The Enemies of Teshuva: Doubting and Dawdling Trying to Buy a Clean Conscience Teshuva is Easy The Communal Obligation of Mitzvos
Our parsha mentions the concept of Teshuva. Teshuva might be one of the Taryag Mitzvos (Ramban here), or it might be too fundamental to be called a mitzva (Minchas Chinuch 364 explaining the Rambam in the Yad). In any case, our pesukim are talking about Teshuva, and they tell us that teshuva can be doubly effective, that it not only ends punishment, but that it can also bring us to a state of grace and love and blessing.
The Mesilas Yesharim (perek 4) says that Middas Hadin, the Divine Attribute of Strict Justice, would not allow for Teshuva. Under Middas Hadin, the punishment for a sin would be immediate and devastating, and the sin would be irreparable. It is only through Middas Harachamim that these consequences are ameliorated. The sinner is given time to repent, the punishment is diminished, and Teshuva uproots and erases the sin entirely. This modification of Middas Hadin is only possible through the Chesed, the charity, of Middas Harachamim. (I've included the Hebrew and English text of the Mesillas Yesharim at the end of the post. It's Elul, it's time to look at the Mesillas Yesharim.)
Reb Elchanan Vasserman asks the following question from the Gemara in Kiddushin 40b (which is also brought in the Rambam 3 Teshuva 3).
(Some people answer that only after the gzeiras hakasuv that Teshuva erases sin did it follow that Toheh ahl Harishonos erases mitzvos. With all due respect, I think that's just infantile, a reflexive ‘lomdus’ that doesn’t make any sense. The latter does not follow the former at all. The protocol of Din does not have to echo that of rachamim. That's the whole point of saying that midda tova is meruba.)
The Chafetz Chaim answered that while it is true that all regret erases past behavior, Teshuva is unparalleled in two ways. 1. Teshuva brought about by fear of punishment does not mean that the baal teshuva regrets his aveiros like the Toheh, the sinner in Kiddushin, regrets his mitzvos. A man who is doing Teshuva out of fear only regrets the deadly consequence of his sins. Despite his lack of true regret, Teshuva meiYira erases his sins. 2. And if the Teshuva was from love of Hashem, Teshuva meiAhava, it doesn't erase the sin- it reconstitutes the sin into a meritorious act, as if it were a mitzva. This is unparalleled in the case of one who regrets having done a mitzva, and is the unique result of Middas Harachamim.
Unfortunately, this all seems to point toward something I've often quoted from a well known and highly respected Mashgiach that I've had business with.
He didn't put it in those exact words, but pretty close, and I think the aphorism sums up his philosophy, that a spiritual fall generates an indelible change that forever increases the risk of relapse. Spiritual advances, on the other hand, are fragile, easily lost, and effortlessly extirpated. They disappear easily, and when they do, they don't leave a trace.
Reb Yitzchak Hutner in his Pachad Yitzchok answered Reb Elchonon's question along the same lines (minus the cynicism.) He said that going from life to death is part of the teva, the natural order of Hashem's universe. Going from death to life is not. Order requires constant energy, while disorder is the default state. Anyone can be meimis a chai. Not everyone can be mechayeh a meis.
Another way to put this: Middos Ra'os take root much more easily than middos tovos. Uprooting them is much harder than uprooting good middos. What is true for Middos is also true for the effect of mitzvos and aveiros. That alone would serve to explain why Toheh is derech hateva, while Teshuva is lema'ala miderech hateva. Besides being painfully obvious, the Beis Yosef in the beginning of Orach Chaim says this about Azus Panim. Bad behavior is dyo, an indelible dye, while good behavior is sikra, faint and superficial. One would think that observing disgusting behavior is not likely to influence you to emulate that behavior. But in our parsha, in 29:16, it says that if you observe the disgusting pagan rites, beware of the effect on you, and know that you might be influenced by it. Similarly, the Gemara (beginning of Sotah, brought by Rashi in Ki Sisa) says "haro'eh sotah b'kilkula, yazir atzmo min hayayin." If you see a Sotah ugly disheveled and publicly disgraced, be on guard! You are in danger of following her example. Avoid wine! Thus, we see that the result of Toheh is natural, while Teshuva is practically a miracle.
But one can say another mehalach. And do me a favor: after reading it, the teretz is obvious. But it wasn't obvious before you read it, so don't give me a hard time. Hakol b'chezkas sumin....
Toheh works like Kavana misnagedes in mitzvos (Rosh Hashanna 28). Even if you hold Mitzvos einan tzrichos kavana, that is because (as Reb Moshe says in the Darash on Ushmartem es hamatzos, Shmos 12:17) stama lishma , or because if the person realized that he had done the mitzva he would be pleased, or because of the Rambam in the second perek of Hilchos Geirushin. But certainly, the desire to do Hashem's will is fundamental to all mitzvos, and if you do the mitzva intending that it not be a mitzva, you have done nothing at all. For aveiros, on the other hand, even if you do an aveira with kavana misnagedes, for example, you do the aveira because you enjoy it but have kavana davka not to transgress Hashem's will, it doesn't make a bit of a difference, you're still punished for the aveira. And worse than that: when one does a mitzva and davka doesn't want to be mekayeim Hashem's will, the act of doing the mitzva is the biggest moreid bemalchus. Of course his mitzvos turn into aveiros.
I suppose I should write Reb Elchanan's teretz, but that will have to wait. Anyway, I like these teirutzim more, and they also answer the other kashes I mentioned above, about changing the mitzvos to aveiros and the ease of toheh compared to the difficulty of teshuva, and Tosfos in Chulin.
Cited text of Mesillas Yesharim