I was once upon a time giving a class when a student asked a very simple question in relation to repentance: How does one repent? I immediately replied that it is a very simple exercise based on three aspects: Recognizing one’s mistakes, having remorse for them and accepting upon oneself not to do it again in the future. (Rambam “Laws of Teshuva 1:1)
This apparently simple Halacha however becomes complicated when one reads the very same Rambam in his” Laws of Giving Evidence”…….
Over there the Rambam stipulates that repentance with regard for a person who lends money with interest requires a person not only to regret his actions but also to additionally tear up any documents and to accept upon himself not to lend even to a gentile with interest. This seems highly problematic: How can the Rambam expect these additional actions? Why does he contradict what he clearly describes in his laws of Teshuva? Why would he prohibit the lending of money to a gentile with interest when this is halachicly permitted?
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchic answers that there are in fact two different types of Tshuva, one of atonement and one of purity. Sin has two dramatic affects on the person. Not only does it bring in its wake punishment but it also contaminates the person’s personality. Proof of the latter can be found in the realm of Halacha. A person is automatically considered to be honest and trustworthy to give evidence, he is in halachic terminology a kosher witness. However the Halacha stipulates that this inherent state changes when one sins. A sinner is not able to testify in a Jewish law court, he has lost his credibility and therefore can not be called upon to act as a witness. The sinner is not the person he once was. He has changed and his personality has become defiled by sin.
If this is the case then we understand the need for the two levels of Teshuva. One acts to atone for the sin and to prevent the need for punishment, the other acts to purify the individual. The Rambam in his “Laws of Teshuva” only discusses the first level. To atone to avoid punishment, one needs to recognize ones mistakes, show remorse and accept not to do them again. However, in order to reach the next level where one’s defiled personality becomes purified, one needs to do more. It is not enough merely to leave the world of sin but one needs to leave the realm of sinners. Only this latter type of teshuva has the ability to change one’s personality.
As we get ever closer to Yom Kippur we should focus on these two aspects for they represent the call of the day. Infact Yom Kippur itself had this double aspect “for this day will atone” -against punishment, “in front of G-d you shall purify yourself”-purity.