The Ease of Teshuvah: Encouraging or Upsetting?

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

If Ran has convinced us that we need to focus on the religious as well as the physical in hoping to avoid calamity, we need a better understanding of the main method of healing religious ills, teshuvah, repentance.  Much of the sixth drasha exhorts, encourages, and reassures his listeners that they can in fact take advantage of this gift from Hashem, implying that they weren’t so sure.

It Should Have Been Hard, But Its Not

Prior essays in this series

The drasha starts with verses that draw our attention to how surprising it is that Hashem allows us to get away with repentance. Really, Michah says (6:6), it should be impossible to make up for violating Hashem’s will. What should, by rights, mollify the Creator, Who gave us life out of pure kindness, and Whose commands we willfully violate?

To our good fortune, Hashem decided to forego His rights, as it were, and accept repentance. Teshuvah dispenses with compensation in favor of regret and re-commitment. While this may sound simple, experience shows that it’s not.

The Downside to How Easy Hashem Made It

The ease of repentance benefits those who avail themselves of it. However, this very unearned ease heightens the wrongs of those who fail to repent. Had repentance in fact involved onerous efforts at rectification, we would have had a bit of an excuse–that it is just too hard.

To Ran, that’s why Michah 6:10 says that the righteous will succeed in the ways of Hashem and the wicked will stumble. The very ease of walking in Hashem’s ways is itself the stumbling block. If it were hard, failure would be understandable. But it’s so easy!

Making it even easier is Hashem’s helping us return in other ways, such as by bringing calamities on people far away. Seeing them suffer should remind us that we could easily deserve a similar fate, spurring repentance.

I have seen that passage read as Ran saying that Hashem brings disasters upon those others to teach us a lesson.  As if the Merciful One would cause needless suffering just to call us to repentance! That mistaken reading misses that Ran never says the people affected didn’t also sin.

Ran’s next sentence says that if we fail to change, those same calamities will reach us (which supports my Black Death theory, since that didn’t start in Spain). He’s saying that the favor is that Hashem starts with those others even though we were equally deserving of what befell them.

The favor is in Hashem giving us more time than we deserve, starting His collection of spiritual overdrafts with others. We are expected to use what happens to them as a reminder to put our own accounts in order before Hashem comes to discuss our delinquencies.

You Dont Have To Be Great to Repent, But It Helps

One worry his listeners seem to have had was that perhaps only those with great wisdom and perfect knowledge of Torah can successfully repent. Ran agrees that study of Torah earns great reward. However, he argues, Berachot 20a—which wonders why miracles happened for generations that had much less Torah knowledge than others– asserts that Hashem “cares” most about our sincerity.

Ran is striking a balance. While not denying the importance of Torah study, he stays firm on the idea that a sincere interest in penitence and return to Hashem will also accomplish a great deal.

The Repentance Doesnt Have to be Great, But It Helps

Ran’s listeners were also troubled by Yoma’s saying that a “real” penitent faces temptation once, twice, and three times, in similar circumstances, and resists.  They took that to mean that those who only repent when they’re older, when many of the urges to sin have quieted, cannot achieve “real” repentance.

Rambam addressed this, too, distinguishing among levels of completeness in one’s repentance, without quantifying the difference. Ran advances the theory that base-level repentance atones, assuaging the “anger” that is the appropriate response to our sin.  More perfect repentance converts sins into merits, as Yoma 86b notes. For that, we need to face and resist the exact same temptation.  [Ran doesn’t explain, here, why it would be that such repentance creates merits, and I don’t have the space to speculate.]

Ran reminds us of the indispensability of sincerity for even that lower level of repentance. One marker of sincerity is that we do not stop with the particular sin we’ve noticed, admit it, hope not to repeat it, and leave it at that. Sincerity would lead us to examine all our actions, looking for other ways in which we’re imperfect. We would let all of our imperfections sit in our awareness, as Tehillim 51:5 says, “for I know my iniquity, and my sins are before me always.” They would serve as constant fuel for avoiding recidivism and opting for improvement.  Thats sincerity.

The Power of Sincerity

This back and forth shows the difficulty Ran faced.  He wanted to show his listeners how much easier repentance is than it could by rights have been, without glossing over how far they needed to go to qualify as sincere and wholehearted.

One last encouragement Ran offers is that proper repentance can avert the worst of decrees, on an individual or communal level. Hashem’s righteous wrath over biblical sins were all mitigated with sincere repentance. These biblical examples include King David’s sin with Batsheva which, as Ran notes, Scripture portrays as an adulterous affair to show that whatever the sin was, it was as serious a sin for a man of David’s stature as actual adultery would be for one of us; Nineveh’s sins, which were bad enough to deserve annihilation; and even Nevuchadnezzar’s evils,

The implication is that even the Black Death could yield, if Ran’s audience repented sincerely enough.  A challenging claim for them, clearly, as it would be for us if we, God forbid, faced another such plague.

Let’s be thankful that we don’t, and hope we can absorb Ran’s lessons before we ever do.

About Gidon Rothstein

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