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Teshuva of Norm and of Crisis

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Based on an address by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler
Transcribed by Marc Herman, David Raphael and Rav Dov Karoll

Teshuva of Norm

I would like to examine two types of teshuva (repentance), their respective sources and characters, and the interaction between them.  The first type, which I will call “the teshuva of norm,” has a dual connotation, being at once normal and normative.  At one plane, it might simply be depicted as ongoing spiritual maintenance.  If one visits his doctor for a checkup, or has his car checked routinely, may one do less in the spiritual realm?  The latter element is far more crucial, impinging, as it does, on eternal life.  It is, moreover, far more susceptible to breakdown: “For there is no man who is wholly righteous on earth, who shall do only good and not sin” (Kohelet 7:20).

Given the frailty of both flesh and spirit, our constitution is such that sin is inevitable.  The need to confront it is a perennial staple of our temporal existence.  This is not a Christian concept, a guilt-ridden preoccupation with original sin.  “The impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Bereishit 8:21) is, after all, a verse in the Torah.  Chazal (Bereishit Rabba 34:10) interpret it to mean that “the evil inclination commences when one stirs to leave his mother’s womb,” while the positive inclination commences only at age thirteen, and the gap is difficult to close.  Chazal put it more sharply when attesting, “Man’s evil inclination is perpetually strengthening” (Sukka 52b, Kiddushin 30b), and when stating that were it not for supernatural divine assistance for those properly motivated, one would be hard put to triumph over that evil inclination, which renews itself daily.

At this level, teshuva is normal, a routine part of our spiritual maintenance.  Yet it is also normative, in both a timeless and a timely fashion.  It is timeless in the sense that introspection is expected and demanded of a person simply as a function of his existence as a spiritual being, having been created in the image of God: “It would have been easier for man not to have been created, but now that he has been created, he should investigate his actions; some say he should examine his actions” (Eruvin 13b).  It is also time-bound, varying with the temporal cycle; there is always a plateau of spiritual responsibility, and there are also peaks that require more than the normal fare. 

The Ten Days of Penitence are such a time.  The Gemara (Yevamot 49b) explains that although God answers the community “whenever we call out to Him” (Devarim 4:7), the individual should “Seek out God when He is to be found” (Yeshayahu 55:6), namely, during “the ten days from Rosh Ha-shana until Yom Ha-kippurim.”  What the Gemara understands as a window of opportunity, the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:6-7) translates into obligation and responsibility: inasmuch as this is a “time of favor,” the obligation of repentance devolves upon one.[1] 

Focus on Specific Actions

If we ask ourselves about the character and range of teshuva as a norm, I think it would be fair to suggest that it bears a moral cast, rather than a religious one.  By this I mean that it focuses on the wrong that has been done, and not on the damage to one’s relationship with God.  In order to understand this, let us enumerate five components and ramifications of sin. 

First, by sinning you wrong yourself, be it a moral wrong or a religious wrong.  Second, sin impacts upon the performer.  Chazal speak in certain contexts of sins being metamtem;” they defile, confuse, and abuse the soul.  Third, sin brings on punishment. 

These three components relate to the sinful act and to the sinner.  The remaining aspects address the sin as it relates to God.  Fourth, the sin is an affront to God Himself.  Apart from the evil inherent in the act, it is a slap in God’s face, so to speak.  Fifth, the sin distances one from God.

In speaking of the moral, as opposed to the religious, aspects of teshuva, I use the term moral as that which relates to the wrong, to the evil, to its perpetration and its perpetrator; the presence of evil needs to be confronted and confounded.  The religious aspect of teshuva relates more to the relationship to God, either at the level of affront or at the level of “divorce” resulting from sin.  Dealing with teshuva as a norm, we find ourselves focused on confronting the evil as such: correcting the sin and the sinner, more than upon the impact which sin has upon one’s relationship to God. 

This is sharply delineated in the opening halakha (1:1) of the Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva, which focuses on the particular sin that needs to be confronted, and on the almost technical means of repairing it: 

If a person violates any of the mitzvot of the Torah – whether a positive or a negative command, whether wittingly or inadvertently – when he repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed is He...

In the earlier chapters of Hilkhot Teshuva, the Rambam deals with teshuva as a mitzva, and as such, he focuses upon the element of evil and its confrontation; only later (in the seventh chapter) will he discuss the relationship with God.

Furthermore, in the opening halakha, the Rambam speaks of teshuva that is occasional, in the sense that there are unanticipated moments where teshuva is required because a sin has come up.  Each sin requires its own teshuva, and each seems to be regarded in isolation, like an archipelago of islands, without looking at the totality.  Yom Kippur, the mandated time of teshuva, demands of us, of course, an integrated and comprehensive purgation.  And yet, possibly under the impact of the detailed catalogue of Al Chet” – the lengthy confession recited on Yom ha-kippurim – we often tend to focus on specific actions, on our many sinful acts, each of which requires its own particular teshuva.

The piecemeal character and limited range of teshuva have an impact upon its intensity as well.  This intensity of normal teshuva is, I suspect, likely to be relatively mild.  To be sure, if one’s moral and religious sensibility is keen, and, if a particularly dastardly act has been committed, even a single failure may be devastating.  For example, the fifty-first chapter of Tehillim relates to a particular transgression, which, however we understand its character and specific contents, affected King David deeply:

When Natan the prophet approached, after he came unto Batsheva, [King David prayed:] Show me favor, O God, according to Your kindness, according to Your vast compassion erase my transgressions.  Cleanse me abundantly from my iniquity, and purify me from my sin.  For I recognize my transgressions, and my sin is before me always.  I sinned against You alone, and I did that which is evil in your eyes; therefore You are justified when You speak, and faultless when You judge.  See, I was fashioned in iniquity, and my mother conceived me in sin… (Tehillim 51:2-7)

Where spiritual perception is sharp, even a single sin can be totally devastating.  And, surely, apart from the specific content and context, every sinful act entails the cardinal preference of personal will to that of God.  This is rebellion, pure and simple, and therefore every sin should shake us to our roots.  Nevertheless, this is not often the case. Even as we seek to repent for the particular sinful act, to make amends for it, and even as we harness our energies to realize all the components of the teshuva process (the abandonment of sin, regret for past action, acceptance of improvement for future action, and confession), we rarely sense cataclysmic upheaval or radical upsurge. Normal or moral teshuva, while sincere, is often restrained, if not muted.

Crisis as a Catalyst of Teshuva

By contrast, upheaval and upsurge lie at the epicenter of our second mode of teshuva, that of crisis.  The relation of crisis and teshuva is itself multifaceted.  At one plane, teshuva is induced by crisis, to which it may constitute a response.  The crisis in question can assume various forms.  It may bespeak the awareness of failure: “Return, Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (Hoshea 14:2).  It may also arise out of the throes of suffering, whether personal or collective.[2] 

While it may be true as a psychological or sociological fact that the experience of crisis tends to induce teshuva, crisis may very well mandate teshuva halakhically as well.  This would be parallel to the Ramban’s approach to tefilla, prayer.  The Rambam believed that once-daily tefilla is a biblically-ordained positive commandment (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1).  The Ramban, however, disputes this position, offering two alternative opinions: either the obligation of prayer is rabbinic in origin, though as a religious fulfillment it is biblical in origin; or at the moment of crisis tefilla is biblically ordained, but at other times it is mandated only rabbinically.[3]  The latter opinion means that in a time of crisis, a person should feel a sense of dependence on and need for God.  In times of need, it is impossible to think in terms of self-sufficiency – that being the epitome of arrogance – and therefore a person needs to turn to the Source, Who alone is able to satisfy his needs and to bring solace to his suffering. 

So, too, with regard to teshuva. The verse, “In your distress … you shall return to the Lord your God and obey His voice” (Devarim 4:30), may be meant to be understood in a double sense.  First, it is predictive and promissory, an expression of the Rambam’s remarkable assertion:

Israel will be redeemed only through teshuva, and the Torah has already promised that, ultimately, [the people of] Israel will repent toward the end of their exile, and, immediately, they will be redeemed, as the verse states, (Devarim 30:1-3): “And it shall be, that when all these things happen to you… you shall return to the Lord your God…  The Lord your God will return your captivity and have mercy upon you…” (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:5)

At another level, this can be viewed as normative, a blend of plea, assurance, and command. 

The Character of Crisis Teshuva

Crisis teshuva focuses less upon the sin that needs to be confronted and corrected, and more upon the ramifications of sin upon one’s relationship to God.  In the terms I used earlier, it is more religious than moral.  Consequently, it is described in teleological rather than corrective terms.  There are verses which speak of “moving from,” such as, “Return, return from your evil ways” (Yechezkel 33:11), and other verses which speak of “moving to,” such as, “Return unto Me and I shall return unto you” (Malakhi 3:7), “Return, Israel, to the Lord your God” (Hoshea 14:2), or “Return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice” (Devarim 30:2).  The former verses refer to normal or moral teshuva, while the latter verses refer to crisis or religious teshuva.  The Rambam, unlike his earlier treatment of teshuva, focuses in the seventh chapter on the rehabilitation of one’s relationship with God:

How exalted is the level of teshuva!  Previously, this person was separated from the Lord, God of Israel… He would call out [to God] without being answered… He would fulfill mitzvot, only to have them flung back in his face…

But now, he clings to the Divine Presence… He calls out [to God] and is answered immediately… He performs mitzvot and they are accepted with pleasure and joy… (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:7)

In circumstances of genuine crisis, a person does not feel the need, or lacks the energy, to try to tinker with the details of corrective teshuva.  He is desperately in need of an anchor.  He feels himself catapulted into outer space, free floating, and in desperation and longing he looks to God and for God.  Perhaps later there will be occasion to worry about the sins and the confession, but in the hour of crisis, at its most intense, he is less engaged by the moral, and more with the spiritual.  When compared with normal teshuva, crisis teshuva is likely to be both more comprehensive and more intense.

These qualities are reflected in the halakhic source of teshuva.  Although Chazal clearly regard teshuva is a wonderful opportunity and a great obligation, they provide no clear source for teshuva as a mitzva.  The Rambam and the Ramban, respectively, chose different verses as sources – and how different these sources are! 

For the Rambam, the source of the mitzva of teshuva is viddui, confession.  He links these in his prefatory subtitle: “Hilkhot Teshuva contains one mitzva, namely, that a sinner should repent from his sin before God and confess.”  He cites the verse in his opening paragraph:

…[W]hen he repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed is He, as the verse states, “When a man or a woman commits any of the sins… they must confess the sin they committed” (Bemidbar 5:6-7) – this refers to verbal confession. (1:1)

This verse appears in parashat Naso, within the narrow context of a person who has stolen something and, when confronted, swears falsely that he is innocent.  When he eventually confesses his guilt, the Torah says that he has to bring an offering and compensate the victim by repaying the value of the stolen object, plus an additional fine.[4] 

The Ramban, on the other hand, finds the source of the mitzva of teshuva in parashat Nitzavim, in a section that he understands as both command and promise:

You shall repent and heed the voice of the Lord, and fulfill all His commandments which I command you today… The Lord will return to rejoice over you for the good, as He rejoiced over your forefathers.  For you shall obey the Lord your God to observe His commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the Torah, for you shall return to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim 30:8-10)

The verses then continue:

For this mitzva which I am commanding you today – it is not removed from you, nor is it distant.  It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who will ascend for us to heaven, and take it for us that we will hear it and fulfill it?”  It is not across the sea, [for you] to say, “Who will cross for us to the other side of the sea, and take it for us that we will hear it and fulfill it?”  For the matter is very   close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to fulfill it. (Devarim 30:11-14) 

What is “this mitzva which I am commanding you today?”  The Ramban (Devarim 30:11, s.v. ki) notes that “this mitzva” can refer either to the entire Torah or to a single mitzva.  He then comments, with a nice grammatical distinction, that when the Torah denominates its entirety as a “mitzva,” it uses the phrase kol ha-mitzva, “all the mitzva” (as in Devarim 8:1).  However, the expression used here, ha-mitzva ha-zot, “this mitzva,” refers to a specific mitzva, namely,

to the aforementioned mitzva of teshuva, for the verses, “And you shall return in your heart” (30:1), and “You shall return to the Lord your God” (30:2), constitute the mitzva wherein He commands us to do so.  It is stated in the indicative mode, rather than the imperative mode, to suggest, in the form of a pledge, that it is destined to be.

How drastically different this is from the Rambam!  He spoke of a person whose total lifestyle, personality, and scale of values are not in question.  Rather, his source for teshuva addressed person who has committed a grievous error, but a single error.  The sin is a blot on his life and his person, but it does not bring into question his spiritual identity, his religious commitment, his fundamental relationship to God, his beliefs and practices, and his fulfillment of mitzvot generally.  Of course, even in this case, teshuva is an effort; no one likes to confess, for it runs counter to one’s sense of pride; no one enjoys paying principal plus a fine, but presumably it’s manageable.  Teshuva here is neither comprehensive nor intense, and the context of teshuva is one’s confrontation with a particular failure.  

However, the Ramban’s conception, that “this mitzva” refers to teshuva, is to be understood against the background of the rest of the parasha in Nitzavim:

And it shall be, that when all these things happen to you, the blessing and the curse, which I placed before you … You shall return to the Lord your God and hearken to His voice… For you shall obey the Lord your God to observe His commandments and statutes that are written in this book of Torah, for you shall return to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim 30:1-2, 10)

The teshuva here is comprehensive – “For you shall obey the Lord your God to observe His commandments and statutes,” a general commitment – and it is intense – “with all your heart and with all your soul,” the totality of one’s being.  And while “this mitzva” is “not in heaven” nor “across the sea,” the Gemara (Eruvin 55a) points out that the verse implies that were it in heaven or across the sea, you would have to find a way of getting there.[5]  However, regarding the Rambam’s source for teshuva, the Mishnah (Bava Kama 9:5, 103a) tells us that if a person robs his fellow and swears falsely in denying it, he has to chase after the victim even as far as Madai in order to repay him, but presumably he would not have to ascend heavenward or transcend the ocean.

The Crisis of Teshuva

We have spoken of the relation of crisis to teshuva in two modes: first, teshuva as being induced by crisis; second, of teshuva as being mandated by crisis.  Beyond what has been delineated, we need to recognize that teshuva is not just brought about by crisis, it is itself a crisis.  To be sure, from a certain psychological standpoint, sin is manifest assertiveness, the implicit braggadocio of Milton’s Satan and his motto, “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven” (Paradise Lost, Book 1).  To a religious sensibility, however, sin, so vividly portrayed by Spenser as “close creeping twixt the marrow and the skin” (The Faerie Queene, Book 1, Canto X), is a corrosive cancer.  Yearning for it and capitulating to it both symbolizes and constitutes the breakdown, if not the collapse, of the true spiritual personality.

Thus, within the process of teshuva itself, there can be a crisis.  The acknowledgement of sin can be devastating, leaving the self in shambles.  The Mishna (Avot 2:1) counsels: “Contemplate three things and you will not come within the power of transgression: know what is above you – an all-seeing eye, and an all-hearing ear, and all your deeds are recorded in the book.”  This implies that the recognition of sin will arouse a combination of fear, guilt and shame.  These feelings can shatter the self, even as the need to reconstitute, regroup, and rebuild is most urgent and most acute. 

Within the context of sin and teshuva, one may find himself caught up in a threefold crisis: a crisis of identity, a crisis of capacity, and a crisis of standing before God.  The process of teshuva, in such context, becomes daunting. 

In these circumstances, in the hour of crisis, when one’s sense of self-worth and one’s confidence in one’s abilities are so thoroughly undermined, the cosmetic initiatives of normal teshuva alone will not do.  One may correct a blemish here, a spot there.  But what one needs is regeneration, rebirth, to be created anew.  Will we attain that simply by zeroing in, as a result of the memory of previous lapses, on this improvement or that improvement?  In order to attain regeneration, one needs to create energies and spiritual identities, even as one wishes to harness them.  One’s capacity has been destroyed and undermined, and these tools are necessary in order to rebuild, but they are precisely the tools that have been shattered. 

We find ourselves up against the dilemma delineated by Chazal: “The prisoner cannot free himself from jail” (Berakhot 5b).  Yet that is precisely what the teshuva of crisis entails: the need and the challenge for a prisoner to free himself from jail.  Of course, he is not freeing himself all alone; there is Divine assistance, both through redemptive reconciliation of, “Return unto Me and I shall return unto you” (Malakhi 3:6), and by the contribution of the divine assistance, siyata di-shemaya, that energizes the penitent, in the sense of “He who comes to be purified is assisted” (Shabbat 104a and elsewhere).  That is a mesaye’a, an “assistance” – indeed, a mesaye’a sheyesh bo mamash (an “assistance of significance,” as in Shabbat 93a) – but, fundamentally, the ball is in our court.  “This matter is dependent,” as Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya said, “on none other than me!” (Avoda Zara 17a).  Yet when the crisis seems most calamitous, regeneration awaits.

Weeping and Supplication

  We read in the haftara of the second day of Rosh Ha-shana, “With weeping they will come, and through supplications I will bring them; I will guide them on streams of water, on a direct path in which they will not stumble, for I have been a father to Israel, and Efraim is My firstborn” (Yirmiyahu 31:8).  The prophet spoke these words with regard to the return to the land of Israel, but Rambam spoke of the same elements with respect to the return to the God of Israel.  In the second chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva, he outlines, normatively, the components of teshuva, and describes the habitual activity of the penitent: “Among the paths of repentance is for the penitent to constantly call out before God, weeping and supplicating.”  The same phrase, bekhi ve-tachanunim, appears in the Rambam as in the verse in Yirmiyahu

With respect to the weeping, there is a remarkable midrash in parashat Tetzaveh (Shemot Rabba 38:4).  We read in the haftara of Shabbat Shuva, “Take words with you and return unto God” (Hoshea 14:3), and the midrash explains:

This is what the verses in Tehillim (26:6-7) mean when they say, “I wash my hands in purity … to proclaim thanksgiving in a loud voice.”  Might I think that this means to offer bulls and rams?  The verse teaches, “To proclaim thanksgiving.”  [Why do I need the verse to tell me this?] 

For Israel states, “Master of the World, when the princes sin, they may bring an offering and gain atonement (see Vayikra 4:22-26).  If the anointed kohen sins, he brings an offering and gains atonement (Vayikra 4:3-12).  But we have no offering!” 

God said to them, “[Do not despair, you can bring an offering:] ‘If the entire community of Israel inadvertently sins … [then the congregation shall offer a young bullock…]’ (Vayikra 4:13-21).”

They said unto Him, “We are poor, and we are unable to bring offerings.”

He said unto them, “I seek your words, as the verse states, ‘Take your words and return unto God,’ and I will forgive all your sins.  And devarim, ‘words’ refers to none other than the words of the Torah, as the verse states, ‘These are the devarim that Moshe spoke’ (Devarim 1:1).”

They said unto Him, “We do not understand it.”  [In other words, just as they do not have money to buy offerings, they do not have the knowledge to learn Torah.]

He said unto them, “Weep and pray before Me, and I shall accept it. 

Your forefathers, when they were enslaved in Egypt, did I not redeem them through prayer, as it says, ‘The children of Israel groaned from their labor and cried’ (Shemot 2:23)? 

In the time of Yehoshua, did I not perform miracles through their prayer, as it says, ‘Yehoshua tore his clothes, and fell on his face before the ark of the Lord…’ (Yehoshua 7:6)?  And what did I tell him?  ‘Extend the spear…’ (8:18) [leading to their salvation at Ai].  

In the time of the Judges, I heard their tearful cry, as it says, ‘And it was when the children of Israel cried out to God’ (Shofetim 6:7). 

In the time of Shemuel, did I not hear their prayers, as it says, ‘Shemuel cried out to the Lord on behalf of Israel, and the Lord answered him’ (Shemuel 1:7:9)? 

And similarly regarding the people of Yerushalayim: even though they angered Me, I had compassion upon them because they cried before Me, as it says, ‘For thus said the Lord: Sing with gladness, O Yaakov’ (Yirmiyahu 31:6).

Thus, I do not seek offerings from you but rather words, as it says, ‘Take words with you and return to God,’ and thus said David, ‘I shall wash my hands with purity … to proclaim thanksgiving in a loud voice.’”

Torah is important and sacrifices are important, and, for those with the capacity, they can help in teshuva.  But they don’t have the existential thrust and force and the significance of the teshuva of crisis.   “Among the paths of repentance,” says the Rambam, “is for the penitent to constantly call out before God, weeping and supplicating.”  The weeping comes when one’s defenses are down, and when the defenses are down, the offensive begins.

Teshuva of Supplication and of Burden

I spoke before of a possible parallel between tefilla and teshuva according to the Ramban: in times of crisis, the obligation of each is magnified and intensified.  Likewise, with regard to supplication, there may be a parallel between teshuva and tefilla.  The Mishna draws a contrast between prayer as supplication (tachanunim) and prayer as a fixed task (keva).[6]  The Gemara (Berakhot 29b) explains: “What is meant by keva?  Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi said in the name of Rabbi Oshaya: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden upon him.”   Rashi (s.v. ve-haynu) elaborates: “The meaning of the word keva is [the attitude that] there is a set precept upon me to pray, and I must discharge my obligation.”  This means that one prays out of a sense of duty, but one doesn’t identify with it.  One doesn’t prioritize it; one doesn’t accept it as a value; it is not part of one’s spiritual universe, not part of one’s personality or one’s essential being. 

Just as there can be prayer of keva, so too there can be teshuva of keva.  “It is like a heavy burden upon him.”  Yom ha-kippurim rolls around and – what can you do? – it’s time for teshuva.  It says so in the books.  You heard it as a child, you heard it when you were maturing as an adolescent, you heard it when you became an adult, and you have to do teshuva.  That is not the teshuva of tachanunim.  Prayers need tachanunim, teshuva needs to be tachanunim, and the service of God in its totality needs to be tachanunim

Of course, we act out a sense of duty and obligation, and that is a fundamental concept in Judaism: “Greater is the one who is commanded and fulfills, more so than the one who is uncommanded and fulfills” (Bava Kama 38a, 87a; Avoda Zara 3a).  But that does not mean, God forbid, that one who is commanded does a mitzva but wishes he didn’t have to do it.  Rather, he would do it even were he not commanded, but being commanded, he does it more fully.  The sense of identification, as opposed to the sense of “it is like a heavy burden,” is essential to our conception of religious life in general, and to our conception of teshuva in particular. 

There is another explanation of keva in the Gemara there: “The Rabbis say: It refers to whoever does not say it in the manner of tachanunim.”  There is a language of tachanunim.  It is not necessarily something that can be described in linguistic terms; it is a quality of experience.  It may be body language; it may be a language without a language.  The Chassidim say that there are three levels of niggunim, tunes – niggunim that have a libretto, niggunim that don’t have a libretto, and, third, a niggun without a niggun – something so internal that it doesn’t even find verbalization in musical terms.  That is a language of tachanunim – imploring, begging, searching, requesting, and weeping.

Integrating the Two Types of Teshuva

In conclusion, one critical point needs to be emphasized.  Both strains of teshuva – crisis and norm – have their place.  “Everything has its season, and there is a time for every desire” (Kohelet 3:1).  There are circumstances and contexts within which the focus needs to be upon the teshuva of norm, and others in which the call of the hour is to the teshuva of crisis.  There are moments when the moral element of teshuva, the confrontation with sin, is central and overarching, and others where the religious element of return, the reconstruction and regeneration of one’s self and of one’s relationship with God, is crucial.

We should not for a moment be drawn into deciding which form of teshuva is valid and which is not.  With an eye towards the totality of our religious experience, delineating the contours of our service of God in its entirety, and with an eye to Yom ha-kippurim in particular, we shall categorically refuse to choose between them.  On the contrary, we shall strive not only to maintain each of them independently, but to attain integrated interaction. 

Judaism has never been drawn into the debate between Protestants and Catholics regarding justification by faith or justification by works.  We recognize the difference, but we don’t recognize the conflict.  What is central to halakhic life is the conjunction and interaction between the respective modalities and the respective paths.  The world of Halakha is one which is full of minute detail.  Some people find it difficult to accept that, preferring to speak in terms of spiritual generalities and axiological priorities. How does the Torah approach this?  “Now, O Israel!  What does the Lord your God ask of you?” – the Torah offers a definition of the religious life – “Only to fear the Lord your God, to follow Him in all His ways, to love Him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul” (Devarim 10:12).  The next verse continues. “To keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes that I am commanding you today, for your benefit.”  One verse speaks in of ultimate religious values, twinned with universal values: fear of God, imitatio Dei, love of God, serving God with all your heart and all your soul.  Lest one think this is all that he needs, that Halakha is somehow secondary, the next verse stresses the need to observe, safeguard, and develop the whole world of Halakha, “the commandments of the Lord and His statutes.” 

The same conjunction appears in parashat Ki Tavo, which speaks of the respective crowning and elevation, so to speak, of God and the Jewish people.  It opens with a very clear normative charge: “This day, the Lord your God commands you to observe all these statutes and judgments; take care to fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul” (Devarim 26:16).   Here, “with all your heart and with all your soul” does not describe how one should fear and love of God, follow Him and serve Him, but rather how one should observe the “statutes and judgments.”  Continuing with the next verse, “You have distinguished the Lord today to be your God, and to go in His ways” – this is the acceptance of the majesty and yoke of Heaven, as well as imitatio Dei, along with the acceptance “to observe His statutes, His commandments and His judgments and hearken to His voice.”

That conjunction, which runs like a thread through the Torah and throughout Sefer Devarim particularly, is the quintessential center of Torah existence and of Torah sensibility.  This is true of the service of God generally, and of teshuva specifically. 

In the parasha of teshuva in Nitzavim, we encounter a similar conjunction: “For you shall obey the Lord your God to observe His commandments and statutes … for you shall return to the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul” (Devarim 30:10).  I understand this to mean that part of the mitzva of teshuva itself is “to observe His commandments and statutes.” The charge is to develop a religious sensibility that is both attentive to minute detail – confrontation with and correction of sin – and to the building of the self and the repairing of one’s relationship with God.  We shall strive to charge our formal observance with experiential meaning and vitality; and on the other hand, we shall strive to lend substantive body to our passionate and committed mode of teshuva, to be guided and inspired by halakhic observance. 

We have a concomitant desire to expect something from our teshuva.  Yom ha-kippurim is a day of “compassionate judgment,” as the Ramban says (Vayikra 23:24, s.v. yihyeh), the day of the thirteen attributes of mercy.  The power of teshuva is an integrated dual one: spiritual maintenance, focused upon correcting sin, and spiritual regeneration, stemming from spiritual crisis.  We turn to God in hope and anticipation that He, too, will relate to us on two fronts.  Yom ha-kippurim is, in one respect, the day of forgiveness of sins, as we say in the Amida: “The King who forgives our sins, and the sins of His people Israel, setting aside our wrongdoings every year.” It is, at the same time, a day of regeneration, reconciliation and appeasement, even without reference to forgiveness of sins.  If we became enmeshed and mired in sin, with all the ramifications I delineated earlier, then we hope and pray on “God’s great and awesome day” for forgiveness through supplication, erasure of sins and punishment, and at the same time for the regeneration and rehabilitation that are so essential. 

King David, in the marvelous chapter 51 of Tehillim, addresses God with an eye to both elements of teshuva.  On the one hand, he pleads for forgiveness of sin: 

Cleanse me abundantly from my iniquity, and purify me from my sin.  For I recognize my transgressions, and my sin is before me always.  (51:4-5)

But he is not content with that; he also wants a relationship with God.  He prays for a reborn and purified personality, attained through the interaction of Divine Grace and his own efforts:

Create a pure heart for me, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.  (51:12-13)

[This lecture was delivered at the Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem on the evening of 7 Tishrei 5766, October 9, 2005.]


[1] While the Rambam applies this logic to Yom Kippur (2:7), his rationale would apply to the Ten Days of Penitence as well (2:6): if this is “when He is near,” then seize the day and make the most of the opportunity.

[2] At the personal plane, the Gemara in Berakhot (5a) places almost the same charge as the Gemara in Eruvin we saw above, but makes it conditional upon a certain individual situation: “Rava, and some say Rav Chisda, stated: If a person sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct.”  Should a person examine himself only if he is suffering?  The answer, of course, is that everybody must be introspective, but when one is suffering, it is a different kind of teshuva, a different kind of search, groping and grappling with one’s spiritual state.

Several parashiyot in the Torah likewise speak of teshuva within the context of collective tribulation and suffering; for example: 

When you father sons and grandsons and have been established in the land….  The Lord shall scatter you among the nations and you shall remain few in numbers among the nations which the Lord leads you.  There you shall worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.  You shall seek, from there, the Lord your God and you shall find Him, if you shall seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul.  In your distress, all these things will happen to you; at the end of days you shall return to the Lord your God and obey His voice. (Devarim 4:25-30)

And it shall be, that when all these things happen to you, the blessing and the curse, which I placed before you, you shall contemplate in your mind, when you are among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you.  You shall return to the Lord your God and hearken to His voice, in accordance with all that I am commanding you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim 30:1-2)

[3] See his commentary on Rambam’s Sefer Ha-mitzvot, positive commandment 5, s.v. katav.

[4] This law had already appeared in parashat Vayikra, and is repeated here to add several details.  The relevant section in Naso reads:

Speak to the children of Israel: Any man or woman who commits any of the sins of man by acting treacherously against the Lord, and that person is found guilty.  They shall confess their sin that they committed; he shall restore the principal guilt-payment and add its fifth to it, and give to the one against whom he was guilty.  If the man has no relative to whom the guilt-payment can be restored, the guilt-payment to be restored shall be the Lord’s, for the priest, besides the atonement-ram, with which he atones for himself. (Bemidbar 5:6-8)

While the parasha seems to open with an overarching, general statement – “any of the sins of man” – the constriction to a specific case is almost immediate, both because he term “ma’al” (acted treacherously) here has a technical meaning, as in the end of parashat Vayikra (5:21), and because the phrase, “he shall restore the principal guilt-payment,” is clearly a repetition of the basic pattern found in Vayikra (5:20-26).

[5] The Gemara in Eruvin understands “this mitzva” to refer to Torah study and not repentance, but the implication of the verse is nevertheless the same.

[6] The mishna in Berakhot (4:4) states descriptively that if one’s prayer is keva, it is not tachanunim, but this is clearly to be read in the spirit of the mishna in Avot (2:13) that tells one to see to it that his prayer be tachanunim and not keva.


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