One problem with remorse is that sometimes a person is truly penitent and does teshuva from the bottom of his heart, but the teshuva is misplaced – he focuses on the wrong part of the transgression.
There is a hasidic story about a woman who came to the rebbe to seek repentance for eating on Asara BeTevet, forgetting that it is a fast day.
After listening to her talk about her transgression, the rebbe began to tell her the story of a Jew who took over for a Priest.
A farmer came to confess before him and told him that he stole a piece of rope.
The Jew asked him under what circumstances he stole the rope.
The farmer answered that the rope was tied to a cow, and since he stole the cow, the rope was stolen together with it.
When the Jew then asked him what else happened, the farmer continued, recounting that the owner of the cow noticed the theft and tried to resist.
When the Jew then asked how the farmer responded, he answered, “I killed him.”
When the Jew heard this, he could no longer contain himself and cried, “You killed him!?”
The rebbe, too, shouted at the woman, “You killed someone?!” and the woman fainted in shock.
It turned out that she had given birth to a child outside of wedlock, strangled him, and covered up the incident.
This woman came to the rebbe to seek repentance for having mistakenly eaten on Asara BeTevet, and ended up revealing her guilt in a far more egregious matter.
Though this anecdote is an extreme example, this is a problem that many people encounter in their lives.
A person can work toward self-improvement and atonement, but if he does not get to the heart of the problem, he will think that it is sufficient to rectify only a specific point, while the essential problem still exists.
In such a case, the benefit of repentance would be merely temporary and local.
A similar problem exists among those who undergo cancer operations.
It is often simple for a surgeon to remove the cancerous growth itself, but it is far more complicated to determine whether that particular growth is a metastasis of another growth that still remains in the person’s body.
If any growths remain, the treatment will not succeed.
It can be a great accomplishment for a person to admit, “I have sinned this time.”
But there is a higher level, where a person’s soul-searching moves him to such a degree that he declares, “God is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.”
His remorse reaches back three hundred years, because he understands that his sin does not begin from the present moment, from the present phenomenon – he had to return to the root of the matter.
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz