Maimonides opens his Laws of Teshuva with a classification of repentance that seems somewhat counterintuitive:

If a person transgresses any of the mitzvahs of the Torah. . . when he repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess before G‑d, blessed be He, as [Numbers 5:6-7] states: “If a man or a woman commit any of the sins of man. . . they must confess the sin that they committed.” This refers to a verbal confession. This confession is a positive command.1

It seems that Maimonides classifies verbal confession as the obligation, rather than repentance itself. But surely, more important than confession should be the actual repentance—returning to G‑d! Confession is an outgrowth of the much more arduous process of regretting one’s sins and resolving to abstain in the future. So how is it possible that there is no actual mitzvah to repent?

It Is Not a Standalone Mitzvah

Some, including the Minchat Chinuch,2 take Maimonides at face value and conclude that while the Torah prescribes a process for one who wishes to repent, repentance itself is not an obligation.

This is like many mitzvahs which are not obligations on their own, but if one chooses to perform certain actions, they must be done in a specified manner. For example, one is not required to engage in commerce, but if one chooses to, then all dealings must be executed in accordance with halachah.

This approach is difficult to understand, however, because in the introduction to Hilchot Teshuva, Maimonides writes, “[This text describes] one mitzvah: that a sinner should repent from his sin before G‑d and confess,” implying that repentance is part of the mitzvah, as one would intuitively assume.

A Technical Disqualification

The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests a second approach, based on one of the general principles Maimonides uses to identify exactly which mitzvahs are included in the count of 613. Any mitzvah “encompassing the entire Torah'' is not counted, writes Maimonides. General commands to follow in G‑d’s ways, or to adhere to the laws of the Torah, are not counted as individual mitzvahs.

Since repentance, by definition, means rejecting sin and accepting upon oneself the yoke of mitzvahs, this falls directly into the category of a “mitzvah which encompasses the entire Torah,” and as such, would not be counted as one of the 613. Even though both the repentance itself and the confession are obligatory, only the confessional aspect can be counted as a mitzvah.

Ultimately, the Rebbe rejects this approach too, because aside from confession and accepting the yoke of heaven, an additional integral part of repentance is to regret one’s sins. Regret is not a general obligation like returning to G‑d and accepting the yoke of Torah, and cannot be considered a “mitzvah which encompasses the entire Torah.” There is no reason, then, why regret—an integral element of repentance—is not counted as one of the 613, which brings us back to our original question: Why does Maimonides only count the confession as a mitzvah?

Integral Element

Finally, the Rebbe quotes a third approach, put forward by the Kiryat Sefer,3 who writes that “repentance and confession are one mitzvah, because there is no such thing as confession without repentance.” Repentance takes place in one’s heart, and the confession is the verbal expression of that repentance.

It is now clear why Maimonides considers only the confession step a mitzvah. If a mitzvah has two components, but only one involves a physical action, then only the physical aspect is counted as one of the 613. Since the actual repentance—regret and accepting the yoke of heaven—takes place in one’s heart, this element is not counted. Confession, on the other hand, by virtue of being the actionable component (even if it is considered secondary to the repentance which necessarily takes place beforehand) is what is counted as a mitzvah. This, however, does not make the first element any less important. On the contrary, the confession is built on the repentance that precedes it.

Practical Application

While it may seem from the simple reading of Maimonides that the main focus of repentance should be on the confession, the conclusion of the Rebbe is that confession is merely an outcome of one’s repentance. In fact, the reason that both elements—the repentance in one’s heart and the articulation via confession—are considered mitzvahs (even if only the confession counts toward the 613) is to emphasize that teshuva should lead to added enthusiasm and commitment to Torah.

Even though repentance is held above all other mitzvahs4 due to its unique ability to correct the mistakes of the past, it should not stay aloft, above the other mitzvahs. It is counted as a mitzvah—in its entirety—to show that it must affect actual positive change in the other mitzvas. After teshuvah, one’s service of G‑d must be invigorated, with new energy inspired by repentance.5