choose this option. For it is written in the Torah: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil’ [Genesis 3:22]. In other words, man is a unique species in this world; there is no other one like him with regard to the subject of free will. Only man has the capacity for knowing and understanding what is right and what is wrong; only he is able to do what he wants. No one can prevent a person from doing what is right, or, alternatively, what is wrong. In view of this state of affairs, God says, ‘lest he put forth his hand’ [Gen. 3:22].”
Maimonides bases his position here on the verse in Genesis, which should be taken in context. After Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, God curses them, together with the serpent, but does fashion for the world’s first human couple “garments of skins” [Gen. 3:21]. The Torah then presents God’s monologue: “And the Lord God said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’” (Gen. 3:22).
Thus is explained as the reason God banishes man from the Garden of Eden to work the land. Free will is granted to man only after he tastes the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; from that moment on, he has the ability to choose either to do good or evil. This is in essence the moment of man’s second creation: This time, he is created as a free individual, with free will.
God also observes sinful man, who serves as a mirror image of his creator: “Behold, the man is become as one of us.” This is not a complete mirror image because man does not “live forever”; nonetheless, it is a mirror image in the sense that it conveys the issue of free will. In sinning, Adam, the first man, defines himself as an autonomous entity that is separate from God; since man is autonomous and thus separate from God, he also serves as a reflection of God. Man’s absolute freedom to choose is a faithful reflection of God’s absolute freedom to choose.
Similarly, repentance − an act in which the sinner expresses remorse and resolves never to commit a certain deed ever again − does not belong solely to the province of man. As it is written in Deuteronomy following the verses cited above: “that then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the peoples, whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee” (Deut. 30:3). In response to the commandment, “and [thou] shalt return unto the Lord thy God,” God also promises to return; the process of repentance is thus depicted as a “dialogue” between man’s movement or actions, and God’s.
The fact that repentance exists and is possible is based on an assumption − that man is not the only one who can change: God is also capable of change. This assumption also presents the Creator as a being that can remain distant from or draw close to man, and as one that can sin and express remorse. In this respect, the act of repentance reflects the essence of God’s image in man.
In Hosea 14, which was read in synagogue last Shabbat as the haftarah, the prophet calls on Israel to repent: “Return, O Israel, unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast stumbled in thine iniquity. Take with you words, and return unto the Lord; say unto Him: ‘Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips. Asshur [Assyria] shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; neither will we call any more the work of our hands our gods; for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy’” (Hosea 14:2-4). Hosea first calls on the Children of Israel to abandon idols, and to return to God, and then goes on to describe God’s expected response when Israel returns to him: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely; for Mine anger is turned away from him” (Hosea 14:5).
God will heal his people and will forgive their previous sinful behavior; he will accept their repentance with love. Thus, repentance can be seen not just as a mirror that reflects man’s and God’s actions, but as something that also creates a dialogue between man and God, as man moves toward God and God moves toward man.
In his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides explains the process of return: “What is repentance? It is a process in which the sinner abandons his sinful behavior, removes it from his thoughts and resolves with utter determination that he will never repeat it, as it is written: ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts’ [Isaiah 55:7]. The sinner will express remorse for his past conduct, as it is written: ‘Surely after that I was turned, I repented, and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh’ [Jeremiah 31:18]. God who knows all mysteries will testify that this person will never commit this sin ever again, as it is written: ‘neither will we call any more the work of our hands our gods; for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy’” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, chapter 2:3).
According to Maimonides, the process of repentance has a number of stages. The two stages of the sinner’s abandonment of sinful conduct and his feelings of remorse for said conduct are easily understood. However, a basic question is raised concerning the next stage: “God who knows all mysteries will testify that this person will never commit this sin ever again.” This stage goes beyond a man’s personal, internal decision and his dialogue with his soul; it involves the testimony of God to the effect that the sinner has undergone a complete metamorphosis and will never resume his previous sinful behavior.
Prior to this stage, Maimonides describes a process that is intensely personal, in which a person grapples with his own biography. Where does God come into the picture? The answer can be found in the verse Maimonides cites as a source − or, to be more precise, in the context of that verse. The climax of the process of man’s repentance is God’s response, “I will love them freely,” which is a reflection of man’s declaration that he will love God freely. The actions of man and God bring them face to face, in an encounter where each learns of the process that the other has undergone. This mutual action of learning enables the divine testimony to be given.