מרן זצ"ל בביקור בעיר נצרת, ימי הרחמים והסליחות
Answer: It is well-known that the Teshuva process is usually categorized by “Desist from evil and do good,” i.e. one must first repent for all the sins one has committed against Hashem and only then should one perform Mitzvot and other good deeds which will stand to one’s merit. Indeed, the Rambam writes in his Hilchot Teshuva (Chapter 7): “How lofty is the level of Teshuva as yesterday, one’s sins separated him from his Father in Heaven, as the verse states, ‘Your sins separated between you and your G-d.’ Additionally, he would pray but not be answered, as the verse states, ‘Even if you pray copiously, I shall not listen.’ Moreover, if he performs Mitzvot, they shall be torn to pieces before him as the verse states, ‘Who asked this of you, trampling my courtyards etc. I have no desire for you, so says Hashem, G-d of hosts, I shall not want meal-offerings from your hands; your Olah offerings have outnumbered your sacrifices so that they may eat meat.’ However, today (after one has repented), one cleaves to the holy presence of Hashem, as the verse states, ‘And you are the ones who cleave to Hashem, you are all alive today.’ Furthermore, when he prays he shall be answered immediately, as the verse states, ‘Even before they call me I shall answer.’ When he performs Mitzvot, they shall be accepted joyfully and graciously, as the verse states, ‘For Hashem has already accepted your actions.’”
Based on the words of the Rambam, it would seem that Hashem has no desire for the Mitzvot of one who is still steeped in sin, for this individual is not loved by Hashem and his Mitzvot are torn to pieces before him. If so, any effort one puts forth in one’s Mitzvah observance before becoming a complete Ba’al Teshuva (repentant person) is for naught and it will not benefit the individual at all.
Nevertheless, this is indeed not the case, for the Yalkut Shimoni (Hoshe’a, 529) states that anyone who possesses sins and did not succeed in performing Teshuva may trade them in for good deeds and he should then repent and it will be accepted. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l explains that the meaning of this Midrash is that if one attempts to repent but has not yet been successful, since one intends to ultimately perform Teshuva, one should not refrain from performing Mitzvot; rather, one should invest in performing Mitzvot and good deeds and then, when one finally succeeds in repenting fully, all of his Mitzvot and good deeds will retroactively be accepted willingly by Hashem.
We must add that the Mitzvot one performs before one succeeds in performing Teshuva will help in eventually repenting fully, for if one sins and then tries to do Teshuva and during that time invests in Torah study and Mitzvah observance, this learning will certainly shower one with holiness and this will in turn assist him to overcome the Evil Inclination from now on. When one later repents, his Teshuva shall be accepted and he shall likewise collect reward for the Mitzvot he has performed.
Maran zt”l uses this concept to explain the incident recorded in the Gemara Masechet Avodah Zara (17a) regarding Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya, a tremendous sinner who eventually repented. When he realized how great his sins were, he placed his head between his knees and cried so bitterly that his soul departed from him. A Heavenly voice then rang out, “Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya is invited to enter the World to Come,” for his Teshuva had been accepted. Regarding this story did Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Nassi cry and exclaim, “Some acquire their share in the World to Come in a moment.” The obvious question is: Why would Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Nassi cry about a Ba’al Teshuva’s acceptance into the World to Come? The answer is that Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Nassi cried because Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya did not have the opportunity to properly amass Mitzvot and good deeds during his lifetime, especially regarding Torah study, and in the World to Come, he would no longer be able to perform the Mitzvot. Were Rabbi Elazar to perform the Mitzvot even before he succeeded in repenting, he would have merited reaping reward for these Mitzvot through his Teshuva and his lot would have been so much greater!