Teshuva: Repentance and Return
Based on addresses by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler
TESHUVA AS REPENTANCE FROM SIN
In the caption introducing his Hilkhot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance), the Rambam says it contains “One positive commandment, namely, that a person who has sinned should repent from his sin before God and confess.” The focus of teshuva, as formulated here, is the act, the state, the experience of sin. Teshuva thus takes place within a context of sin.
The point of departure for teshuva, when seen as a response to sin, is hakarat ha-chet, the recognition and acknowledgement of sin, and this in a dual sense. First, it entails a general awareness of the impact, the power, the corrosive and pervasive force of sin—in the celebrated line from Spenser, “Sin . . . close creeping ‘twixt the marrow and the skin” (The Faerie Queene 1:10). Beyond that, it means acknowledgement of a particular sin: not sin as a universal category, but one’s own personal involvement in sin; and not one’s own sin generally speaking, but a very specific sin. This, of course, is a prelude to azivat ha-chet, leaving sin in the present and becoming totally dissociated from it in the future.
One component of this type of teshuva is abandoning the path of evil, as in the verse, “Return, return, from your evil paths” (II Melakhim 17:13).But there is also a second component. In addition to teshuva from something, or a backing-off from sin, there is also a component of returning to something, or to Someone, as in the verses, “Return, Israel, to the Lord your God” (Hoshea 14:2), and, “Return to Me and I shall return to you” (Malakhi 3:7).
As a result of sin, the personal relationship between man and God has been fractured, if not ruptured. It has been fractured because, in sinning, man himself is corrupted, spiritually corroded, and hence less worthy and less capable of having a relationship with God. It has been fractured because the sin itself, apart from the evil inherent within it, is an affront to God. Hence, whatever relationship a person had enjoyed with God is adversely affected by sin. Thus, teshuva becomes not only a process whereby a person, recognizing sin and dissociating himself from it, goes on to purify and purge himself of the negative influence of sin, but, beyond that, also a process of reconciliation, of rebuilding bridges to God, of removing barriers which sin has established between the sinner and God.
In the context of his celebrated paean to teshuva, the Rambam speaks of the removal of these barriers:
How exalted is the level of teshuva! Only yesterday this sinner was divided from God, as it says: “Your sins were dividing between yourselves and your God” (Yeshayahu 59:2). He would call out [to God] without being answered. . . He would perform mitzvot, only to have them thrown back in his face. . . Today, [in the wake of teshuva,] he clings to the Divine Presence. . . He cries out and is answered immediately. . . He does mitzvot, and these are accepted with grace and with joy. . . And not only that, but [there are those whom] God thirsts for their mitzvot. . . (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:7)
This, then, is one facet of teshuva: teshuva within a context of sin, attempting to repair the evil itself, to rebuild the spiritual personality which has been impaired by the evil, and to arrive at a process of reconciliation and renewed harmony with God. This is the teshuva of repentance, which comes as a response to sin and its effects.
TESHUVA AS RETURN TO GOD
There is, however, an alternative form of teshuva, one which is not related directly to sin, not an outgrowth of evil, but rather one which takes place within a religious and spiritual vacuum. It occurs not in the context of one’s relation to God, but rather within the context of a lack of relation to God. In fact, this type of teshuva grows out of one’s perception of that lack.
Within this track, a person is neither separated from God by a barrier constructed of sins, nor does he cleave to God. He is simply dissociated. He is not engaged in agonized, interlocking combat with God, nor does he wrestle with his conscience; rather, he is oblivious and insensitive to the presence of God.
That being the case, his teshuva bears a very different character. It is not teshuva in relation to sin, but teshuva in response to a life which is insensitive to sin. God and one’s relation to Him are not the focal point of one’s life, at the epicenter of his being, but are at most a kind of peripheral presence, a set of parameters defining one’s being.
This teshuva of return, of coming back by somehow traversing a great distance, of reconstructing or resurrecting a person’s relation to God and awareness of Him, bears a distinctive stamp. To the extent that one has an awareness of having sinned, it is not the sin of direct affront or confrontation, but rather the sin of apathy, of indifference, of simply failing to relate, of averting one’s gaze from God and focusing instead upon alternative concerns. To the extent that there is sin here, it is the sin of shikhecha, forgetting.
TWO LEVELS OF THE SIN OF FORGETTING
The sin of shikhecha itself is multi-leveled. At the maximal level, there is total obliviousness. A person is simply unaware that he lives in a universe created by God, grounded metaphysically in His being, sustained by His aid and His presence. He imagines that he lives in a Never-Never Land within which he is lord and master, or man collectively is master. The sense of the both immanent and transcendent presence of God is totally beyond him. This, of course, would entail total disregard of the range of mitzvot.
There is, however, a second level, one which we might denominate not as shikhecha, but as heise’ach ha-da’at, a lack of attention. Here we deal not with a total lack of knowledge or recollection, but with an individual or a community in whose memory the relevant information is properly stored. If tested, they could probably respond. But they do not actively focus their attention upon it; their mind is elsewhere, upon other concerns.
The term heise’ach ha-da’at is, of course, a familiar category in Halakha. One might cite two well-known but contrasting contexts within which it occurs. First, the law of heise’ach ha-da’at in relation to tefillin: the Rambam writes,
One should always feel his tefillin whenever they are upon him, so that he shall not remove his attention from them even for a moment. (Hilkhot Tefillin 4:14)
Although the prohibition of heise’ach ha-da’at and the obligation of guarding tefillin properly (deriving from Shemot 13:10) are incumbent upon an individual, the sanctity of tefillin is unaffected if the tefillin are left unguarded.
Not so with regard to teruma and kodashim (priestly gifts and sacred items), whose sanctity—at least as far as the permissibility of eating them is concerned—is totally lost, according to Reish Lakish (Pesachim 34a), if one does not pay attention to them. While R. Yochanan agrees that one may not eat teruma or kodashim that were not guarded properly, he says that the reason for this is the possibility that they were defiled by tum’a (impurity) when unguarded. But were we to know with certitude that they did not come into contact with tum’a, then the teruma or kodashim could be eaten. Reish Lakish goes beyond this, saying that heise’ach ha-da’at is a pesul ha-guf, something which disqualifies the item itself. The teruma or kodashim are defiled by the very fact that they did not receive the kind of attention which their unique status deserves. Even if we were to know for certain that no tum’a had touched them, the heise’ach ha-da’at itself removes something of their very special character.
If we ask ourselves, what is the effect of a person’s heise’ach ha-da’at in relation to God, I would submit, daring as it may sound, that there is, kiveyakhol (as it were), a certain pesul ha-guf. In a certain sense, the fact that God is ignored does not merely affect the relationship of the individual to God, but kiveyakhol affects His very presence here. We speak of chillul Hashem, desecrating the Name, and the Name means the symbolic presence of God. Chillul Hashem presumably means that in some sense the Name is, objectively speaking, impaired. To the extent that malkhut Shamayim (Divine kingship) is not fully recognized, kiveyakhol the presence of the Shekhina is adversely affected.
In a celebrated statement (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tetze 11), Chazal note that in the verse, “With hand upon the throne of the Lord (kes Y-a), [God swears that He will have a] war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Shemot 17:16), only a shortened form of God’s Name is mentioned and not His complete Name. The reason for this is, they explain, that “God’s Name and His throne are incomplete as long as the name of Amalek has not been blotted out.” As long as Amalek, which totally ignores the existence of God, exists, then somehow God’s Name is incomplete. What is said there with regard to Amalek is universally true. Wherever God’s Name is not recognized, then it is in some sense desecrated. Heise’ach ha-da’at here has some touch of pesul ha-guf.
INSUFFICIENT APPRECIATION AND IMPROPER EVALUATION
We have, then, two aspects of shikhecha: total obliviousness and inattention. But there is a third level of shikhecha too. Even when one relates to God and is aware of His presence, he may fail to apprehend fully and appreciate the significance of that presence and that relation. Hence, he does not perceive accurately the human situation.
Not to perceive that situation properly is a dual fault. It is in one sense an intellectual, philosophical and theological fault. A person whose perception of reality is one which, while not devoid of God, nevertheless does not position Him at its epicenter and apex, is incorrect in his perception of the nature of reality, the structure of the universe, and the quality of human society and individual existence. But, beyond this intellectual failing, there is a spiritual, if you will, a moral and religious failing, and this too is to be understood in halakhic terms.
R. Moshe of Coucy, in his work enumerating the 613 mitzvot, the Semag (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol), describes a dream-vision he had after completing the book:
In the vision an apparition spoke to me and said: You have forgotten in your list of mitzvot the most important thing! You have counted 365 prohibitions, but you forgot the most important prohibition: “Beware lest you forget God” (Devarim 8:11).
I had not intended to include this in the list of prohibitions; after all, the Rambam [whom he follows by and large] had not included it. Then I reflected upon the matter in the morning and decided that indeed this was a very basic foundation in the fear of God and added it to the list. (Semag, end of the introduction to the prohibitions)
Within the text of the book, he explains the normative content of this mitzva:
This is an admonition that Jews should not be proud when God bestows bounty upon them, and they should not say that it is through their labors that they have attained all of this, and they shall then not be grateful to God as a result of their pride. It is to this that the verses refer. . . This is the admonition that a person should not be proud of that which God has granted him, be it wealth, beauty or wisdom, but he is to be very humble and meek before God and before people and to thank his Creator that He has bestowed upon him this particular advantage. (Semag, lo ta’aseh 64)
Here we have a specific prohibition of shikhecha. The transgressor has not necessarily forgotten about God altogether; he need not even have been meisiach da’at from God. Perhaps he thinks of Him regularly. But what does he think when contemplating God? How does he divide the credit between himself and God for his accomplishments, nay, for his very existence? To the extent that the division is incorrect, that he gives himself credit for all that he has achieved—he is a shokhe’ach, he does not remember God, because he does not remember Him as the sustainer and provider for all human needs, nor does he remember Him as the ground and ultimate goal of human existence.
FORGETFULNESS AND PRIDE
This is, then, a third kind of shikhecha, one which is intertwined with pride in a dual sense. It is, first, the result of pride. A person is flushed with success—“So Yeshurun grew fat and kicked; you grew fat and gross and coarse” (Devarim 32:15)—and being flushed with success, he indeed forgets: “You neglected the Rock that begot you, and forgot the God who brought you forth” (ibid. 18). This theme runs through parashat Va’etchanan and Ekev: You will have fancy homes, you will build a highly developed society, with the result that this kind of shikhecha will become a clear and present danger.
But the relation to pride exists also at a second level. If, on the one hand, it is pride in one’s accomplishments that brings one to forget God, on the other hand, it is forgetting God which enables a person to be proud. In this sense, shikhecha is not the result of pride, but results in pride. Where there is shikhecha, there are skewed priorities, a lack of perspective and narrowness of vision. These very often enable a person to distort the reality of his existence and the range and scope of his accomplishments.
Generally speaking, a vision of greatness, to one who can appreciate it intelligently and sensitively, is humbling. For one thing, it helps a person establish priorities, to see what ultimately is indeed significant and important. Milton, in a celebrated line in “Lycidas,” spoke of fame as “That last infirmity of noble mind.” In one of Keats’ sonnets (“When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be”), he writes,
. . . then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
As long as a person resides in a very narrow world, he imagines that he is successful, that he is eminent. He towers over contemporaries; he surpasses his peers. Indeed, he finds the thirst for fame gratifying, and he imagines that he has attained it. But, given a vision of greatness, one not only reestablishes priorities— just how important that fame is within a wide world—but one also attains a clearer perception of his real stature. So long as a person remains within a fairly narrow context, he imagines that he is a lamdan, a scholar—he might have a big shiur and people come to listen—but when confronted by the Shakh (Rabbi Shabtai Hakohen Rappaport, a seventeenth-century commentator on the Shulchan Arukh), one begins to get a much clearer appraisal of what genuine greatness is and therefore a more accurate appraisal of his own stature.
The vision of greatness is humbling. But, of course, what is most humbling is the vision of the ultimate, singular greatness—a vision of God. The Rambam, in a celebrated passage, speaks of the mitzvot of loving and fearing God:
This great and awesome God—it is a mitzva to love and to be in awe of Him. . . And how is one to attain this?
When a person contemplates His creations and sees within them infinite worth, scope and wisdom, then immediately he loves, praises and is overcome by great thirst to know the living God. . .
And when he contemplates these very matters, he immediately recoils, fears and knows that he is a very minute and insignificant creature of small and superficial intellect in comparison with the Omniscient. . . (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:1)
The verse in Mishlei (16:18) says, “Pride goeth before a fall,” but as Augustine noted, pride is itself a fall. So the relationship of shikhecha and pride is dual. Pride leads to averting one’s gaze from God, but it is because a person has not fully apprehended or appreciated God that he is able to be proud.
FORGETTING SINAI AND TORAH
In addition to the prohibition of forgetting God, we have a similar prohibition of forgetting that which is related to God:
Be careful and guard your soul very much, lest you forget the things you have seen and lest these be removed from your awareness throughout the course of your life. (Devarim 4:9)
The Ramban (ad loc.) explains that this is to be understood as a binding halakhic prohibition, that “we should forget nothing of the experience at Sinai, nor remove it from our hearts.” In his commentary on Rambam’s Sefer Ha-mitzvot, the Ramban lists this as one of the mitzvot he thinks the Rambam has omitted:
We shall neither forget ma’amad Har Sinai, nor remove it from our thoughts, but our eyes and hearts shall be there perpetually.
This formulation is quite comprehensive, in three respects. First, whereas previously we had known that it is forbidden to forget God, here we have an injunction against forgetting a particular historical (and quasi-metaphysical) event, ma’amad Har Sinai. Second, not only are we enjoined, according to the Ramban, from forgetting the event in its totality, but we are commanded to strive to remember every particular detail. It is not enough that a person remembers ma’amad Har Sinai, that he knows that one time “God descended on Mount Sinai” (Shemot 19:20), and He revealed Himself to kelal Yisrael, gave the Torah and then He and they moved on. To remember ma’amad Har Sinai is to remember it in vivid detail, to reconstruct the historical situation with all its force, to relive the experience, the awe, the majesty, the grandeur! Third, the Ramban tells us that this remembrance of ma’amad Har Sinai in all its vivid detail is to be perpetual.
Not only are we enjoined lest we forget God and ma’amad Har Sinai, but also that which was given at ma’amad Har Sinai:
R. Meir says: If a person has forgotten one thing of what he has learned, it is as if he is worthy of being destroyed. . . (Avot 3:8)
The mishna then goes on to state that this does not refer to the normal processes of forgetting; those affect all of us.Rather, we are talking about the shikhecha of “yesirim mi-libo”—removing it from his heart. A person thinks: It doesn’t really matter, so I won’t know it, and he is not perturbed. That kind of active forgetting is included in this prohibition.
In summary, then, there is active forgetting and there is passive forgetting, the result of indifference and insouciance, of apathy and anemia.
Thus, in addition to teshuva within the context of active engagement in sin, there is also teshuva within a context of spiritual apathy, of indifference to God, of distance between the world of Torah and one’s own being. Within the latter context, the proper teshuva is not so much that of repentance, but the teshuva of return, of narrowing the gap, of deepening and widening one’s bond to God—a process of teshuva wherein a person assigns to Him a central place within his consciousness, sensibility, existence and experience.
The response to shikhecha is “zakhor,” remember. Zakhor has a perpetual dimension—for example, “to remember always [Amalek’s] evil deeds.” Likewise, on the verse, “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Shemot 20:8), Rashi explains: “Set your heart to remember continually the Shabbat day.” The Ramban elaborates upon this:
The mitzva is to remember the Shabbat always, every day, that we never forget it, nor confuse it with other days, for by remembering it perpetually we constantly remember the creation of the world. (ad loc.)
That perpetual aspect of zekhira (remembering) has both a quantitative and a qualitative dimension: quantitatively, in terms of it being the constant focus of our minds and hearts; qualitatively, in terms of the depth of the engagement, the extent to which our being is indeed intertwined in and committed to contemplating and relating to God.
The Rambam describes the nature of avoda me-ahava (service from love):
What is that proper love [which a person is to love God]? A great, exceedingly intense love, until his soul is bound up with love of God and he finds himself immersed within it, like one who is lovesick, whose mind is never free of the thought of a particular woman, and he thinks of her perpetually— whether sitting, standing, eating or drinking. Greater than this should be the love of God in the hearts of His lovers, pondering upon Him perpetually, as we have been commanded: “with all your heart and all your soul” (Devarim 6:5). It is of this that King Shlomo allegorically has said: “I am lovesick” (Shir Ha-shirim 2:5), and indeed all of Shir Ha-shirim is an allegory for this. (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:3)
We note that the Rambam here speaks of the quantitative dimension—“perpetually,” but the source which he quotes is one which relates to the qualitative aspect—“with all your heart and soul.” That commandment of zakhor, being involved and engaged with God, has something which quantitatively is all-encompassing time-wise and which qualitatively requires your whole heart and soul.
Clearly, this level of ahava is very demanding. The Rambam in that very chapter seems to speak of this both as being attainable to all, and as being reached only by a small elite. On the one hand, he says (10:2), “This level is very great, and not even every sage attains it. This is the level of Avraham Avinu,” of rare individuals. But, in the same breath, the Rambam—aristocratic and elitist in certain respects though he was—nevertheless makes it clear that, normatively speaking, this is not a demand upon only religious virtuosi, but a demand imposed upon every individual. While the ultimate goal is attained by rare individuals, the direction, the thrust, the momentum as a desideratum in normative terms is the lot of each and every one of us.
“SIN CROUCHES AT THE DOOR”
Ihave spoken heretofore in general, universal terms or, if you want to narrow it somewhat, in terms which address themselves specifically to klal Yisrael. I want to add something with respect to a particular segment of klal Yisrael—Centrist Orthodoxy. The verse (Bereishit 4:7) says: “Sin crouches at the door.” But presumably it is not the same sin at every door. Each door, each domicile, each community has its particular sin, a specific spiritual danger indigenous to it, endemic to that group or that individual. The Chafetz Chayim once commented that different generations have different pitfalls. There are generations that succumb particularly to idolatry, others to desecration of Shabbat, some to sins between man and his Maker, and others to interpersonal sins. Each community and each individual has his own “door” and his own sin to which he is susceptible. What might be regarded as the “sin that crouches at the door” of this community?
In one’s relationship to God, there are two preeminent spiritual dangers. First, there is avoda zara (foreign worship, or idolatry) and, broadly speaking, whatever relates to it—superstition and misguided conceptions of God. There is also a second danger: kefira, atheism—not that a person misconstrues and misconceives God, but that he denies God altogether.
There have been debates as to which should be regarded as being worse. Bacon opens his essay “On Atheism” by quoting Plutarch’s remark that superstition is worse than atheism because he would prefer that people say Plutarch had never existed, to stating that he had existed but ate his children. The eighteenth century, more rational in its thinking, by and large accepted Plutarch’s and Bacon’s judgments. Better to deny the existence of God, better to be removed from Him, than to be caught up in narrow, ignorant, superstitious worship.
The nineteenth century, by and large, particularly in its Romantic religious thought, disagreed. It felt that the groping for some kind of spiritual reality, giving expression to spirituality in various modes—however primitive, narrow or misguided—was to be preferred to the kind of rarefied religiosity (or non-religiosity) which the eighteenth century left as a legacy to the Romantics. In a celebrated passage about England in the 1840’s, Cardinal Newman wrote, “What this country needs is not less superstition, but more superstition”—out of a sense that for all its faults, it nevertheless entails an awareness of spiritual reality and a quest for it.
If pressed to the wall, I would opt for Newman without reservation. But of course we ought not, we cannot, allow ourselves to be pressed to the wall. We need to be sensitive to both dangers. Which is more threatening? To a certain extent, that is a function of a given historical and sociological situation, depending upon the era, depending upon the community.
What is the danger lurking at the door of this community? Of what does it need to be particularly wary because its inclination lies in that direction?
I believe that the sin lurking at the door of the Centrist Orthodox or Religious Zionist community, the danger which confronts us and of which we need to be fully aware, is precisely the danger of shikhecha. Unlike other communities, this is a community which is not so susceptible to avoda zara in its extension— attitudes the Rambam battled against, such as superstition and gross or primitive conceptions of God—because it is more sophisticated intellectually, religiously and philosophically. Unfortunately, however, it is very, very susceptible to extended kefira or shikhecha, lacking the immanent sense of God felt so deeply, keenly and pervasively in other parts of the halakhically-committed Jewish world.
CREEPING SECULARISM AND DAMPENED PASSION
The Centrist Orthodox community is one to which the danger of distance from God—the eighteenth-century danger, the danger of a certain spiritual hollowness, of apathy, of pushing God off into the corners—is indigenous and endemic. In part, this is a result of the link this community has—to some extent ideologically, to some extent existentially—to the broader, general, secular community around it. The secular world is, by definition, not so much the world of sin per se, but a world of being distant from God, of simply not recognizing Him, having no links and no relation.
Of course, the secular world as such is one which, philosophically and ideologically, denies God totally. But when I spoke before of avoda zara as threatening others, I was not referring chas ve-shalom to the possibility that an idol is going to be put up and incense offered before it, but of the broader spiritual ramifications. Here, too, in speaking of the dangers of kefira attendant upon being linked to the secular order, one needs to think not merely of a kind of dogmatic rejection, but of experiential distance—“ You are near to their mouths, but distant from their innards” (Yirmiyahu 12:2).
The demands made by the secular world very often have the effect of chipping away at one’s religious existence. The secular world very often likes to speak in the name of neutrality. If they speak, for instance, of education, they say: We are not asking for anti-religious education, but for neutral education; not an education of sin, but an education of distance. But from a religious standpoint, neither philosophically nor existentially can such neutrality be sustained—not over the short term and surely not over the long term. An education from which God is excluded is not a neutral education. That is secular, anti-religious education by its very content and definition.
To take an unfortunate, insidious, recent example: We are told that the Israeli army must be religiously neutral, and therefore missives which are sent out by commanders cannot have God’s Name or any reference to it affixed to it; and this in the name of democracy and fair play. What we have here is a kind of secularization which does not say, “Throw out God,” but effectively does that.
The link with a social order grounded upon a sense of distance from God—both experiential and ideological—can have an impact, and one needs to guard against that. One needs to know that the link to such an order opens up a door through which sin can enter. In order to ensure that it does not enter, we need to be vigilant, we need to intensify our commitment, and we need to avoid shikhecha and heise’ach ha-da’at all the more.
Secondly, this kind of sin crouches at our door because, in certain respects, there is a certain shallowness, a certain lack of passion and intensity within our own community. Quite apart from whatever rubs off through contact with others, there is a form of shikhecha, a lack of total zekhira, a dearth of absolute commitment which runs through much of this community.
We need to be aware of this sin at our door, because only to the extent that we are aware of it will we be able to cope with it. If we are to engage in teshuva that is particularly relevant to ourselves, it is, perhaps even more than the teshuva of repentance (which is within the context of relationship to God), the teshuva of return.
NEARNESS TO GOD
We might single out a particular sin from the “Al chet,” the litany of sins we recite, which (at least as some have interpreted) relates to this particular situation: “Al chet she-chatanu lefanekha bi-veli da’at, for the sin which we have sinned before You without knowledge.” The viddui contains two kinds of confessions. There are those which are themselves sins, and others which are not inherently sins, but are either areas of experience or activity within which the sin takes place, or a kind of quality or mind-set which attends upon the sin. “Bi-veli da’at” can be understood in two ways. Some, perhaps most, would be inclined to understand it in the second sense: it is that which enables us to be sinners. We were not sufficiently heedful, and as a result a particular sin ensued.
But some have understood “bi-veli da’at” as being itself a sin. A certain mindlessness is a failing inasmuch as we do not then fully realize the tzelem E-lokim (image of God) within us—to the extent that one accepts the Rambam’s view that tzelem E-lokim is da’at, knowledge. Even if one does not subscribe to that view, surely da’at is one aspect of tzelem E-lokim. To the extent, then, that our da’at is not maximized, we fail to realize our potential tzelem Elokim. Quite apart from that, inasmuch as the “beli da’at,” the lack of focus and concentration, defines our relationship to God, we are not “perpetually dwelling upon God.” When some quantitative or qualitative shikhecha intrudes, that “bi-veli da’at” is a sin in its own right. And, I repeat, this is a particular sin which confronts and afflicts this sector of the religious community.
That being the case, the teshuva which is specifically incumbent upon us is the teshuva of return, of narrowing the distance, of no longer forgetting, of intensifying our awareness, of bridging the gap. At one level, that entails genuinely sensing and understanding with the totality of our being—not simply in our intellectual formulations, but with the whole fiber of our existence— that indeed obliterating the distance is our ultimate good, our summum bonum. We must fully identify with King David when he says (Tehillim 73:27): “As for me, nearness to God is good”— that is good, and only that is good. Secondly, it entails making the effort—both personally and communally—to close that gap, to bring ourselves closer to God and hopefully, therefore, God closer to us.
These are days during which He is close already; Chazal say, on the verse in Yeshayahu (55:6), “Seek God when He is present, call Him when He is near,” that this refers to the ten days from Rosh Ha-shana to Yom Kippur. These are days in which one hears the message of the prophet calling those from afar and those who are close (Yeshayahu 57:19). As Chazal say: “‘To the near and far’—to the far that he should be near” (Sanhedrin 99a). This is a call to one who is not necessarily a sinner in the ordinary sense, but simply distant, his mind engaged in other concerns, with God somewhere on the periphery.
These are days when God, being so near, calls for the determination and resolve that we, on our part, shall go towards Him—as He has extended Himself and His hand to us—transcending the sin that lurks at our door, the sin of shikhecha, of distance, of dissociation. These are days during which the effort needs to be made and during which, we hope, when the effort is made, it shall be crowned at a personal and communal level with success: that God should accept our return with love. As we say in the Zikhronot prayer of Rosh Ha-shana:
Happy is the man who does not forget You, who gains courage in You, for those who seek You shall never stumble, nor shall those who trust in You ever be disgraced.
1 See also Hilkhot Teshuva 2:2.
2 Heise’ach ha-da’at can also be regarded as a shikhecha of sorts. At least so it would appear from the gemara, which concludes that failing to focus is also defined as shikhecha. Regarding the mitzva of remembering Amalek, the gemara asks:
How do you know that when we speak of “remember[ing] what Amalek did to you” (Devarim 25:17), we are talking about reading a text? Maybe it means ruminating upon this matter, pondering it, contemplating it? No, such a presumption should not cross your mind, for the baraita [in Sifri] says: Perhaps when it says “Remember” it means you should remember this in your heart? But we know that it is otherwise, because when the verse says, “You shall not forget” (Devarim 25:19), it has already addressed itself to the area of forgetting in one’s heart. What then is the additional dimension of “Remember?” That you should verbalize it. (Megilla 18a)
An obvious question obtrudes here. We are told “lo tishkach,” you should not forget. We presumably would have understood that your knowledge of the facts should be at a level whereby it is stored in your memory, subject to recall. If you would be tested – who is Amalek? what did he do? – you will know the answer. But whether presently you actively recall it is another matter; that is not included in “lo tishkach.” We would therefore have said that the command of “zakhor” then comes along and teaches: Not only should you not forget, but you must think about it. However, the gemara says otherwise. The whole realm of one’s inner awareness is covered by “lo tishkach.” Had the Torah not stated “zakhor,” we would already have known that one must actively think about it, but we would not have known that one needs to verbalize it.
Clearly then, if a person has stored in his memory this information about Amalek, but does not actively consider the matter, then he is already transgressing the prohibition of “lo tishkach.” Knowledge is thus fully compatible with shikhecha. Shikhecha in the context of that gemara clearly is not to be understood as total forgetting, but simply heise’ach hada’at. One knows about Amalek, but it is unpleasant to think about him, and consequently one would prefer to keep the information about Amalek as a kind of historical island in his memory, but go on to other activities. That is precisely the prohibition of “lo tishkach.” You have to think about it, and you have to surmount this shikhecha in part by active narrative and in part by permanent, ongoing reflection.
The Rambam is very clear on this point. When he explains the mitzva of remembering Amalek, he says:
It is a mitzva to remember always his evil deeds and his ambush (according to another reading: his enmity) in order to arouse enmity to him, as it says, “Remember what Amalek did to you.” From tradition they learned: “Remember” verbally, and “do not forget” in your heart, i.e. it is forbidden to forget his enmity and hatred. (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:5)
While the gemara says that “zakhor” comes in addition to “lo tishkach,” the Rambam suggests that the two are complementary. What “zakhor” adds to “lo tishkach” is the verbalization, the objectification, the expression and, therefore, the degree of force and vivacity which comes through verbalization. On the other hand, verbalization cannot be constant, and the dimension of constancy comes from “lo tishkach.” Thus, if we speak of heise’ach ha-da’at, that too is a category of shikhecha.
3 With regard to R. Yochanan’s view, it is entirely possible that he rejects the whole notion of heise’ach ha-da’at as adversely affecting the sanctity of teruma and kodashim. But not necessarily so. It is conceivable that R. Yochanan would agree that in some sense there is an adverse effect, but not to the point that one cannot eat them at all.
4 As a matter of fact, Chazal in certain places regarded normal processes of forgetting as being beneficial. The midrash (Kohelet Rabba 1:13) says that God has done us a great kindness by causing us to forget. If a person did not forget, then presumably he would learn Torah once and then assume that since he now knows it, he will move on to other things. He would have the knowledge, but would lack the ongoing existential and experiential relation to Torah.
(Based on a transcript by Eli D. Clark. This address was delivered at Yeshiva University's Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, Tishrei 5748 .
This adaptation has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)
The lectures in this series have been collected into a book entitled, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God. It can be ordered from here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/ralbooks.htm.