Is Repentance Easy?

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” – Mark Twain

Is it easy to change behavior? Is it easy to repent? In Parshas Nitzavim we see conflicting stances on this matter. In one verse (30:2), repentance is described in a similar way to martyrdom: “And you shall return (repent) to Hashem your God, and you shall hearken to his voice as all that I command you today, you and your sons, with all your hearts and with all your soul.” Reb Chaim Volozhiner notes the overlapping word usage with the verse in Shema, “And you shall love Hashem your God… with all your soul”, which Chazal explain to mean that we must even forfeit our lives for the love of our Creator. By utilizing the same verbiage for repentance, the verse is hinting that changing behavior and adopting a new way of life is akin to the ultimate self-sacrifice. Walking away from ingrained character and behavior demands similar courage, resolve and intestinal fortitude as allowing oneself to die for God. Apparently, repentance is pretty hard. That sentiment is likely shared by those who are intimidated by the myriad components and draconian conditions necessary for complete repentance of Rambam’s “Laws of Repentance” and Rabbeinu Yonah’s “Gates of Repentance.”   

Contrast that with a string of verses (30:11-14) later on in the chapter, describing an inordinately easy mitzvah: “This mitzvah that I command you today – it is not hidden from you, nor is it distant. It is not in the Heavens that you may say, ‘who will ascend to Heaven, and take it for us, and teach it to us, so that we may do it’. Nor is it across the sea that we may say, ‘who will cross the sea for us, and take it for us, and teach it to us, so that we may do it’. Rather, the matter is exceedingly close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.” While the verses themselves do not explicitly identify which mitzvah is being referenced, the great commentaries do. Rashi explains that it refers to the mitzvah of Torah. Ramban disagrees and interprets the verse to be referring to the mitzvah of repentance. How can we understand labeling repentance as being so easy – “In your mouth and in your heart”? Also, how can it simultaneously be exceedingly difficult?

Another point to ponder is the characterization (30:6) of repentance as “circumcision of the heart.” What is intended by this odd classification?  

What is the essence of repentance? There is a misconception that repentance is exclusively sin-centric: To repent you must act in opposition to the sin. My grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe זצוקללה”ה, explained that this was precisely the miscalculation of the maapilim (Bamidbar 14:44), the Jews that defiantly attempted to ascend to Israel after the Almighty decreed that the nation will languish in the wilderness for 40 years due to the sin of the Spies, only to be slaughtered by Amalek. Their decision was not without reason. They assessed that the core of the sin of the Spies was resistance to enter the Land of Israel and even proposing to return to Egypt (14:4), and therefore attempting to enter Israel in disregard of the entailed dangers can be the only remedy.  But they were mistaken. Repentance, Teshuva, means to return to the Almighty and to His Will. At that time His Will mandated that they remain in the wilderness for 40 years, and thus accepting that was the correct avenue to repentance. My grandfather would also invoke this notion with regard to the repentance of Rosh Hashana. The days of Rosh Hashana make up the first two of the “Ten Days of Repentance” yet unlike Yom Kippur, there is nary a mention of sin. At its root, repentance is returning to your Creator. On Rosh Hashana that is manifest by us coronating Him as King of the world, and on Yom Kippur the same objective is approached from a different angle by addressing sin.

Given that repentance is about man achieving closeness to his Creator, the process of repentance is bridging the gap between man and the Almighty, between the created and the Creator. Hence, the degree of difficulty in achieving it is contingent upon the distance between the two. In essence, the question of, “Is repentance easy or hard?” is precisely the same question as, “Is man close or distant from the Almighty?” The answer to the latter question hinges upon which of the disparate elements of man is being referenced. The “body” of man, the physicality, the ephemeral – has no commonality with the Almighty. However, our Neshama (Soul) is very similar to its Creator. In one teaching in the Talmud (Brachos 10a), five parallels between the Almighty and the Neshama of man are enumerated; another (Niddah 30b) plainly equates the purity of the two. As such, we indeed have an element of our being that is already extremely close to the Almighty and thus repentance for it is natural and seamless.

With this understanding, the conflicting messages about the difficulty of repentance can be reconciled. It is true that repentance is really difficult. By default we identify as an ephemeral body, and in that state repentance is unachievable. To repent we must shed ourselves clean of that attitude and identity. That is a painful process, akin to martyrdom. However, once we identify as our true and lasting element of self, our Neshama, we are already in close proximity to our Creator, and have achieved repentance. This process is illustrated by the circumcision of the heart. We already have everything that is needed to be close to the Almighty, it is just concealed. All we must do to reach our goal is to peel away the inhibiting factors, and reveal our true self that was all ready to go, lying dormant and awaiting liberation.  

This is a helpful and heartening thought to take with us during the season of repentance. It is very difficult to repent. But it is comforting to know that all we are really doing is clearing out the path for our true self to shine. It may be back-breaking labor to dig out buried treasure, but it’s made easier knowing that the treasure is there, and it is complete, and once it is unearthed it’s yours.