The Role of Regret in Teshuva
By: Gedaliah Knizhnik, Yakov Ellenbogen and Torrey London
In his magnum opus, the משנה תורה, the רמב"ם describes the laws of תשובה. In the first chapter he describes תשובה as consisting of וידוי – confession of the sin. In this process of confession the sinner first regrets his sin and then decides not to repeat it, as is evident from the text:... הרי ניחמתי ובשתי במעשי" ולעולם איני חוזר לדבר זה." However, in the second chapter, the רמב"ם describes תשובה, under the same title, as consisting of the opposite process: "ומה היא התשובה? הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו ויסירנו ממחשבתו ויגמור בלבו שלא יעשה עוד... וכן יתנחם על שעבר"" – first deciding not to repeat the behavior, and then regretting the sin. Not only is the order different, but regret even seems to be an afterthought. This progression also seems problematic from a basic logical standpoint: תשובה seems like it should be motivated by a person feeling regret, and yet the רמב"ם (in the second chapter) appears to disregard this idea.
The משאת המלך proposes a solution that sheds light on the essence of תשובה and the involvement of regret in the process. He explains that there are two levels of regret; on a basic level, a person can regret an action. On a deeper level, however, a person can, having regretted the action, regret the state of mind that allowed him to think about it. For example, a person who stole can regret the act of stealing – that is the basic level of regret. But, having regretted the action and decided not to do it again, the person can also regret the flaw in his character that allowed him to even consider stealing.
The רמב"ם, explains the משאת המלך, refers to those two types of regret. The first chapter describes the initial, basic process of תשובה. This process begins with the simple form of regret – regretting the specific action – followed by a decision not to do it again. This is expressed in the formula for וידוי, and at this point the תשובה is complete inasmuch as it pertains to gaining Divine forgiveness. But in the second chapter, the רמב"ם is referring to the later, deeper process of תשובה. This process can only begin after a person has distanced himself from the specific sin. Then, he can truly regret the character flaw and state of mind that allowed him to perform the sin – and that is the regret that the רמב"ם refers to in פרק ב'. This תשובה does not deal with forgiveness; it deals with enhancing the person's character as a whole.
The שפת אמת adds that, especially when the sin is בין אדם למקום, this second regret has an added benefit. The first regret serves to avoid punishment, but it leaves a hole in the relationship between a person and הקדוש ברוך הוא. The second regret, however, can facilitate a fundamental change that repairs that breach and closes the distance. In improving himself and his character, the person brings himself closer to ה'.
So it seems that the two first chapters of רמב"ם's הלכות תשובה are describing not two, but one process. תשובה has multiple stages: it begins with regret, which drives a person to distance himself from the sin he committed. Here, the תשובה can end, but if it does, it leaves a spiritual distance from ה'. It can also continue, however, into the second regret that the רמב"ם mentions, which is the deeper regret that drives a person to reform his character and forge a closer relationship with ה'.