Now, the mitzvah of repentance34 as required by the Torah is simply the abandonment of sin

וְהִנֵּה, מִצְוַת הַתְּשׁוּבָה מִן הַתּוֹרָה, הִיא עֲזִיבַת הַחֵטְא בִּלְבַד

(35cf. Sanhedrin, ch. 336; Choshen Mishpat, end of Sec. 34,37 regarding testimony38), where it is stated that if a potential witness simply abandons and does not repeat the transgression that had previously disqualified him, he is once again able to testify.39

(כִּדְאִיתָא בַּגְּמָרָא פֶּרֶק ג' דְּסַנְהֶדְרִין וּבְחֹשֶׁן־מִשְׁפָּט סוֹף סִימָן ל"ד לְעִנְיַן עֵדוּת),

This means that he must resolve in perfect sincerity never again to revert to folly, to rebel against G-d’s rule;

דְּהַיְינוּ, שֶׁיִּגְמוֹר בְּלִבּוֹ בְּלֵב שָׁלֵם, לְבַל יָשׁוּב עוֹד לְכִסְלָה, לִמְרוֹד בְּמַלְכוּתוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ,

he will never again violate the King’s command, G-d forbid, neither a positive command40 nor a prohibition.41

וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר עוֹד מִצְוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, הֵן בְּמִצְוֹת עֲשֵׂה הֵן בְּמִצְוֹת לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה.

This is the basic meaning of the term teshuvah (“repentance”)—to return to G-d with all one’s heart and soul, to serve Him, and to observe all His commandments,

וְזֶהוּ עִיקַּר פֵּירוּשׁ לְשׁוֹן "תְּשׁוּבָה" לָשׁוּב אֶל ה' בְּכָל לִבּוֹ וּבְכָל נַפְשׁוֹ, לְעָבְדוֹ וְלִשְׁמוֹר כָּל מִצְוֹתָיו,

for so does Scripture state: “Let the wicked abandon his path, and the sinful his thoughts, and return to G-d….”42

כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב: "יַעֲזוֹב רָשָׁע דַּרְכּוֹ וְאִישׁ אָוֶן מַחְשְׁבוֹתָיו, וְיָשׁוֹב אֶל ה' וְגוֹ'";

In the Torah portion of Nitzavim43 it is likewise written:44 “You shall return unto the Lord your G-d and hearken to His voice…with all your heart….”45

וּבְפָרָשַׁת נִצָּבִים כְּתִיב: "וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקוֹלוֹ וְגוֹ', בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וְגוֹ'",

[So, too:] “Return, O Israel, unto the L-rd your G-d…”46; [and elsewhere:] “Bring us back, O L-rd, unto You….”47

"שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ וְגוֹ'", "הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה' אֵלֶיךָ וְגוֹ'".

Repentance, then, entails returning to G-d, performing His commandments, and refraining from sin.

This differs from the popular conception that repentance is synonymous with fasting on account of one’s sins.

וְלֹא כְּדַעַת הֶהָמוֹן, שֶׁהַתְּשׁוּבָה הִיא הַתַּעֲנִית.

Even in the case of sins punishable by excision or execution, where atonement is made complete by suffering, as previously quoted from the Baraita in Yoma,

וַאֲפִילוּ מִי שֶׁעָבַר עַל כְּרֵיתוֹת וּמִיתוֹת בֵּית־דִּין, שֶׁגְּמַר כַּפָּרָתוֹ הִיא עַל־יְדֵי יִסּוּרִים,

this means that it is G-d Who brings suffering upon the sinner in order to complete his atonement

הַיְינוּ, שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ־בָּרוּךְ־הוּא מֵבִיא עָלָיו יִסּוּרִים

(48as the verse clearly specifies, “With a rod shall I remember [their sin]”).

(וּכְמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב: "וּפָקַדְתִּי בְשֵׁבֶט וְגוֹ'" – "וּפָקַדְתִּי" דַיְיקָא),

That is to say: When G-d finds his repentance acceptable, as he returns to Him with all his heart and soul, out of love,

וְהַיְינוּ, כְּשֶׁתְּשׁוּבָתוֹ רְצוּיָה לְפָנָיו יִתְבָּרֵךְ, בְּשׁוּבוֹ אֶל ה' בְּכָל לִבּוֹ וְנַפְשׁוֹ מֵאַהֲבָה,

then following the initiative undertaken from below, and “as water reflects the countenance…,”49 there is an awakening Above, arousing G-d’s love and kindness, to scour his sin and entirely cleanse him of it through affliction in This World,

אֲזַי, בְּאִתְעָרוּתָא דִלְתַתָּא וְ"כַּמַּיִם הַפָּנִים וְכוּ'" – אִתְעָרוּתָא דִלְעֵילָּא, לְעוֹרֵר הָאַהֲבָה וְחֶסֶד ה' לְמָרֵק עֲוֹנוֹ בְּיִסּוּרִים בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה,

in the spirit of the verse, “For he whom the L-rd loves, He chastises….”50

וּכְמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב: "כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה' יוֹכִיחַ וְגוֹ'".

This is something quite different from any fasts or afflictions that an individual undertakes himself.

It is for this reason that the Rambam and Sefer Mitzvot Gadol51 make no mention whatsoever of fasting as related to the mitzvah of repentance, even in the case of sins punishable by excision or capital sins.

וְלָכֵן לֹא הִזְכִּירוּ הָרַמְבַּ"ם וְהַסְּמַ"ג שׁוּם תַּעֲנִית כְּלָל בְּמִצְוַת הַתְּשׁוּבָה, אַף בִּכְרֵיתוֹת וּמִיתוֹת בֵּית־דִּין,

I.e., fasting is not required even with regard to those sins whose atonement is completed through suffering.

They cite only confessing [verbally] and requesting forgiveness, as the Torah prescribes, “They shall confess their sin….”52

רַק הַוִּידּוּי וּבַקָּשַׁת מְחִילָה, כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה: "וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת חַטָּאתָם וְגוֹ'".

Why are confession and requesting forgiveness indeed part of repentance?

Every sin consists of a body and a soul. The actual misdeed itself is the “body” of the sin, and the bodily pleasure and ensuing desire with which it was committed are its “soul.” Repentance involves eliminating both these elements.

The “soul” of the sin is eradicated by the earnest regret of the individual, who is mortified and pained by his past. Inasmuch as pain is the opposite of pleasure, it negates the pleasure which had earlier aroused his desire to sin and thereby obliterates the “soul” of the sin.

However, the “body” of the sin also needs to be nullified. Simply refraining from further transgression lacks the action that would negate the sinful act itself, its “body.” This is accomplished through verbal confession, for “verbalization is also considered to be an action.”53

At any rate, verbal confession is thus a component of repentance while fasting is not.

As to what we find in the Book of Joel, “Return to Me with all your hearts, and with fasting and weeping…,”54 which would seem to indicate that fasting is in fact part of return and repentance,

וּמַה שֶּׁכָּתוּב בְּיוֹאֵל: "שׁוּבוּ עָדַי בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם בְּצוֹם וּבִבְכִי גוֹ'",

this was to nullify (Note inserted by the Rebbe: “…something which relates to the future while repentance involves forsaking the past”) the heavenly decree that had been issued, to expunge the sin of the generation through the affliction of locusts; it was not part of the act of repentance.

הַיְינוּ – לְבַטֵּל הַגְּזֵרָה שֶׁנִּגְזְרָה לְמָרֵק עֲוֹן הַדּוֹר עַל־יְדֵי יִסּוּרִים בַּאַרְבֶּה.

This is the rationale for all fasts proclaimed for any trouble threatening the community, their purpose being to avert the impending harsh edict,

וְזֶהוּ הַטַּעַם בְּכָל תַּעֲנִיּוֹת שֶׁמִּתְעַנִּין עַל כָּל צָרָה שֶׁלֹּא תָבֹא עַל הַצִּבּוּר,

as in the Book of Esther,55 where we find that the Queen asked that a fast be proclaimed in order to nullify Haman’s evil decree.

וּכְמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בִּמְגִלַּת אֶסְתֵּר.

Now the classic Mussar works, particularly the Rokeach and Sefer Chassidim, specify numerous fasts and mortifications56 for sins punishable by excision and execution;

וּמַה שֶּׁכָּתוּב בְּסִפְרֵי הַמּוּסָר, וּבְרֹאשָׁם סֵפֶר הָרוֹקֵחַ וְסֵפֶר חֲסִידִים, הַרְבֵּה תַּעֲנִיּוֹת וְסִיגּוּפִים לָעוֹבֵר עַל כְּרֵיתוֹת וּמִיתוֹת בֵּית־דִּין,

likewise, numerous fasts are prescribed for the wasteful emission of semen—a sin punishable by death by Divine agency, as the Torah recounts of Er and Onan,57

וְכֵן לְמוֹצִיא זֶרַע לְבַטָּלָה, שֶׁחַיָּיב מִיתָה בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם, כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה גַּבֵּי עֵר וְאוֹנָן,

and a sin whose retribution is identical in this respect to that of sins punishable by excision and hence the numerous fasts prescribed.

וְדִינוֹ כְּחַיָּיבֵי כְרֵיתוֹת לְעִנְיָן זֶה –

All this might lead us to assume that the purpose of fasts is suffering—this being the manner through which atonement is brought to completion by those who are guilty of sins punishable by excision. But it has been previously stated that the suffering which completes atonement is specifically that which comes from Above and not manmade suffering incurred through fasting and the like. The Alter Rebbe answers this seeming contradiction by stating:

These above-prescribed fasts and mortifications are intended to avert the punishment of suffering at the hand of heaven, G-d forbid. (Note by the Rebbe: “This too relates to the future, unlike repentance, which relates to the past.”)

הַיְינוּ, כְּדֵי לִינָּצֵל מֵעוֹנֶשׁ יִסּוּרִים שֶׁל מַעְלָה חַס וְשָׁלוֹם.

This means that if, G-d forbid, the punishment of suffering had been decreed upon an individual, he is able to exempt himself from it through these self-imposed fasts.

Another reason [for these fasts] is to urge on and expedite the conclusion of his soul’s atonement.

וְגַם, כְּדֵי לְזָרֵז וּלְמַהֵר גְּמַר כַּפָּרַת נַפְשׁוֹ.

Also, perhaps he is not returning to G-d with all his heart and soul out of love but only out of fear.

וְגַם אוּלַי אֵינוֹ שָׁב אֶל ה' בְּכָל לִבּוֹ וְנַפְשׁוֹ מֵאַהֲבָה, כִּי אִם מִיִּרְאָה:

Such a penitent would not enjoy the Divine reaction that comes “as water reflects the countenance” and would not be granted the completion of his atonement through suffering. Accordingly, he might undertake these fasts upon himself in order to secure this alone. Essentially, however, the suffering that brings about complete atonement (for those guilty of sins punishable by excision and death by Divine agency) is not meant to be self-inflicted but rather—heaven forfend—imposed from Above.