The Key To Teshuvah: Accepting Reponsibility

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 9 Part 2

Ran is encouraging his audience to believe in the possibility of healing repentance, as we saw last time. In this part of the drasha, he points to two components of that repentance, having to do with how we see ourselves and how we see Hashem. Aside from helping with teshuvah, repentance, they offer a perspective on theodicy, how we understand the bad or difficult events in our lives, particularly Holocaust theodicy.

Moshe and David: Aware of the Severity of their Sin

Prior essays in this series

Ran points out that Moshe refers to his asking Hashem to commute his sentence and allow him to enter Israel as “ואתחנן,” a verb that speaks of pleading for a free gift, not a deserved result. Sifrei says that David did so as well. While Rashi thinks Moshe did not wish to give up any of his reward in the World to Come for this, Ran thinks both Moshe and David (and all other righteous people) do not see themselves as deserving of such atonement. The severity of their sins weighs on them. Because of their awareness of the greatness of the One towards whom they sinned, that they cannot imagine atonement coming other than as undeserved grace.

That awareness is the first step of healing one’s sins, Ran says. He notes that Hoshea 5 speaks of Efrayim (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) going to Ashur for healing, and finding no aid. In verse 15, the prophet has Hashem saying that it will only be when they uncover their guilt and seek Hashem’s face—which Ran reads as recognizing what they’ve done wrong, the first step of real repentance—will they start on the road to healing.

Sadly, many of us handle sin differently (and did so in Ran’s time as well). As Ran points out, we seem to think we can hide flaws from Hashem, who knows us inside and out, when the better first step is living up to Tehillim 51:5: וחטאתי נגדי תמיד, my sin is before me always.

Baring of Sins as Medically Necessary

The importance of that honest confrontation with sin is highlighted later in Hoshea (7:1), where Hashem says that as He heals Israel, He will uncover the sin of Efrayim. That contrasts with Yirmiyahu 50:20, which speaks of the Jewish people’s sins being healed so fully that they cannot be found. Ran says that’s after, but the first step is bringing the sin to the light.

He compares it to an infected wound, which must be opened before it can heal. The same is true of sin, where healing begins with seeing the sin fully and turning to Hashem.

Remember that Ran suggests this explicitly as a way to forgiveness, not as more scolding (the rebuke came in the earlier part of Devarim). Just as we would not resent the doctor who prescribes painful medical treatments to beat a disease, Ran is urging us to undertake a full accounting of our sins to return to religious health.

Know What We Did Changes Our Perspective of Punishment

Hoshea 6:2 speaks of Hashem reviving us מיומים, from two days, as if our punishments only last that long. Ran says we would feel that way about our sufferings if we see our sins in their truest light. A full awareness of our wrongs would make the punishments we’ve received seem minimal, considering what would have been justifiable.

This is an attitude he clearly did not think his listeners yet had, and which he tells us he will take up again in the next drasha, so we might as well start grappling with it ourselves. His audience had just experienced the Black Death (I have been assuming), and today we similarly still hear the echoes of the Holocaust. The Holocaust, we all know, killed 2/3 of European Jewry, 1/3 of worldwide Jewry, and many non-Jews as well. The Black Death’s death toll is unclear, but seems to have been at least 30% of all of Europe (100 million people), and to have recurred regularly for the next 300 years.

So when Ran says honest self-appraisal would put our sufferings in new light, he is not speaking casually or from a lack of experience of horrors on a scale with what twentieth century Jewry underwent. Having seen such suffering, he holds it is less than what strict judgment would have demanded.

I know how challenging that is as an idea, so let me offer a thought, not in Ran, that might help with absorbing that. Jewish tradition is clear that any single willful transgression of certain acts deserves death, whether by a court or at Hashem’s hands. [Mistaken or erroneous acts incur lesser liability, complicating the discussion today, when many Jews who abandon tradition are doing so mistakenly rather than wilfully. Ran did not think of nonobservance that way.]

What happens when all or most Jews regularly or frequently commit such sins? The Jewish communities of mid-14th century Spain do not seem to have been of the most observant (which is one reason so many of them converted, both in 1391 and 1492); Ran seems to be asking them to look at themselves honestly, and accept that their punishments, awful as they were, were in fact less than they deserved.

A Fathers Discipline

Honest self-appraisal would also lead Ran’s listeners (and us, I assume he would say) to experience Hashem’s role differently. When we think we don’t deserve what we’re getting, we are angry with Hashem. Ran would have us see that Hashem always treats us like a father does a beloved child. A father never gives what the child deserves, because h/He loves the child too much, such that even a small punishment feels excessive to the f/Father.

That’s the meaning of Yeshayahu 40:2 (from the haftarah of VaEtchanan, always read on the Shabbat after Tish’a B’Av), that Jerusalem has been given double its deserved punishment. For Ran, that’s not literal; it’s how Hashem “experiences” our punishment.

Moshes Hesitant Request

Moshe’s approach to Hashem thus becomes a model for all Jews. He fully recognizes his sin, takes responsibility for it, admits he has no standing to ask for a commutation of punishment, and begs for Hashem’s gracious forgiveness. He also, Ran notes, times his request to when he sees Hashem already acting in a positive way. Right after the sin, Moshe said nothing. But once he saw the conquest starting, with the defeat of Sichon and Og, where Hashem had allowed Moshe to see the beginnings of Hashem’s greatness, he can hope that Hashem will allow that to continue. One undeserved good turn gave him hope that he might be able to get another.

Ran’s views are not ones we usually entertain.As we think about them, I’d stress that he offered them as the best way forward, as far as he saw it. A reminder of sin can tell us how terrible we are, but it can also—which Ran is doing—show us the problem we need to fix. I have tried to fix a burst pipe by calling a roofer; it doesn’t work.Awareness of our problems, of Hashem’s graciousness in treating us like children and punishing us less than we deserve, are all vital steps to healing ourselves. It allows us to find our way out of any troubles we’re in, find our way back to Hashem, and to a future that has none of the punishments we’ve suffered until now.

About Gidon Rothstein

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