Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sukkot (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Sukkot, see the archives to the blog at 2006_09_10_archive.html/, as well as September 2007, October 2008 (end), and October 2009. A major study of Hoshana Rabbah will follow in a few days.

Four Midrashim About Lulav

Every Israeli schoolchild knows the midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 30.12, according to which the four species allude to for kinds of Jews: those who, like the etrog, have both taste and fragrance: i.e., both Torah and good deeds; those who have one but not the other, like the lulav or the myrtle; and those who have neither, like the willow, with neither taste nor fragrance—i.e., those coarse and boorish people who seem to neglect nearly all Jewish values. By taking the four species together and uniting them, we are symbolically acting out the unity of all Israel, so that the weakness of one may be compensated by the strength of the other, and vice versa.

But this popular midrash is only one of many such interpretations of the Four Species. One of the striking features of Sukkot is that it is characterized by mitzvot which have no single, self-evident meaning (such as the Passover Seder, which is a means of telling the story of the Exodus; or the blowing of the shofar, which is a wake-up call, figuratively speaking). Hence, they invite multiple levels of interpretation and symbolic meanings. Thus, in the selfsame chapter of Midrash, we read the following, in which the four kinds are seen as symbolic of four patriarchs. Lev. Rab. 30.10:

Another thing. “The fruit of a splendid tree (‘etz hadar)” (Lev 23:40)—this alludes to Abraham, who was adorned (hadaro) by the blessed Holy One with venerable old age, as is said: “And Abraham was old, advanced in years” (Gen 24:1) and it says “You shall honor (ve-hadarta) the face of the elder” (Lev 19:32). “Palm branches (kapot temarim)”—this alludes to Isaac, who was tied (kafut) and bound upon the altar. “And boughs of a leafy tree”—this alludes to Jacob: just as the myrtle is surrounded by leaves, so was Jacob surrounded by sons. “And willows of the brook”—this alludes to Joseph: just as the willow withers before the other three species, so did Joseph die before his brothers.

Unlike the midrash cited earlier, this one does not relate to any inherent quality of the four species, but is based entirely upon word play: the etrog is called etz hadar, while Abraham reached old age, which in yet another verse is associated with the verb hadar. Isaac was tied up (kafut) on the altar, just as the palm frond is called kapot (or, in one Talmudic homily, kafut, suggesting that its leaves must be closely knit together, as if tied—an important halakhic feature that many people seek when being a lulav).

Interestingly, the second half of this midrash relates the four species to the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rivkah, Leah and Rachel, citing almost the identical qualities for each one: Sarah lived to ripe old age, Rachel died young, etc. Only Rivkah, who was of course not bound on the altar, is compared to the palm for another reason: like it, she had both fruit and thistles—i.e., a righteous son and a wicked one.

In 30.14 we find an entirely different line of thinking.

R. Mani began: “All my limbs shall say, O Lord, who is like unto You!” (Ps 35:10). This verse was only said for the lulav. The spine of the lulav is like the spine of a human being, the myrtle is like the eye, the willow is like the lips, and the etrog is like the heart. David said: None among all the organs of the body as great as these, which are tantamount to the whole body. That is: “All my limbs shall say…”

Here we find the motif of the praise of God—an appropriate theme for the four species, which play a special liturgical role in the Hallel, the psalms of praise recited in full each day of Sukkot. With a bit of imagination, one can see the resemblance in form of these four to the bodily organs mentioned, which are arguably particularly important organs: the heart symbolizes our very life; the lips the power of speech, the unique capability of humans; the eyes, the most important organ of perception; and the spine somehow unites the body and provides man with his erect posture, symbolically important as “standing before God.” Thus, holding the Four Species while reciting chapters of praise and extolling God can be seen as an enactment “all my limbs say…”

Yet another view is expressed in Lev. Rab. 30.9:

Another thing. “The fruit of a splendid tree”—this is the blessed Holy One, of whom it is written “You are clothed with honor and majestic beauty {hod ve-hadar)” (Ps 104:1). “Palm branches”—this is the blessed Holy One, of whom it is written: “The righteous [an appellation for God] shall flourish like a palm tree” (Ps 92:13). “And the boughs of a leafy tree”—this is the blessed Holy One, of whom it is written: “and he was standing among the myrtle trees” (Zech 1:8). “And willows of the brook”—this is the blessed Holy One, of whom it is written, “Lift up a song to Him who rides upon the Arabot [lit., clouds; also a name for one of the seven heavens; brought here by way of a pun on aravah]; Yah is his name” (Ps 68: 5).

Here, once more, midrashic fancy runs wild in constructing four different double-entendres by which each of the four species in turn is somehow connected with God Himself! What does this mean? Perhaps that the whole physical world ultimately points towards God, or perhaps more than that. A friend of mine, a serious mystic, once told me of this midrash and described how he meditated on it the entire first night of Sukkot. I wonder if this is an anticipation of the Kabbalistic line of interpretation, below, in which the Four Kinds indeed allude to the Divine name and/or the sefirot.

A fourth line of interpretation, then, is the Kabbalistic one, according to which the four species correspond to the four letters of the Divine Name: the myrtle is the yod, the willow the first heh, the lulav the letter vav, and the etrog the second heh. Alternatively, the seven items constituting the four species correspond to the seven lower sefirot: the three myrtles are Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet; the willows are Netzah and Hod; the lulav is Yesod, and the etrog Malkhut.

A strange story is told in what is usually a strictly halakhic source: namely, Bet Yosef on the Tur (Orah Hayyim, Hilkhot Lulav 651, s.v. katav B”H; this lengthy work of R. Joseph Caro was the exposition on the Tur from which the Shulhan Arukh was later extracted). R. Menahem Recanati, a noted Italian Kabbalist who lived in latter half of the 13th century, recounts how a stranger, an Ashkenazic hasid, a man deeply engaged in the study of Kabbalah, once came to his city for the festival of Sukkot. That night Recanati dreamt that the man was writing a Torah scroll, but separating the final letter of God’s name from the others: i.e., he wrote YHW H. The next morning in synagogue he observed how this man shook his lulav: he moved the lulav, bound together with the hadas and aravah, without the etrog. Then, Recanati continues, he understood the dream: i.e., the final heh of the Divine name and the etrog both represent the sefirah of Malkhut. Perhaps (this is my conjecture) this man saw Malkhut, the Divine indwelling in the concrete, earthly realm, as radically separate from the other sefirot—a radical, near-heretical Kabbalistic approach known as kotzetz ba-netiot (see HY IV: Terumah=Terumah [Hasidism]). And indeed, the visitor, after being admonished by Recanati, then performed the ritual in the usual way.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Yom Kippur, see the archives to this blog for September 2006, September 2007, October 2008, and October 2009.

Not withstanding the heading, we will begin with a few brief thoughts about teshuvah in general, including some impressions and hiddushim from Rosh Hashanah.

God as King

The central blessing of Rosh Hashanah, both of the Amidah and of the Kiddush, closes with the phrase מלך על כל הארץ מקדש ישראל ויום הזכרון (“King of all the earth, who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance”). It occurred to me that this phrase really embraces two contradictory, even opposite poles: the universal and the particular; God’s unique covenant with Israel, and His rule and kingship over the entire cosmos. God is not merely the God of one particular people, uniquely chosen though they may be, but the Creator of Heaven and earth. More important, He rules over all humankind, indeed, over all sentient beings.

This motif dominates the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah. The expanded version of the third blessing of the Amidah (recited on Yom Kippur as well as on Rosh Hashanah), in which we declare the holiness of God, not only refers to Him as ha-melekh ha-kadosh, “the Holy King,” but presents a messianic vision in which the entire world accepts His sovereignty: “Therefore, place your fear upon all Your creatures, and Your awe upon all You created… let every created thing understand that You formed it… evil will dissipate like smoke… And You, O God, shall reign alone upon Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, Your holy city…” In similar fashion, Malkhuyot, the characteristic blessing of the day, speaks of the Almighty’s reign over the entire world.

But all this is couched in visionary terms, as an eschatological motif that will be realized in the future, possibly distant days of Messiah. For the present, Rosh Hashanah is a festival of the coronation of God, of acknowledging and declaring His kingship, but as recognized by the Jews alone. In a similar mood, Rashi, in his commentary on the first verse of Shema (Deut 6:4), contrasts the present situation with the Future to Come: “HWYH, who is now [only] our God, and not that of the nations, will in the future be ‘one’ -- i.e., recognized by all inhabitants of earth”—an idea which he confirms with prooftexts from Zechariah and Zephaniah. Again, the Talmud (b. Pesahim 50a) explains that, whereas today God’s name is not pronounced as it is written (i.e., we use a circumlocution for the sacred four-letter Name), in the World to Come it will be spoken as it is written—a hint at a future universal epiphany of knowledge of the Divine.

Perhaps one lesson to be learned from this idea is that, just as we hope to see a future world in which the nations acknowledge God as sovereign, we Jews also need to take more seriously the implications of God as universal Master of the world, not merely as a theoretical concept, but as one with practical meaning for our lives. The universal kingship of God must mean more than private mitzvah observance, however sublime and holy that my make us feel. We live at a time when the world as a whole is confronting a series of grave threats to the very continuity of human civilization: severe threats to the environment, placing the very habitability of Mother Earth in question; the danger, after more than a half century of unprecedented peace and prosperity, at least in America and Europe, of nuclear warfare; the breakdown of many social structures. Quixotic as it may sound, we must attempt to take responsibility for this world and for the survival, not only of the Jewish people, but of humankind itself.

Rosh Hashanah as a Day without Selihot

Rabbi Michael Melchior, in a Rosh Hashanah sermon at our synagogue, noted an interesting fact, one of those things that “one has always known” but never really thought about: that the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah, although it comes smack in the middle of the period of reciting Selihot, during which we repeatedly recite Vidduy (confession of sin) and are preoccupied with teshuvah and with searching out and correcting our faults, contains neither Selihot nor Vidduy, and barely mentions the motifs of sin, atonement or forgiveness. True, there are a few passage alluding to these motifs in Avinu Malkinu but even they are omitted on Rosh Hashanah in some nushaot (prayer rites)—e.g., Habad. It is only on the day after Rosh Hashanah that we resume Selihot and Vidduy, culminating in the great fast and day of turning, Yom Kippur, when the great alphabetical confession is repeated over and over again, from evening to morning and ‘till evening again.

Rosh Hashanah represents an alternative path: instead of the painstaking process of focused, “specific” teshuvah, there is another route, which ultimately goes to the same place: the direct acceptance of God’s kingdom, “bypassing” preoccupation with sin and guilt and regret. Rosh Hashanah is devoted entirely to the acceptance and proclamation of God as king: this is powerfully expressed both in the blowing of shofar, in the three special blessings of Musaf, which may be read as a kind of mini-course in Jewish theology, and the numerous piyyutim declaring God’s kingship.

Sefat Emet makes an interesting comment on this. Seeing Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of creation—according to some, specifically of the creation of man (the world itself having been created, as it were, on the 25th of Elul)—we return on Rosh Hashanah to our original state at the time of Creation. Citing the verse from Kohelet, “God made man upright, but they sought out many [roundabout] devices” (Eccles 7:29), he sees Rosh Hashanah as a day of returning to simplicity, to honesty, to a straightforward approach to life. Man intuitively knows what is good; one becomes crooked through the exigencies of life—the implication being, that doing the good comes naturally, if one but sets one mind to it.

To this I would add my own interpretation of the Hasidic concept of bittul, of self-abnegation. Many people find it exceedingly difficult to accept this idea: it seems to imply giving up one’s selfhood, one’s personality, one’s very identity. But I would see it in terms of rejecting what I would call the “modern ego”—a certain exaggerated individualism, at times almost tantamount to narcissism, which is one of the basic cultural–psychological problems in our culture. But more on that another time.

Repentance Without Teshuvah

The Mishnah in Shevu’ot (1.2; ;5; cf. Rambam, Hil. Teshuvah 1.2) speaks of the sa’ir ha-mishtaleah, the “scape goat” or atonement goat—the central element in the Seder Avodah, the atonement ritual performed in the Jerusalem Temple in ancient times—as somehow atoning for the sins of the entire people, even (in some cases—i.e., not the more serious sins) without repentance!

How is such a thing possible? The concept of teshuvah seems central to the very concept of Yom Kippur. The answer lies in the concept of the community, of the collectivity. The atonement affected by the High Priest in confessing the sins of the people over the goat, occurs on a different level—that of Klal Yisrael, the totality of Israel seen as a single, organic entity in an almost metaphysical way. Hence, the individual who is truly rooted in the community and sees him/herself as a part thereof attains forgiveness together with it, through the very fact of his belonging to it.

As I have noted in these pages in the past, the relationship between the individual and the community is a central problem of our age. We live in an age of excessive individualism; there are prominent thinkers and leaders who have declared that the entire idea of community is a fiction; that there are really only isolated individuals, who at times arbitrarily band together in nations or communities. The breakdown of community is rejected in our culture, in the notions of post-modernity and the absence of any “objective” standard of morality; in our family and sexual life, in which long-term marital commitment is often replaced by notions of individual benefit; and in our economic life, in which capitalism, with its emphasis on competition and individual “success” as the highest goal, seems to have entered a new phase in recent decades. (I began discussing this issue some months ago in the Yahrzeit essay for mother [HY XI: Behar- Behukotai], to which several readers responded with long and thoughtful letters; I hope to return to this subject in the new year).

It seems to me that the idea of atonement without personal teshuvah, whether through the new-defunct Temple ritual or through the “holiness of the day” in and of itself, is a reminder of the tremendous moral and spiritual power of the community, in the traditional Jewish understanding.

Yom Kppur and Selihot: Parallels

Classically, Yom Kippur, both as the culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance and as the most important ta’anit tzibbur (public fast day) of all, is the day of Selihot par excellence. In the old Ashkenazic synagogue, Selihot were recited at all five prayers of the Holy Day; over the course of time, for historical reasons, they gradually came to be omitted at Shaharit, Musaf and Minhah, remaining only at Ma’ariv and Ne’ilah. (See note)

What are the basic elements of the Selihot? They begin with verses of praise of God, including piyyutim that focus on the relationship between God and Knesset Yisrael and/or the smallness and sinfulness of man, and conclude with verses of mercy. But the two essential elements, are Vidduy and the Thirteen Qualities of Mercy.

At first glance, these two elements seem to express divergent concepts: Vidduy is rooted in the notion of God’s strict and the exacting judgment of us, and the concomitant consciousness of human sinfulness, of moral failure, of our inadequacy in our task of living as truly human beings—what Rav Soloveitchik once referred to as a “declaration of bankruptcy.” The Thirteen Qualities of Divine Mercy (Exod 34:6-7), by contrast, express God’s mercy, His love, His compassion, His readiness to overlook our faults and even our deliberate wrongdoings, and to accept us as a loving parent accepts his children.

But this is really a single dynamic process. Teshuvah, the process by which a human being searches out his faults, through a painful process of regret, contrition, and verbal articulation in the Vidduy, somehow arouses Divine mercies. God responds to the human acknowledgement of weakness, of imperfection, of being limited—so different from the arrogance, self-confidence, and feeling of complete autonomy which so often mark human behavior—with love and compassion. Thus, at the end of the day of Yom Kippur, we leave the synagogue with a sense of having been cleansed and purified, of renewed vitality and energy to begin our lives once more with a clean slate.

NOTE: Daniel Goldschmidt, in the complete edition of his Mahzor le-Yom Kippurim, explains two factors that led to this: First, there was a wide diversity of customs regarding exactly which Selihot were to be said—not only between Eastern European and Western Europe, but even among half-a-dozen subgroups within each of these areas. Thus, Selihot could not be printed in the Mahzorim published for general use, which instead contained the a note “here one says Selihot”; instead, each community had its own special pamphlets printed for this purpose, distributed among the worshippers. Over time, the pamphlets gradually disappeared, pushed aside by standardized mahzorim. Secondly, the development of hazanut, with its musical elaboration of the service, began to consume time that would otherwise have been used for Selihot.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Rosh Hashanah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Rosh Hashanah, as well as on Teshuvah / Shabbat Shuvah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_08_25_archive.html, as well as for September 2006, September 2007, 2008-09-15, and September 2009.

The Tale of the Portrait

The year which begins tonight will be marked by the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of R. Nahman of Braslav (4th day of Sukkot), one of the most interesting and striking figures in the Hasidic world, whose school has enjoyed an unexpected and not inconsiderable revival in recent years; this Rosh Hashanah, as every year, tens of thousands of his followers will celebrate the holiday at his gravesite in the Ukrainian town of Uman. During the last years of his life R. Nahman, in addition to his ”regular” Hasidic homilies upon the Torah and other sacred texts, told a series of tales—in modern jargon, short stories—as a medium for conveying his ideas. These stories, unique in the Judaic landscape, thirteen in number, are gathered in a volume entitled Sippurei Ma’asiyot.

One of the shortest and most enigmatic of these tales—which, in traditional editions, has neither a number nor a title at its heading—is the sixth tale, often known as “The Tale of the Portrait.” The gist of it is as follows:

Once there was a king who had a collection of all the portraits of all the kings in the world—save one, a certain king who signed himself as “mighty, a man of truth and humility.” The king asked his trusted advisor, a sage, to travel to that country and bring back a portrait of this king, who was known to be a recluse. He added: I know that he is mighty, for his country is well fortified; it is surrounded by the sea, and by a great swamp, and there is but one narrow path leading to the city—and all this is protected by soldiers and cannons. But what is meant by his description of himself as “a man of truth and humility”?

So the sage journeyed to that country. At this point in the narrative there is a digression, in which we are told that one can know the essence of each country by its humor—which the sage proceeds to do. We are also told that there is a certain country which contains within itself the essence of all other countries, and a city that contains the essence of all the cities in all the countries, and a house that contains the essence of all the houses in all the cities in all the countries. And in the middle of that house there is a man who is laughing, who knows the humor of all the countries.

The sage arrives at the country, and soon realizes that it is filled with corruption, lies and bribery. He brings a lot of money, which he quickly discovers is needed to bribe all the officials he encounters, Even the highest officials, even the judges, are corrupt and dishonest. They are not even honest in their thievery, for one day he gives someone a bribe, and the next day that person acts as though he dooes not know him.

He finally gets to see the king, and tells him everything he has seen. The officials standing about try to stop him, but they cannot do so out of fear of the king. At first, he says, he thought the king was corrupt and dishonest like everyone else—for what else would one expect of the king of a corrupt land like this?—but from his reaction to what he tells him he understands that he, the king, is indeed a man of truth, and for that reason cannot bear to see the lies and corruption all about him, and prefers to hide behind a curtain. The sage continues to praise the king more and more, and the king leans forward to hear him. But the more he praises the king, the king, being a truly humble person, becomes smaller and smaller, for “In the place of his greatness, there is his modesty” [a direct quote of the Talmudic adage, b. Megillah 31a, referring to God]. At last, he can hold back no longer, and the king pushes aside the curtain to see the sage, and he sees his face, and brings the portrait home to his king.

Who is the king in this story? Clearly, he is God. But the picture of God and His way of being in the world is very bleak and pessimistic: the world is so full of corruption and lies, that God Himself cannot stand dwelling in it or having anything to do with it, and withdraws from the world and hides Himself. (The motif is somewhat reminiscent of Agnon’s Sefer ha-Medinah, but more cynical—and of course R Nahman knew nothing of the attempts of the Jews to set up their own state; at times, the morning headlines in Ha-Aretz seem taken directly from this tale.) This is a unique interpretation of the reason for hester panim, the “concealment of God’s face” (a concept alluded to in last week’s parsha; see Deut 31:18).

Who is the sage? Some have suggested a complex mirror identity, on which more later. At first blush, I would suggest, quite simply, that he is the zaddik: the righteous man, the person who is honest, sincere, and does not allow his sense of judgment or his perception of reality to be distorted by social convention or pressures. He is a wise man, who knows how to find “the king,” and how to communicate with him even in this situation, when most people are content to believe that all is well with the world.

I see this story as particularly apt for Rosh Hashanah. There is an idea, particularly emphasized in Hasidism, that Rosh Hashanah is the day of God’s coronation as king. One might think of such an event in terms of pomp and circumstance, solemnity and ornate ritual. And, indeed, there is a solemn tone to the prayers of Rosh Hashanah, well expressed in its musical motifs, and coupled with the elaborate language of the many piyyutim (liturgical poems) that celebrate God’s majesty in lofty phrases.

But the essential point here is that He is remote. His kingship is not at all visible. Accepting the rule of the king in this story, hidden behind a curtain, involves a kind of ifkha mistabra, a kind of paradoxical thinking: even though He is concealed and withdrawn from the universe, and is not really in control in nay actuve way, He is nevertheless God, the God who embodies truth and humility.

I would compare this tale to a certain story by Isaac Bashevis Singer in which the rabbi of a small shteitl, at a certain turning-point in his life, preaches a sermon that goes something like this:

Why is the moon concealed on Rosh Hashanah? The other major festival days—Pesah, Sukkot, even Purim—fall on the full moon. But the concealment of the moon symbolizes the hiddenness of God. If God were in the marketplace for everyone to see, it would be no trick to have faith in Him; it would be a matter of simple, everyday knowledge. But God is hidden, because He desires a faith of af-al-pi-khen (my own words: roughly speaking--“despite all appearances, and in the face of contradictory evidence”). That is, notwithstanding the way the world appears to be, as if it is ruled by chance, or worse yet, by wicked men who are triumphant, in truth He is King, and it is our eschatological faith that, in the End, “You O Lord shall rule alone over all Your creatures; on Mount Zion the dwelling place of Your glory, and in Jerusalem your holy city…”

But there is yet another aspect to this story. Several scholars whose judgment I respect have suggested a kind of reflective, mirror-like reading of the identity of the king. According to this, both the first king, who initially sends the sage to get the portrait, and the second king, whom he meets at the end, are both in fact God.

How does this work? Jerome (Yehudah) Gellman explains that the sage may be seen as Abraham, who was sent by God to “the land which I shall show you”—in other words, the journey to find the king who is “a man of truth and humility,” including the numerous encounters with corruption and evil met on the way, symbolize the religious quest itself. The end of the story, in which the king shrinks away to “literally nothing,” signifies the final result of this quest: in the end, man cannot know God; the portrait which the sage brings back is empty! Man does not and cannot experience any ultimate revelation, in which he perhaps sees an overwhelming figure surrounded by dazzling light and hosts of angels, as portrayed in various apocalyptic and mystical sources. Rather, he simply comes to understand the unbridgeable gap between himself and God; because God is transcendent, he can know no more at the end than he does at the beginning. In terms of the symbolism of Abraham’s journey, this final stage corresponds to the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, the last and ultimate test undergone by Avraham. But unlike traditional readings, which see this as the proof of Abraham’s unqualified devotion, or those who puzzle over the paradoxical nature of this demand and its innate contradiction with morality, the real point of the Akedah comes in the revocation of the command and in the substitution of the ram for Yitzhak. As if to say: no matter how great and heroic one’s deed—e.g. sacrificing one’s only son—one cannot approach closeness to God. There is an unbridgeable gap between the Infinitude of God and any conceivable act of finite man.

This idea is expressed in another aspect of the story, in the digression about the role of humor and jokes, and the house in the center of the city: namely, that all avodah, any attempt at Divine service, is ultimately absurd, a “joke.” The “house” in the center of the city which is in the center of the world seems an obvious reference to the Temple in Jerusalem, and the “jokester” in its very center is the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. (Thus, this seeming digression, which is not needed for the progress of story, actually contains an important message consistent with that of the story as a whole,). Of course, this does not mean that R. Nahman advocated abandoning the path of the mitzvot, but rather that its efficaciousness as a means of approaching God must be viewed with considerable scepticism.

Perhaps, in a peculiar way, he reaches the same conclusion as the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: that the path of traditional Jewish piety, of obedience to the halakhah, is in some sense gratuitous, and that its importance lies, not in brining man any closer to God as such, but as an expression of the human “will and yearning” to do so, despite the its inherent impossibility! So it is with this difficult, almost absurd perspective, that we enter the New Year—rededicating ourselves, inter alia, to the somewhat absurd and lonely task of living as religious human beings in an often aggressively secular world.

NOTE: See Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name. Northvale NJ: Jason Aaronson, 1994. Introduction, xiii-xvi; Zvi Mark, Mysticism and Madness in the Work of R. Nachman of Bratslav [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2003), Chapter 12; Jerome Gellman, “Wellhausen and the Hasidim,” Modern Judaism 26 (2006), 193-207; idem., Abraham! Abraham! Kierkegaard and the Hasidim on the Binding of Isaac (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), chapter on “The Akedah as Divine Comedy.” Prof. Gellman also elaborated upon this in personal conversation with me, for which my thanks, and also referred me to Braslav sources quoted by Mark, which provided much of the basis for his own understanding. Rhese ideas are also stated explicitly by R. Nahman, as brought in the notes following the story, which allude to “Zion”; cf. Sihot ha-Ran (Jerusalem, 1986), pp. 34-35; Nathan of Nemirov, Likkutei Halakhot, Hoshen Mishpat (Jerusalem, 1963), Dinei Arevot 3.1.

Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Aggadah)

Good News! Our third granddaughter was born in the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning. A big Mazal Tov to all concerned.

Is Teshuvah Possible?

Some few weeks ago, I was discussing Maimonides’ concept of teshuvah with some of my friends, when one of them said that it is unrealistic, being based upon excessive expectations of human beings. A well-known passage in Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.1 states that true teshuvah occurs when a person confronts the identical opportunity to sin (“with the same woman… in the same place… and feeling the same strength of desire…”) and refrains from doing so, “not through weakness or cowardliness or inability,” but out of teshuvah: a genuine sense of God-fearingness and a decision to live a better, purer life. §2 continues:

What is teshuvah? It is when the sinner abandons his sin, removes it from his thoughts, and firmly decides in his heart that he shall never do it again, as is said “Let the wicked man abandon his path” [Isa 55:7], and he regrets the past, as is said, “For after I had turned away, I repented” [Jer 31:19}. And He who knows the mysteries of the heart [i.e., God] will testify that he shall never again return to this sin.

My friend was troubled by the word “never” (le’olam), in that it seemed to demand too much of a person. Indeed, everybody has had the experience of going to the synagogue during the Days of Awe, reciting the confession on Yom Kippur, and sincerely wishing to rid themselves of their all-too-familiar character flaws and failings. I am not speaking here about superficial people, but of those who take their Judaism, and the spiritual-ethical life, seriously. Yet almost everyone, if asked to describe their experience honestly, will admit that year after year their teshuvah has been less than perfect: they have resolved with all their heart to change those things which they dislike about themselves, and which in many cases may cry out urgently for change--possibly traits and habits and deep-seated aspects of themselves which may endanger their health, the welfare of their family and their loved ones, their possibility for happiness in life, their very lives--and yet, the barriers to teshuvah seem just too great, and they repeat the same process year after year, confessing the same faults.

I agree that the “bar” set here is very high. But in blaming Rambam for formulating matters this way, one is so-to-speak “shooting the messenger,” rather than dealing with what is really responsible for this situation. The fact of the matter is that the concept of teshuvah in Judaism is extraordinarily difficult; but it is so, not because Judaism is a harsh, demanding religion (although it may be that as well), but because of the nature of human beings, because of the human condition itself. Any serious adult who looks at his or her life and says, I have done wrong, must realize that any process of personal change, to be serious, must in principle be for the rest of his life. A person who says: I’ll do Teshuvah for one day, for one week, for one month, and then I’ll go back to being whatever I feel like, can not be taken seriously. It’s not a question of the halakhah being too harsh or not being lenient or understanding, but of the nature of what personal change means.

There is an old aphorism that “people don’t really change.” Indeed, if one examines some of the classic works of human and “humanistic” cultures, one finds this idea widely expressed (this idea was one I first heard from Rav Amital, whom I eulogized in the other half of this week’s paper). For example, what makes the Greek tragedies tragic is the fact that the hero may be conscious of his destiny and of the terrible things that he is to do in the future, and even do everything within his power to avoid doing so—and yet it still happens. A classical example of this is Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. People today (thanks to Freud) think of Oedipus as being about sex and the ubiquity of incestuous longings within the family. But for the Greeks, the legend of Oedipus was essentially about fate, about destiny. Oedipus’ parents were told by an oracle that their son was destined to kill his father and marry his mother; to avoid this fate they abandoned their child, who was raised by strangers and never told his real origins; when he nevertheless heard of the oracle he began wandering around the world so as avoid his supposed parents; and along the way he got into a fight with another man, a stranger, whom he killed, and fell in love with and married an older woman whom he found strangely attractive—and these turned out to be Laius and Jocasta, his true parents. He thus tragically fulfilled the very destiny he’d tried so hard to avoid! The central point is that, for the Greek mentality, we have no real choice as to what we do in life. We are destined to perform certain deeds, and they catch up with us no matter what. Similarly, in much of the great literature of the Western world—in Shakespeare’s plays, in much of the fiction that flowered in the 19th and 20th centuries--character is more often than not something fixed, the fascination of the story lying in the playing out of character. The flaws in each character, however great and noble they may otherwise be, are there from the beginning.

This is also a basic difference between Christianity and Judaism. On the deepest level, Christianity does not believe in teshuvah; it does not think that people can repent or change themselves. True, on a certain level Christianity has its great penitents; in what is considered the first autobiography in all of human literature, Augustine’s Confessions, we read the story of a man who grew up as a heathen and a hedonist, who lived for his own pleasure and committed every conceivable sin, until one day he saw the light, changed his ways, and became a Christian--a monk, an ascetic, and a model of piety.

But on a certain fundamental theological level, classical Christianity believes that we are all infected with original sin, that none of us can achieve perfection, nor even moral decency, and that the only thing that can save us, that can gain us atonement, that can “justify” us before God, is God’s vicarious self-sacrifice through the so-called mystery of the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus. (The above is of course a highly simplified and abbreviated version of Christian theology and anthropology.) Indeed, one might say that this central idea of Christianity was created by the Jew Paul in light of his own conflicts and difficulties with Rabbinic Judaism; to put matters rather over-simply, he was a man who found the demands of Judaism too much for him. I envision Paul as a certain kind of neurotic yeshiva bakhur, who was so strict in his demands on himself, who interpreted Judaism and the halakhah in such in unmerciful and uncompromising manner, that he felt overwhelmed by it all and felt it impossible to be “justified”--that is, to be accepted or loved by God for himself, through his own “works” or actions. One day, as a result of the inner tension in which this placed him, he broke down and invented a new and different, supposedly more loving theology: one that revolved around the person of his beloved and possibly legendary teacher Jesus, in which forgiveness was freely given through the mystery of the Crucifixion. (Interestingly, a contemporary radical Jewish theologian, Richard Rubenstein, best known for his book After Auschwitz, once wrote a small book called My Brother Paul in which he explicitly identifies with Paul’s experience from this very point of view.)

Some people might ask: What about the vibrant “teshuvah” movement which has emerged in the Jewish world over the past 30 or 40 years? If not a mass movement, it certainly involves many hundreds and thousands of people of all backgrounds and all ages, who grew up as assimilated Jews and have adopted Jewish observance as a way of life, doing what is generally referred to as teshuvah. My answer is that, with all due respect to these people, who as individuals have affected a revolution in their lives in adopting a difficult and demanding new way of life, this movement is concerned with teshuvah only in the borrowed sense. True teshuvah is concerned with a person who has done wrong willfully and knowingly, in some cases in rebellion against God, but certainly knowing that what he or she is doing is against the norms of decent morality, of ethical human behavior; at a certain point this person looks at himself, feels disgust, revulsion and shame, and resolves to abandon his old ways and to strike out a new path.

The fundamental idea of teshuvah, in face of the above-mentioned “conventional wisdom,” is that human beings can change and start out on a new direction in life. But it is not a simple matter. To explicate this further, I would like to turn here to the seventh chapter of Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah:

1. As every person has free will, as we explained, a person should make efforts to do teshuvah and to confess his sins verbally and to shake off his sins, so that he will die and as penitent, and enjoy the life of the world to come.

2. A person should always see himself as if he is about to die, and that he might die presently, will he still stands in a state of sin; therefore he should repent of his sins immediately, and not say: “When I am old I will repent,” lest he die before he is old. This is what Solomon said in his wisdom, “Let your garments always be white” (Eccles 9:8).

3. A person should not say, that teshuvah is only concerned with transgressions that involve some act, such as sexual licentiousness or theft or robbery. Rather, just as a person needs to repent of these, he needs to search out his negative character traits and to repent of anger and hatred and jealousy and foolishness and the pursuit of money and of honor, and gluttony, and the like. For all these things he needs to turn in repentance. And these transgressions are more difficult than those that involve a concrete act, for when a person is immersed in these it is difficult for him to rid himself of them. As it says, “Let the wicked man abandon his path.”

I find it interesting that Rambam does not explicitly state that teshuvah is a mitzvah incumbent upon every person until this point in his great treatise on teshuvah. In Chapters 1 and 2 he defines teshuvah, emphasizing what a person needs to do in order to receive atonement for his sins, the formula of confession one needs to recite in the event of teshuvah, and further honing the definition of teshuvah and related acts. In Chapters 3 and 4 he discusses how God weighs up the deeds of human beings, the significance of the Days of Repentance and of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, and turns to a lengthy catalogue of obstacles to teshuvah and of people for whom teshuvah is difficult, if not impossible. He then turns, in Chapters 5 and 6, to an essay on free will and determinism, stating that free will is one of the central principles of Jewish thought.

It is thus only at this point, once Maimonides has developed the concept of free will, that he can begin to speak of teshuvah as an obligation incumbent upon every person; without free will a person has no responsibility for his actions, and without such accountability there is no teshuvah. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this is one of the most important moral challenges of the contemporary milieu; the emphasis in modern culture on both biological and sociological determinism essentially pulls the rug out from beneath the traditional concept of personal individual responsibility. If everything is predetermined, whether genetically or by one’s socioeconomic background, then there isn’t much room for real responsibility for one’s actions.

In the next halakhah, he speaks of the importance of teshuvah in light of the inevitable reality of death: presumably, one wishes to die clean and pure; since no one knows when they will die and whether or not they will liv to old age, it is best to be in a state of constant teshuvah. Death can overtake a person at any time; a person may die suddenly, unexpectedly, from an accident or an act of random violence, from a massive heart attack or stroke, and not have any time for any soul-searching and repentance, or even to say Shema or a one-sentence Vidduy, let alone to say goodbye to one’s lived ones.

I do not know how many contemporary Jews, even those that are scrupulously observant, are seriously concerned with preparing for the Judgment that will follow their death, in the literal, concrete way described here by Rambam. But even if not, this halakhah points up an important truth: the fact of mortality, of the reality of death, is a basic principle of human ethics. The fact that our time on earth is limited, that we must constantly choose what to do with each day, with each hour, is or at least ought to be the greatest motivation for us to take life seriously and to act in accordance with our highest ideals. We can never be certain, if we postpone a good deed to some later time, whether we shall ever in fact get to do it.

This is especially true regarding inter-personal relations. Sometimes one harbors a grudge against a certain person because of what is ultimately a petty matter; the matter could be improved by a short conversation, by a few words of apology, by reaching out. Imagine that that person dies, so one can never be reconciled; the feud persisted for some stupid reason. What a waste! Some years ago the 22-year old daughter of a good friend of mine died suddenly, of an unknown heart condition. My friend regretted that her last words to her daughter, the morning of the day on which she was to die, were harsh words of criticism, of anger over some small thing. But now they could never be taken back… It is for this reason, as much as for reasons of Divine “economy,” that constant teshuvah is in order.

Rambam then turns to the essential point in this chapter, which is the hardest part of Teshuvah. It does not only involve repentance for specific deeds or even types of action, for which one can repent comparatively easily, because it involves specific, well-defined acts. Rather, the more serious, basic teshuvah involves character traits—and here matters become infinitely more difficult.

But having said all this, Judaism nevertheless believes in Teshuvah, and perhaps it is not even as overwhelming as it seems. When we come full-circle, to confront directly the full magnitude of what is required to do teshuvah, the element of divine compassion comes into play. I have written in the past (HY I: Ki Tisa) about what I call the covenant of Shavuot and the Covenant of Yom Kippur; the state of the Jewish people at Sinai, when they were in a certain sense naïve and innocent and accepted Torah in a wholehearted way; and what I would call the renewed covenant in the Cleft of the Rock, after the sin of the Golden Calf, when both they and God had seen in a very concrete way their capacity for sin and for frustrating expectations. On this latter occasion God revealed the thirteen qualities of Mercy, which not coincidentally is the leitmotif of the entire period of Days of Awe: that God ultimately moderates his stern judgment with love and mercy. We refer to this idea in our daily prayers as well, referring to God as ha-rotzeh be-teshuvah, “He who desires Teshuvah.” God desires that men repent; once a person comes to purify himself, God comes halfway to meet him and help him.

Christianity claims that it is a religion of love, and Judaism is a religion of law and harsh judgment—a claim unwittingly accepted by many Westernized Jews. But this is less than a half truth. I would amend it to say: Judaism is a religion of harmony between love and law: law at Sinai, love at the Cleft of the Rock; law on Shavuot, love and forgiveness and reconciliation on Yom Kippur.

NOTE: Arthur Green, in his new book Radical Judaism : Rethinking God and Tradition (New Haven: Yale: 2010) pp. 52-53, infers a similar idea from the liturgical use of the Thirteen Qualities. As used in the synagogue, Exodus 34:7 is truncated in mid-sentence; rather than reading “but surely He dos not clean them entirely (venaqeh lo yenaqeh), visiting the sins of the fathers on the children… etc”’ it reads simply “and he cleans” (venaqeh). Green describes this as “radical Midrashic surgery” bringing about “the transformation of a God who seeks retribution… into One who forgives and cleanses with unmitigated compassion.”

Ki Tavo (Aggadah)


Ki Teitsei (Aggadah)


Shoftim (Aggadah)


Re'eh (Aggadah)


Ekev (Aggadah)


Vaethanan (Aggadah)