Certain penitential fasts, then, are to be actually endured while others are to be redeemed through charity.

However, all we have said refers to the culmination of the atonement—to polishing the soul clean before G-d so that no vestige of former sin remains after repentance,

וְאוּלָם, כָּל הַנִּזְכָּר לְעֵיל, הוּא לִגְמַר הַכַּפָּרָה וּמֵירוּק הַנֶּפֶשׁ לַה' אַחַר הַתְּשׁוּבָה,

as cited above1 from the Talmud, ch. 1 of Zevachim, where the olah sacrifice brought for transgressing a positive command is described as the gift offered to the offended party after an intercessor’s successful plea.

כְּמוֹ שֶׁנִּתְבָּאֵר לְעֵיל מֵהַגְּמָרָא פֶּרֶק קַמָּא דִזְבָחִים, דְּעוֹלָה, דּוֹרוֹן הִיא לְאַחַר שֶׁרִיצָּה הַפְּרַקְלִיט וְכוּ'.

The abovementioned fasts (or their counterpart in charity) serve a similar function.

But the beginning of the mitzvah of teshuvah and its core

אָמְנָם, הַתְחָלַת מִצְוַת הַתְּשׁוּבָה וְעִיקָּרָהּ,

is a true and wholehearted return to G-d.

לָשׁוּב עַד ה' בֶּאֱמֶת וּבְלֵב שָׁלֵם,

As will soon become apparent, this “return (lit.:) until G-d” means returning until the point that one has restored completeness to Havayah, the Four-Letter Name of G-d, that is to be found within every Jewish soul.

The letters that comprise the Tetragrammaton are (in descending order) yud and hey, and vav and hey.

This must now be explained thoroughly and comprehensively.

הַהֶכְרֵחַ לְבָאֵר הֵיטֵב בְּהַרְחָבַת הַבֵּיאוּר,

Let us begin with the Zohar’s interpretation2 of teshuvah according to sod, the mystical interpretation of the Torah:

בְּהַקְדִּים מַה שֶּׁכָּתוּב בַּזּוֹהַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בְּבֵיאוּר מִלַּת "תְּשׁוּבָה" עַל דֶּרֶךְ הַסּוֹד:

“[Teshuvah is] tashuv hey (‘the hey shall return’);

"תָּשׁוּב ה'",

The function of teshuvah is to return the letter hey of the Divine Name Havayah—to reattach it to the level represented by the letter that precedes it, just as it was attached to it before the individual sinned.

[the reconnection of] the latter hey [to the preceding letter vav] is teshuvah tataah (lower-level teshuvah);

ה' תַּתָּאָה – "תְּשׁוּבָה תַּתָּאָה",

[the reconnection of] the former hey [to the preceding letter yud] is teshuvah ilaah (higher-level teshuvah).”

ה' עִילָּאָה – "תְּשׁוּבָה עִילָּאָה".

We must also note that the Zohar states several times3 that teshuvah is ineffective for violation of the covenant and for the wasteful emission of semen.

וְגַם, מַה שֶּׁכָּתוּב בַּזּוֹהַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בִּקְצָת מְקוֹמוֹת, שֶׁאֵין תְּשׁוּבָה מוֹעֶלֶת לְפוֹגֵם בְּרִיתוֹ וּמוֹצִיא זֶרַע לְבַטָּלָה,

This is most astonishing, for “nothing can stand in the way of teshuvah,”4 even idolatry, incest, and so on.

וְהוּא דָבָר תָּמוּהַּ מְאֹד, שֶׁ"אֵין לְךָ דָבָר עוֹמֵד בִּפְנֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה" וַאֲפִילוּ עֲבוֹדָה־זָרָה וְגִלּוּי־עֲרָיוֹת וְכוּ'.

Jews are commanded to give up their lives rather than transgress these prohibitions, yet repentance atones even for them. How, then, can it be that there are other sins for which repentance is ineffective?

The Reishit Chochmah explains5 that the intention of the Zohar is that though teshuvah tataah (the conventional level of repentance) is not effective, teshuvah ilaah is.

וּפֵירֵשׁ בְּ"רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה", שֶׁכַּוָּנַת הַזֹּהַר שֶׁאֵין מוֹעֶלֶת תְּשׁוּבָה תַּתָּאָה, כִּי אִם תְּשׁוּבָה עִילָּאָה וְכוּ'.

To grasp even a minute glimmer6 of this,

הִנֵּה, לְהָבִין זֹאת מְעַט מִזְּעֵיר,

we must preface what Scripture and our Sages say about [what is entailed by] excision and death by Divine agency.

צָרִיךְ לְהַקְדִּים מַה שֶּׁמְּבוֹאָר מֵהַכָּתוּב וּמִדִּבְרֵי רַבּוֹתֵינוּ־זִכְרוֹנָם־לִבְרָכָה עִנְיַן הַכָּרֵת וּמִיתָה בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם,

A violator of a sin punishable by excision would actually7 die before his fiftieth year.8

כְּשֶׁעָבַר עֲבֵירָה שֶׁחַיָּיבִים עָלֶיהָ כָּרֵת – הָיָה מֵת מַמָּשׁ קוֹדֶם חֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה,

In the case of death by Divine agency, he would actually9 die before sixty,

וּבְמִיתָה בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם – מֵת מַמָּשׁ קוֹדֶם שִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה,

like the prophet Chananiah ben Azur in Jeremiah.10

כַּחֲנַנְיָה בֶּן עַזּוּר הַנָּבִיא בְּיִרְמְיָה

As a result of his false prophecy, G-d told him, “I shall banish you from the face of the earth….” This resulted in his actual death.

(11Indeed, there have been instances in which the punishment of death by Divine agency was also meted out instantly, as with Er and Onan.)

(וְלִפְעָמִים, גַּם בְּמִיתָה בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם נִפְרָעִין לְאַלְתַּר, כְּמוֹ שֶׁמָּצִינוּ בְּעֵר וְאוֹנָן).

This involved a sin incurring death by Divine agency.12 In any event, both Scripture and the Sages attest that those guilty of sins punishable by excision or death by Divine agency would actually die before they reached the age of fifty or sixty. This leads to the following question:

However, in every generation, there are so many individuals liable to excision and death who nevertheless enjoy extended and pleasant13 days and years!

וַהֲרֵי, נִמְצְאוּ בְּכָל דּוֹר כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה חַיָּיבֵי כְּרֵיתוֹת וּמִיתוֹת, וְהֶאֱרִיכוּ יְמֵיהֶם וּשְׁנוֹתֵיהֶם בַּנְּעִימִים?