The Virtue of Repentance and Affliction
How can verbal confession erase the sins of the past? Sins only bring joy for an instant, as for example in the case of stealing money. When a person begins to spend this illicitly gotten gain, he immediately starts to regret his transgression, and the sin itself has a serious effect on him, as it is written: “My sin is before me always” (Psalms 51:5). As long as a person has not done Teshuvah, he expresses remorse. Therefore such remorse, such pain, can certainly erase his transgression.
This allows us to better understand the following verse: “A man’s holies shall be his, and what a man gives to the Cohen shall be his” (Numbers 5:10). Holiness permeates our 365 sinews and 248 limbs, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah (Makot 23b). When a person commits a sin, a husk (kelipah) covers them, and he can only rid himself of it by returning to his initial state. In other words, he must do Teshuvah that is complete and sincere. This is the meaning of, “A man’s holies shall be his.” Through repentance, everything returns to the Cohen, meaning to the Holy One, blessed be He, Whose Name is thus exalted by the one who has repented. We must therefore not get discouraged after having committed a sin, nor should we ask ourselves how G-d can accept our repentance. Instead, we should realize that the pain we feel after having sinned contributes to erasing it.
With respect to this subject, our Sages teach: “In the place where the Baal Teshuvah stands, even great Tzaddikim cannot stand” (Berachot 34b). In fact if suffering comes upon a Tzaddik, he will begin to examine his ways. If he finds no fault in his conduct, he will come to the conclusion that his suffering is due to negligence in Torah study (see Berachot 5a). If even there he finds no fault, then he can rest assured that the suffering he endures is a result of G-d’s love for him. On the other hand, the Baal Teshuvah is constantly put to the test, and as soon as he decides to improve his behavior, he already begins to think of partaking in the delights of the World to Come. However when he sees that such is not the case, he experiences great suffering in recalling the sins that he committed in the past. His pain is thus much greater than that which the Tzaddik experiences, and since the evil inclination does not stop putting him to the test, we may say that he is greater than the Tzaddik.
The Tanach (II Chronicles 33:1-13) relates the story of King Manasseh, who did increasingly evil things in the eyes of Hashem – even placing a graven image in the Temple – and steadfastly refused to repent. The army leaders of the Assyrian king then seized him and put him in a copper cauldron, kindling a fire under it and burning him within. He begged all his gods to save him, but it was useless. He then implored Hashem, Who answered his supplications and accepted his Teshuvah – breaking through the firmament beneath His Throne of Glory to receive it – and returned King Manasseh to his kingdom in Jerusalem (Devarim Rabba 2:20). Thus in the end, it was because of the suffering he experienced that he returned to the right path. It is certain that he experienced even more suffering after he repented.
The Rambam and the Ramban view the concept of sacrifices differently. In his Moreh HaNevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed), the Rambam explains that just as the nations worshipped sheep and lambs in Egypt, the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded the Children of Israel to sacrifice these animals to Him in order that they remember the pain they experienced when they did the same (see Shemot Rabba 15:2). It is this pain that encourages people to return to the right path.
As for the Ramban, he considers that the one who brings a sacrifice should feel that everything done to the animal should really be done to himself (see Berachot 17a). He will then bitterly regret not having conformed to G-d’s will, and this sacrifice will atone for his sins. Thus both the Rambam and the Ramban stress that suffering atones for sin.
Actually, an individual always wants to carry out G-d’s will, but what prevents him from doing so is the yeast in the dough (the evil inclination) and subjugation to foreign regimes (Berachot 17a). Suffering therefore helps to atone for sin. Once we have rid ourselves of the yeast (the evil inclination, the sin according to the Ramban) and from being subjugated to foreign regimes (the idolatry of Egypt according to the Rambam), we may erase our sins and return to G-d with every member of our being.