Spiritual Math IV

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

imageby R. Moshe Schapiro

The fourth in a five-part series discussing the meaning of the phrase in Selichot “ve-lo shavah lanu.” Other installments can be found here. -ed

≤ 0

If our spiritual trajectories have changed, and not necessarily for the better, we can suggest an additional interpretation of the phrase ve-lo shavah lanu, returning once again to the meaning of value or worth. [1]I thank Dr. Michael Samet who suggested this interpretation to me. Perhaps we have reached a moment of crisis and we despair that we have squandered our talents and wasted our spiritual potential. Just as Haman proclaimed, “ve-chol zeh einenu shoveh li” – “all this is worth nothing to me,” so too we have come to the realization that ve-lo shavah lanu– nothing is worth anything to us. We fear that God will never forgive us and that we have strayed so far that we can never repent. Our lives are devoid of existential meaning and all our hopes are dashed against the cruel reality of who we have become and what we have failed to accomplish. This loss of hope paralyzes us.

To combat the feeling of yeush, we must first restore our confidence in our own ability to repent. We are afraid that after having sunk so low, we simply will not be able to climb out of the abyss. However, Chazal teach, through several dramatic examples, that there is no depth from which a person cannot rise. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 65:22) tells the story of Yosef of Shita, who was so indifferent to God, that he willingly desecrated the Beit ha-Mikdash and Yakum of Tzerorot who was so distant from his own people that he mocked the martyrdom of his own uncle, one of the Sages of Israel. Yet, they both were moved to repent and were given special passage into the World to Come. Similarly, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 17a) tells the story of Elazar ben Dordaya whose descent into immorality and decadence was simply astounding. His subsequent despair was pathetic and heart-wrenching and his repentance was accepted. His example is so inspiring and emboldening that the Talmud concludes that he received the posthumous title Rebbi, because he taught that repentance is always possible. These stories are extreme examples in which the protagonists’ overwhelming remorse is so powerful that it leads to premature death and immediate entry to the World to Come. Obviously, we do not seek to emulate the exact manner of their repentance. However, their stories serve as inspiration to resist the feeling of yeush.

Rambam incorporates the concept that repentance is always possible in several places in his Laws of Repentance. After meticulously listing those sinners who forfeit their share in the World to Come, Rambam concludes: “When were these words said, that each of these does not have a share in the World to Come? When he dies without having repented. However, if he repents of his wickedness and dies in his penitence, behold, he is worthy of the World to Come. For, there is nothing that stands in the way of repentance” (3:14). Later, Rambam lists a series of behaviors or attitudes that prevent or hinder repentance. Again, he concludes: “All these matters and such like, even though they prevent repentance, they do not preclude it. Rather, if a person repents from them, he is a penitent and enjoys a share in the World to Come” (4:6). Finally, Rambam offers words of encouragement, poetically describing the potency of teshuvah: “How exalted is repentance? Last night he was odious before God… today he is beloved… last night he was separated from Hashem, the God of Israel… but today he clings to the divine presence” (7:6-7). Repentance is always possible no matter how odious the sinner or how distant he is from God.

Concomitant with the recognition that we are capable of repentance is faith in the power of God’s forgiveness. In Psalm 130, Shir HaMa’alot MiMa’amakim,the psalmist struggles with the fear that his prayers may not be heard because his sins stand in the way. He beseeches God, “For with You is forgiveness, that You may be feared” which seems counterintuitive. Why would forgiveness lead to fear of God? Wouldn’t the expectation of forgiveness lead to an attitude of permissiveness and laxity? R. Menachem Meiri (ad loc.) explains that the very possibility of forgiveness means that all is not lost. If there was nothing we could do to escape punishment or to mitigate the consequences of our sins, we would simply give up. Therefore, the recognition that there can be forgiveness leads to the fear of God and doubting that forgiveness leads to spiritual paralysis. In fact, doubting God’s forgiveness is the first step in a course of self-destructive behavior.

Moshe Rabbenu offers a powerful lesson about the self-destructive nature of yeush in the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim. After setting forth the terrible punishments that will be visited upon the Jewish people if they abandon God’s Torah, Moshe warns that there may be an individual who will “hear the words of this curse and will bless himself in his heart [ve-hitbareikh bi-levavo] saying, ‘Peace will be with me, though I walk as my heart sees fit’” (Devarim 29:18). God’s reaction to this individual is resolute, “Hashem will not be willing to forgive him” (ibid. 19). The Targum Yonatan translates the above bracketed phrase: “ve-yityaeish be-libeih” – “and he will give up hope in his heart.” The desired response to hearing the curses is to repent and thereby be forgiven. However, some people, feeling that they cannot possibly live up to God’s demands and will never be forgiven, surrender to their feelings of yeush and take the path of least resistance. R. Yosef Albo (Sefer HaIkkarim 4:26) notes that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because the possibility of forgiveness creates not just a hope, but an obligation to repent. If the sinner abandons that hope, he actually intensifies his sinfulness and consequently, “Hashem will not be willing to forgive him.” [2]For more on this theme see Meshekh Chochmah, Devarim 30:11. On Fast Days we read the words of the prophet Yeshayahu urging the Jewish nation to repent: “May the wicked one forsake his path and the sinful man his thoughts, and let him return to Hashem Who will show him mercy, and to our God for He is abundantly forgiving” (Yeshayah 55:7). R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (Derashot Ketav Sofer, Shofar 5655) writes that the “path” of the sinner is his wicked actions and corrupt character traits, but the “thoughts” of the sinner which must be forsaken refer to his thoughts of self-doubt and giving up hope. Only by rejecting and rising above his feelings of yeush can the sinner return to Hashem and be forgiven.

We may have capitulated to feelings of despair and let many opportunities to repent slip through our fingers in the past, but, as we declare in the Neilah service, God’s hand is always “stretched out to receive those who repent.” R. Tzvi Hirsch of Dinov (Agra de-Kallah, Parashat Ki Tisa s.v. saru maher)notes, homiletically, that there are only two verses in the Torah that begin with the Hebrew letter samekh. The first, “Saru maher” – “They have strayed quickly” (Shemot 32:8) describes the sin of the Jewish people with the Golden Calf. The second, “Salachti ki-devarekha” – “I have forgiven according to your word” (Bemidbar 14:20) is the expression of God’s forgiveness for the sin of the spies. The roundness of the two letters samekh signifies the constant interplay between sin and forgiveness. Man sins again and again, but sin is not a spiritual cul-de-sac because, as Yeshayahu teaches us, God is “abundantly forgiving.” He forgives again and again if we only turn to Him and repent.

Ultimately, even if we feel we can repent and even if we are confident in God’s forgiveness, we may be dragged down by the reality that we have caused irreparable damage in many areas of our life and nothing can change the ramifications and negative outcomes that our sins and flawed personalities have yielded. It would be dishonest and naïve to pretend that this is not the case. Our actions and attitudes can have consequences that will continue beyond our repentance and often may not be changed by attaining forgiveness. We have to lick our wounds and move on. Before the Jewish nation would go to war the head chaplain (mashu’ach milchamah) would proclaim, “Hear O Israel [shema yisrael] today you draw near to war against your enemies. Let not your heart be faint; do not be afraid, do not panic and do not be broken before them” (Devarim 20:3). The Talmud (Sotah 42a) associating the declaration “shema yisrael” here with the more famous twice-daily recitation of Shema, understands that the mashu’ach milchamah is offering words of encouragement as the army marches out to meet the enemy: “Even if you have only fulfilled the recitation of Shema morning and evening, you will not be given over into their hands.”

Fulfilling the mitzvah of Keriat Shema seems like a very low standard to merit divine protection . An apparently contradictory view emerges from a different Talmudic passage (ibid. 44a) that records a dispute between R. Akiva and R. Yossi ha-Galili. After exempting men with specific personal needs from army service, the kohanim make one final proclamation: “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house and let him not melt the heart of his fellows like his heart” (Devarim 20:8). While R. Akiva understands the intent of the kohanim literally, namely that those who lack physical courage should turn back from the battle, R. Yossi ha-Galili maintains that the kohanim’s words are figurative. They refer, not to “the man who is fearful” of fighting, but to “the man who is fearful” of the sins he has committed and does not have confidence that he will merit divine protection. If the only merit one needs to be victorious in war is the recital Shema, why would a soldier be fearful that he might not merit protection?

R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (Emet ve-Emunah 507) comments that even a soldier who has committed a transgression can be worthy of divine protection in battle, if he can accept the yoke of Heaven upon himself by reciting Shema. If a sinful individual can pick himself up, commit himself to Torah and mitzvot and leap back into the fray, then he can fight courageously and be confident of divine assistance. R. Yossi ha-Galili is speaking of a man who is afraid of his sins. He wallows in his depression and allows the feelings of guilt and hopelessness to overwhelm him. He cannot properly recite Shema because he cannot accept the yoke of Heaven and move forward in his service of God. Such a person cannot go out to war. There may be permanent consequences to our sins and we may have lost many battles, but if we cannot let those losses and failures cripple us. If we are confident that we can still prevail, God will help us to do so.

As we stand before God on Yom Kippur and proclaim that we have strayed from His Torah and commandments, we may be struck by a very painful realization: ve-lo shavah lanu – nothing is worth anything anymore. We feel powerless to repent, hopeless that God will forgive us and paralyzed by the real and lasting consequences of our actions. Yet, we must immediately stir ourselves. We cannot be fearful and softhearted. We must be brave and leap back into the fray. We can repent and achieve atonement and we can make the most out of our circumstances. Our life is not equal to zero, it can still be full of worth and meaning.

To be continued tomorrow…


1I thank Dr. Michael Samet who suggested this interpretation to me.
2For more on this theme see Meshekh Chochmah, Devarim 30:11.

About Moshe Schapiro

Rabbi Moshe Schapiro is a reference librarian at the Mendel Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University. He has served as rabbi of the Synagogue on the Palisades in Fort Lee, NJ and as an adjunct professor for Jewish Studies in the Isaac Breuer College at Yeshiva University.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter