There are many times ‘a change of status’ is effected in Jewish law. For example, selling an object effects a change of the status of that object – namely, who owns it – from the buyer to the seller. Similarly, when a man places a ring on a woman’s finger and declares that ‘You are betrothed to me’ etc., the woman’s status changes from being ‘single’ (penuyah) to being a married lady (an eishes ish), with all its halachic ramifications and consequences (e.g. prohibitions of cohabiting with other men, the mutual kesubah obligations, etc,). Yet, if analyzed carefully, these two examples of status changes are very different. Some changes in status are effected by the parties involved alone, the buyer and seller (via their actions and intentions), while some changes of status cannot be performed by man alone; Hashem (/the Torah) is needed to complete or effect the change of status. Conversion to Judaism might be one example (see Tosafos Sanhedrin 68b); a potential convert performs certain actions, and the status change is then conferred upon him from Hashem. It is possible that kiddushin (betrothal) works like that too; man performs the required actions (giving of the ring and the declaration in front of two kosher witnesses) and Hashem effects the halachic status change of this couple, with its accompanying obligations and prohibitions. Which category does teshuva fit in; status-changes that are effected by man, or those effected by G-d? Is the removal of sins via teshuva purely effected by us, or is it something beyond our capabilities, that we merely perform the elements we can (regret, separation from the sin, commitment not to repeat the sin, and confession) and Hashem then effects the change?
Rav Dessler (M’M 2:84) effectively addresses this crucial question via a verse in Malachi (3:7). The verse says ‘return (repent) to Me and I shall return to you’. It seems that even after our attempts to repent (even sincerely), Hashem is still required to return to us to complete the repentance. Further, the celebrated Mishnah at the end of Yoma cites Rabbi Akiva’s statement regarding atonement on Yom Kippur that ‘Happy are you Bnei Yisrael, before Whom are you becoming pure and Who is purifying you’ which implies that Hashem finishes off the job when it comes to teshuva and atonement. We can now gain a deeper understanding of the Rambam’s statement that when one sins severely, the opportunity of teshuva can be withheld from him (hilchos Teshuva 6:3), for Hashem simply does not provide/effect the status change that normally accompanies our efforts to repent. Rav Dessler goes further in isolating the element of Hashem’s involvement in our repentence. Since naturally our sensitivities our numbed when we sin – we cling to the sin and would easily repeat our mistakes – Hashem provides that purity of heart to return our sensitivities to the position they were in had we not sinned in the first place. Teshuva is an immense kindness from Hashem; not only does He provide the opportunity and mechanism for us to cleanse ourselves and turn over a new leaf, but He even completes the job for us!