Friday, October 02, 2009

Haazinu - Shabbat Shuvah (Zohar)

“For God Heard the Voice of the Lad Where He Was” (Gen 21:17): An Essay on Teshuvah

In loving memory of my grandson, Erez b. Yitzhak Meir and Leeza Sheina. This year I have been honored to deliver the Shabbat Shuvah lecture at Kehillat Yedidyah. The following is a précis of some of the ideas presented there.

At the heart of the idea of teshuvah, and specifically in the manner in which the Ten Days of Repentance are conceived, there is a paradox. On the one hand, we are told that these are days of judgment—yemei din—in which God judges the entire world in an absolutely objective, fair manner, judging each person—and each country, and the world as a whole—according to its deeds, and meting out recompense accordingly. Many of us are familiar with the aggadah in Rosh Hashana 16b portraying the three books that are opened in heaven—the Book of the Righteous, the Book of the Evildoers, and the Book of Those in-Between—in which the names of all human beings are inscribed for life or death.

Yet on the other hand, we are told that, for those in-between, who are doubtless the overwhelming majority of humanity, our actions during this brief period can change the divine judgment. The recitation of the prayer Unetenah Tokef, always one of the dramatic high points of the liturgy for these days, with its dramatic portrait of the heavenly tribunal and the angels trembling upon the approach of the judgment these days, ends with the entire congregation crying out ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה—“Repentance, prayer, and charity can reverse the evil decree”—that is, the performance of good actions during the Days of Awe can change our “sentence.” The same idea is articulated by Rambam in Teshuvah 3.4, where he explains that this is the underlying purpose of three things that Jews do during these ten days: the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, seen as a call to wake up and cease living lives of spiritual slumber; to increase ones performance of good deeds and mitzvot during this period; and to rise at night and engage on prayers of pleading and beseeching until daybreak—what we know as Selihot (and which Rambam, unlike both Ashkenazic and Sephardic practice, limits to the Ten Days).

I find something strange here. How can the good deeds performed during a brief period of ten days cancel or outweigh the behavior of an entire year? If a person has lived a mediocre, egocentric, indifferent life for 51 or 50½ weeks of the year, how can these token acts—and the literature is full of exhortations to Jews to augment ones piety during these days—e.g., washing mayim aharonim even of one does not do so the rest of the year—change the Divine verdict? To put it bluntly: if God is really God, then He is clearly nobody’s fool, and He is the last One to be taken in by such short-lived acts, which surely seem like last-ditch attempts to curry favor with the Judge—and then, presumably, for the person to return to his merry old ways. Or ought one perhaps to look at matters differently?

In reviewing the opening clauses in Chapter 3 of Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah—the classic text for this season, which Rav Soloveitchik used to teach every year in a new and eye-opening way—I noticed something interesting. In §3, Rambam discusses the notion of תוהה על הראשונות (a concept to which I was first introduced, back in our student days, by Beryl Septimus, now professor of Judaic studies at Harvard University)—a person who regrets the mitzvot he has done. The image that comes to mind is that of the classical apikorus, the Jew steeped in the religious tradition who at a certain point became irreligious—a type familiar in the annals of Jewry’s transition to modernity—and wishes that he’d never invested the time and effort involved in performing the mitzvot or studying Torah. Such an attitude, we are told here (and, as always, Rambam bases himself on Rabbinic sources—here, b. Kiddushin 40b), cancels out, so to speak, whatever merit he may have earned from their performance.

What is the idea here? Why should a person’s regrets of the mitzvot he has done cancel out their value? And why does Rambam bring this concept here anyway, in the middle of his discussion of teshuvah? After all, he did perform the good deeds; and, if they involved other people, as in acts of kindness or generosity, they even impacted positively upon other people’s lives. The conclusion I reached—and it seems to me that this is the only explanation that makes sense—is that God is interested, not in a mechanical summing up of a person’s good deeds and bad, like a supernal bookkeeper, but in his or her state of mind. He, as it were, wants people to love the good, to attach themselves to that which is holy, to live God-centered lives, to love Torah and mitzvot, etc. Hence, if a person abandons this path and says “It was all a great big waste of time; it is better to live a worldly-centered, pleasure-oriented , hedonistic life” (or even a life centered upon some ideal, but which involves the active rejection of Judaism), then whatever impact the mitzvot he has done in the past may have had on his personality is gone; nay, negated, refuted, nullified. "שביקין, שביתין בטילין ומבוטלין, לא שרירין ולא קיימין", to quote from another context.

But מכלל לאו אתה שומע הן —from the negative picture, you hear also the positive picture. The person who regrets his earlier mitzvot is in fact a precise mirror image of the authentic ba’al teshuvah. The former rejects his formerly pious life, and wishes he’d always enjoyed the “freedom” of the religiously uncommitted life; the latter rejects his past pattern of sin, of indifference to the good and the holy, and strives to cleave to the Almighty in whatever way possible. Thus, we are told in any number of sources, if a person returns in the fullest sense of the word, his erstwhile sins are transformed into mere errors, to mistakes or “youthful follies,” or are even somehow transformed into positive merits. God is not interested in a tit-for-tat rending of punishment for each and every sin (unlike teshuvat hamishkal of some medieval pietists), but in the great change, the redirection of life—assuming, of course, that it is genuine).

I am reminded here of a famous, rather extreme—some might even say, outrageous story in the Talmud. At Avodah Zarah 17a we are told the story of Eleazar ben Durdai, a well-known profligate, whose main interest in life was having sex with as many “ladies of the night” as possible. Once he heard of a woman living in one of the “cities of the sea,” the decadent Roman cities along the sea coast of Eretz Yisrael, which were inter alia centers for such vice, who took a whole bag of golden coins in exchange for her services for one night. (He doubtless thought to himself: if she asks so much money, she must really be something special!) During the course of the act she passed wind and, in a philosophical frame of mind, commented: “Just as this wind can never return to where it came from, so Eleazar ben Durdai will never be accepted back in teshuvah.”

Something about this passing comment affected Eleazar to the quick. It could be that somewhere deep inside himself there was the proverbial Jewish soul; perhaps he had thought to himself, somewhere in the back of his mind, that “When I’m old and can no longer enjoy myself anyway, I’ll return to the pious ways of my forebears.” Whatever it was, the prostitute’s casual words set in motion a deep inner process. He went and sat between two mountains, and there he invoked the mountains and the hills, the heavens and the earth, the sun and moon, the stars and constellations, to plead on his behalf. All of them answered in like fashion, each one citing a biblical prooftext: you may think that we are eternal (which we are in comparison with a mortal human being), but we too are finite and also must “plead for mercy”—we too will eventually disappear. And so he placed his head between his knees and wept bitterly until his soul departed; immediately, a heavenly voice was heard saying: Rabbi Eleazar ben Durdai is invited to the life of the World to Come.” The story ends with the rather rueful comment of Rabbi [i.e., R. Judah Hanasi]: “There is one who earns his World [i.e., the Afterlife] through many years of diligent work, and another who earns it in a single moment—and not only that, but he is called ‘Rabbi!’” In other words: such dramatic transformations are possible, and are authentic.

The conclusion to be drawn is that teshuvah bypasses the usual process of “Divine bookkeeping,” of God adding up each individuals virtues and faults and making some sort of balance-sheet or reckoning of which is predominant. This is the radical teaching of Judaism, seemingly simple and pithy as it may seem: that teshuvah is, on the one hand, a simple matter of turning, of an inner change of heart. But, on the other hand, for precisely that reason, it is in actuality the most difficult thing in the world. For the condition is that it must be absolutely sincere and genuine, not staged, not intended for Divine reward or other ulterior motivation, and certainly not to impress other people, but for God alone. And it must be utterly without any reservation.

A friend of mine with whom I studied some of these texts asked if everyone can do teshuvah. Are there not certain individuals—for example, a sadistic murderer who killed strangers in cold blood, apparently for the sheer thrill of it, whose story was on the front pages in Israeli papers some months ago—who cannot do teshuvah? My answer is, at least in theory, yes. Just as Pharaoh had gates of teshuvah and free will closed, only after he had hardened his own heart repeatedly, so too every person can, in principle, be accepted in teshuvah. In principle, I would have to say that Hitler himself could have, hypothetically, repented of his evil deeds and been accepted in love by his Creator (although, of course, whatever it was in his personality that made him who he was would have made the likelihood of such an event extraordinarily remote).

This conception of teshuvah is the key to understanding innumerable sources about it: why, for example, God “suspends” His verdict on the “In-Between” class of people and waits to see what they will do during the Ten Days; the almost lyrical celebration of the transformative power of teshuvah in Chapter 7 of Rambam’s work (see below); why “repentance, prayer, and charity “ can nullify the evil decree; etc.; etc.

I would like to conclude with a word about the theological underpinnings of this conception. If we started this essay by saying that these are days of judgment and rigor, of uncompromising standards and objective judgment, we end by seeing in them days of mercy and compassion. This, as I wrote in an essay during the very first year of Hitzei Yehonatan (HY I: Ki Tisa=Ki Tisa [Torah]), is the quintessential revelation of Yom Kippur, as counterpoised to Shavuot: that of the Thirteen Qualities of Compassion.

A few sources. In one midrash about Rosh Hashana (Lev. Rab. 29.3), God is shown as seated upon the Throne of Judgment, but when Israel blows their shofars he rises from the Throne of Judgment and moves over to the Throne of Compassion. Or in the above-mentioned 7th Chapter of Hilkhot Teshuvah: he who was hitherto rejected, despised, remote from God, is now beloved, close to God, even befriended by Him. Or the Zohar passage we brought for Rosh Hashana, in which the central motif, in a variety of expressions, is the softening or “sweetening” of the harshness of Divine judgment into something softer and more palatable.

I will conclude with one sentence about the behavioral and ethical implications of this conception: if God’s compassion and forgiveness is so central to teshuvah, it ought to be a lamp for our own behavior towards other people. I see too many people filled with anger, resentment, and even hatred towards others; storing up grudges and slights, real or imagined, as if they were gold and rubies, when in fact they are so much muck, stinking waste which we’d be best off getting rid of as quickly as possible. If we wish God to forgive us, we must, first and foremost, be ready to forgive and forget all but the most heinous crimes committed against us by others, making Yom Kippur a day of selihah and mehilah, of pardon and forgiveness, not only between man and God, but first and foremost towards the others in our lives—in our families, in our work=places, in our communities. Thus, hopefully, we may begin a truly sweet New Year.

Note: Unlike my usual practice, I have not included any Hebrew texts and translations in the body of this essay. For those interested, I have appended the major texts referred to, in Hebrew only, at the end of the sheet.

HAAZINU: Idra Zuta—The Small Assembly

I had originally intended including in this issue a discussion and some translation of the Idra Zuta—the Zohar’s account of Rabbi Shimon’s last day with his disciples, the great secrets he revealed on that occasion, and his death—which appears in the Zohar to Haazinu. But I realized that I had not the time to prepare this important subject properly, so I will present it towards Simhat Torah, as a fitting hadran to our study this year of the Zohar.


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