Bonds, Unbreakable and Reparable

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan, Week 17, Sermon 20: Bonds, Unbreakable and Reparable

Mixed Signals

This is the last from within Derashot Kol Ben Levi that we’ll see now– the rest of the sermons in the work are for Shabbat HaGadol. In the two more Mondays we have until Rosh HaShanah (!!!), I hope to summarize a sermon for selichot and for Rosh HaShanah that came from another book and were reprinted here. Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I hope to share what I have gleaned from these sermons as a unit, the recurring themes and emphases I suggest that we found in Aruch HaShulchan’s repeated discussions of the themes of this time of year.

This sermon opens with Yoma 86b, where R. Yochanan says that repentance is so great, it even pushes aside a Torah prohibition. He was referring to Yirmiyahu 3;1, which speaks of the prohibition against a man remarrying his former wife if she has married someone else in between. Hashem, in contrast, is ready to welcome back the Jewish people (the wife in the metaphor) if they return.

Aruch HaShulchan knows as well as we do that Hashem is not a human being. More, he knows that Hoshea 11;9 emphasizes that very point, so he’s clear with his audience that these are figures of speech, ways to make a dramatic point, not actual halachic discussions. This is a train of thought with Midrashic and sermonic value, not specific legal content.

Turning back to the Gemara, accepting the idea that we’re going to treat this as if it were halachic, he mentions the general halachic principle that obligations push aside prohibitions. If so, why is R. Yochanan so surprised that repentance does it; isn’t it just an example of the broader principle? [Aruch HaShulchan doesn’t note it, but he’s assuming that once again becoming Hashem’s “wife,” as it were, must be inherent to the Jewish people’s repentance, since the idea that obligations push aside prohibitions only works when doing so is a necessary part of fulfilling the obligation].

Second [and, to my mind, more in line with the Midrashic discussion], sources conflict on the status of the Jewish people’s relationship with Hashem when they were following other gods. The verse in Yirmiyahu speaks as if they were divorced, but then also refers to them as having prostituted themselves, which sounds like they never married anyone else [in Tanach, the term zonah doesn’t only refer to a prostitute in the sense we use it in English; it also means a woman who has other improper sexual relations, including adultery]. If that’s the metaphor, there’s no problem with the “ex-wife” coming back to Hashem. In addition, Yeshayahu 50;1 denies that Hashem has or will ever divorce the Jewish people, so R. Yochanan’s idea should never get off the ground [although that raises another problem with the “couple” reconciling, as we’ll see].

Spousal Betrayal and the Kindness of Repentance

His basic answer is that, indeed, Hashem never divorced the Jewish people; Yirmiyahu spoke that way to strengthen his point. Even if they had been divorced and married others, they would be able to come back. Here, it’s more that the Jewish people had an affair while married, which also creates an halachic necessity for the couple to divorce.

That necessity is created by an obligation and a prohibition, and there is no halachic rule that a simple obligation can push aside an obligation and a prohibition—so R. Yochanan’s point is, once again, valid. Repentance lets us do that which we shouldn’t be able to, allowing the restoration of a relationship where rectification isn’t possible. His example is someone who burns down the king’s palace and then apologizes—does that do anything to restore the palace? Since it doesn’t, why would the king allow an apology to suffice?

Mishlei 13;21 pictures wisdom as saying that evildoers have to suffer for their sins, and Yechezkel 18;20 judges a sinning soul as deserving death. Why, then, does repentance work?

The Challenge of the Physical

Aruch HaShulchan finds the answer in Hashem’s recognition that our physicality is what hampers us from doing what Hashem wants. Deep down [for some of us, deeper down than for others], we all want to do what Hashem wants of us, but are restrained by our physical selves.

The seeds of that idea were planted by Rambam in Laws of Divorce 2;20, to explain the odd rule that a court can coerce a man to give his wife a bill of divorce, a get, despite the halachah that he must give it of his own freewill. The workaround is that the court coerces him to the point that he says he wants to give this get.

It’s an obvious fiction, so why does it have halachic validity? Rambam’s answer was that when we coerce people to do that which the Torah obligated (as halachah allows a court to do for many positive commandments, we’re actually freeing them from their baser selves [Rambam actually refers to da’ato hara, his evil ways of thinking, where Aruch HaShulchan refers to the man’s material self as what leads him astray, a telling modification].

We find similar ideas in Tanach. Tehillim 90;3 speaks of Hashem making souls downtrodden and then telling them to return to Hashem. Hoshea 11 has the prophet telling the Jewish people not to fear their troubles. They worried Hashem was destroying them permanently, like Sodom, when really it’s Hashem freeing them of their material attachments.

This is not the first time we have seen Aruch HaShulchan say that troubles are an opportunity to reconnect with proper observance and service of Hashem. In this case, our vulnerability to the draw of the physical explains how Hashem could take us back. If our “adultery” was coerced by our physical side, it’s more akin to the “wife” having been raped, not having had an affair. [This is a) obviously only a partial argument, since we cannot in fact absolve ourselves of our liabilities by saying that we couldn’t resist our physical side, and b) a clear attempt to remind his listeners to resist the temptation to become that fully involved with their physical selves].

The Eyes and Heart in Making Us a Zonah

For that way of looking at it, the verse’s calling the Jewish people a zonah, whores, doesn’t quite work. Skipping a long discussion of issur chal al issur, when a new prohibition can be applied to an existing situation, Aruch HaShulchan argues that a woman who commits adultery willingly is called a zonah; if she is raped, she will only be considered a teme’ah, ritually impure for certain purposes.

Moving back to people in general, Mishlei 6;26 makes clear that leaving the path of Torah can be called a kind of zenut as well. There, too, there’s a willful way to be a zonah, by following our eyes which are in our control. The sins that start with our eyes are fully our fault.

Even sins that start with our hearts, which isn’t as easily controlled, lead to sins where we are more at fault, since we stick with them [he mentions averah goreret averah, one sin leads to another; a psychologist I knew once pointed out to me that some of our initial reactions to events are visceral, aren’t quite in our control. But that first rush of emotion is fleeting; how we choose to continue reacting very much is a matter of our choice. In Aruch HaShulchan’s model, our first sin because of our hearts isn’t in our control, perhaps, but how we go from there is].

Refusing to Admit It

So we are brought to sin, particularly by our eyes, when we should be looking elsewhere. In a series of readings of Tanach I am skipping, he shows how we can be called zonah for our willing failures. (Allow me to include one: he suggests that when Hashem commands Yehezkel to make a foul-tasting bread and bake it using manure as the fuel for the fire, 4;13, the point was to show the Jews that they think they have to violate the Torah to earn a living, but that that living will end up tasting foul. They should have instead resisted the lure of their eyes and stayed faithful to Torah, a lesson clearly aimed at people who, in his time, had left observance in the name of earning a living; many of them, he adds, didn’t end up making a living, either, just losing their connection to religion).

Yet as Yirmiyahu 3;3 stresses, we refuse to accept that characterization. We claim that we are responding to forces beyond our control. Additionally, those who leave the religion insist that they are in fact still connected to their Father in Heaven (as the verse says the Jewish people will do, and as those who find ways to justify their “version” of Judaism in fact do).

The Unbreakable Bond and How to Access It

They’re not fully wrong, either. The metaphor of Father and Champion of our Youth does apply to Hashem (that’s Yirmiyahu 3;4), and that bond is in fact unbreakable. The only condition–  bringing us back to the beginning of the sermon– is that we return to Hashem first, as Malachi 3;7 told us, shuvu elai ve-ashuvah aleichem, return to Me and I will return to you.

We may stray, we may do it willfully enough that we are considered a zonah, in a way that would irreparably ruin a human marriage. We may follow our eyes, which we could have controlled, or our hearts, which were originally out of our control but whose further effects we could have resisted. We may, throughout our failures, insist that we are staying close to Hashem.

With all that against us—and remembering all of this will, perhaps, help us avoid being taken in by these temptations in the future—we should always know that Hashem is out there for us, a Father, a Champion and, in metaphorical fact, a Husband, waiting for us to come back, if only we return, fully and wholeheartedly.

About Gidon Rothstein

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