What commandment is he talking about? Why would we think it is far away, in the heaven, or beyond the sea? What is this thing that is very close to us, according to Moses?
According to some of the most important commentators, the commandment he is referring to is none other than “teshuva”, repentance.
Is repenting easy? If we were asked, many of us would probably say it isn’t. If there is one difficult commandment that is especially challenging, it would be teshuva. The expectation that a person will change his habits, adopting a new outlook and new lifestyle, is perhaps the most far-reaching expectation possible. So how can we explain what Moses said?
We’re used to thinking about teshuva in practical terms: What have I been doing until now, and what will I do from now on. This is correct, but only partially. Teshuva is primarily an emotional process that has practical implications. Sometimes it is a single, solitary moment when a person faces himself honestly, looks himself in the eye and asks: Is this who I want to be? Is this how I want to live?
That one moment is a pivotal juncture. It is a turning point whose results will be recognized only in hindsight, but which already serves as a watershed moment. Maimonides, in his book Mishneh Torah, wrote the halachot (Jewish laws) of teshuva in several chapters that should be read and learned. There, he writes that “Teshuva atones for all sins. Even a person who was wicked his entire life and repented in his final moments – should not be reminded of any aspect of his wickedness.” In dramatic language, Maimonides describes the change that occurs in the relationship between a person who did teshuva and G-d:
“Teshuva is great for it draws a man close to the Shechinah… Teshuva brings near those who were far removed. Previously, this person was hated by G-d, disgusting, far removed, and abominable. Now, he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear.”
(Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 7, 6)
Try to think of person who you might describe as “disgusting, far removed, and abominable.” What did this person do? This wouldn’t be someone who failed once, or someone who sins occasionally. This would be someone for whom sinning is characteristic, who is immersed in the squalor of sin. This is a person who is addicted to ugly behavior. Now let’s think what we would demand of such a person in order to remove the negative label attached to him. Maybe a process of recovery; maybe he would have to prove he has changed over a period of time. We would not be quick to purify him from all his sins.
This is not the teshuva that Judaism is talking about. “Previously,” says Maimonides, just recently, “this person was hated by G-d, disgusting, far removed, and abominable; and now,” today, even one day later, this person we denounced has become “beloved and desirable, close, and dear.”
How did this happen? What changed from one day to the next? One moment of introspection, one minute without masks, when a person reveals to himself his true desire to be good, pure, exalted. That one moment is etched into the soul forever and it changes a person into being beloved and desirable, close, and dear.
During this period of time called the “Days of Awe”, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are all called upon to find that moment of teshuva; that most crucial moment in our lives that will never be forgotten, that moment when we will merit being “beloved and desirable, close, and dear.”