Where Repentance Can Take Us

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Repentance that Lasts

Last time, we examined aspects of the renewed covenant Hashem made with the Jewish people. The parsha then moves to another warning of the consequences of failure to keep that covenant; after bearing those, the Jews will eventually return (the description here has some interesting similarities to parts of VaEtchanan that we read last week, but that’s for another time). The verse says:

דברים ל:א וְהָיָה֩ כִֽי־יָבֹ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַבְּרָכָה֙ וְהַקְּלָלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֙ אֶל־לְבָבֶ֔ךָ…: (ב) וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ:

Devarim 30;1: When all these matters come to pass, the blessing and the curse, and you take it to heart… Verse 2: And you return to Hashem your Gd and hearken to His Voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and soul.

Ramban is unsure as to what it is that will be true of “you and your children.” The second possibility he mentions—but does not seem to take seriously—is that it’s an elaboration of the “you” Hashem speaks of commanding. “I command you today” means “you and your children.”

The option he put first and seems to prefer is that those who return to Hashem (after suffering the curses) will commit to fulfilling Hashem’s Will, they and their descendants in perpetuity. Nechemiah 10 records such a ceremony enacted by the returnees from Bavel, led by Nechemiah. (Ramban glides over the fact that the verses there do not mention that the pact was made to include future generationsthe signees accepted upon themselves and their contemporaries, but Ramban here spoke of accepting for all future generations as well.)

He ends off with the cryptic comment that this verse has a great secret, hinting at Yevamot 63b’s assertion that Mashiach will only come once all the souls in the storehouse are used up.

[That Gemara seems to assume that Hashem created a certain number of souls, and that once those are used up, history will end and Mashiach will come. I think Ramban sees this verse as hinting at that, because it assumes there are a finite number of generations for which these penitents will accept the covenant.

I noticed it because many people assume Ramban believed in gilgul neshamot, reincarnation of souls. Now’s not the time for a full discussion of why I think that’s untrue, but this comment at least suggests he didn’t, since it’s harder to deplete a storehouse of souls if they’re constantly being reincarnated.

Of course the counterargument is that not all souls are reincarnated, so there’s always a slow dipping in to the storehouse. Or, as I once read in a science fiction story, we might reach a point when there are more people alive than in all of prior human history combined, so the storehouse would be used up.]

However we resolve that, Ramban’s view is that the repentance that brings salvation involves wholehearted commitment, for oneself and all of one’s descendants.

What It Means to Circumcise a Heart

דברים פרק ל:ו וּמָ֨ל יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֖ וְאֶת־לְבַ֣ב זַרְעֶ֑ךָ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ לְמַ֥עַן חַיֶּֽיךָ:

Devarim 30;6: Hashem your Gd will circumcise your hearts, and the hearts of your descendants, to love Hashem your Gd with all your heart and all your soul, so that you shall live.

Ramban first sees this as a promise (already articulated by Shabbat 104a) that those who seeks purification (that is, penitence, absolution, and restoration of their relationship with Hashem) will be helped from on high. But he takes it further, seeing this circumcision as a fundamental altering of the human dynamic. From the time of Creation, people have had the free will to do ill or well, which leads to reward or punishment.

In the period described here (the Messianic era, which Ramban thinks it will be a whole epoch, at the end of which will come the final judgment and resurrection of the dead), people will no longer desire what is improper or inappropriate.

It’s referred to as circumcision because wrongful appetites and desires are an orlah of the heart, a sort of foreskin in the sense of being an added piece that is unnecessary, and that renders the valuable part of that organ (the heart, in this case) more inaccessible. Once circumcised, the heart will no longer want what it should not have.

Back to Eden

That will return human beings to the state of Adam (the first human) before he ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, when he naturally did that which was right. That’s what Yirmiyahu meant in 31;30-32 when he spoke of a new covenant, in which the Torah will embed itself in and on the Jewish people’s hearts, removing the evil inclination, letting the heart do naturally what it always wanted, that which is raui, worthy.

He offers a few other Scriptural quotes to support that idea, and closes with Shabbat 151b’s reading of Kohelet 12;1, days will come where you will say ‘I have no desire,’ as the Messianic era, where there will no longer be merit and liability. Because, explains Ramban, chefetz, desire, refers to wrongful desires, wanting what we should not.

We have become used to the idea that religion is about the struggle with our baser selves, about conquering ourselves to serve Hashem better. When that will no longer be true, it raises the question of what life will be about, what our goals will be.

Ramban doesn’t address that question, so this is not the venue for a full answer, but it seems to me there are many choices that have nothing to do with good and evil or right and wrong. Whether one dedicates one’s life to the study and spread of Torah, or to the healing of physical ailments, or to the bettering the lot of those economically or socially disadvantaged (or devotes the bulk of one’s tzedakah funds to whichever of these causes) is not generally about right or wrong, it’s choices.

Those were the kinds of choices we were supposed to be spending our time in Gan Eden making, shaping Hashem’s world in our image, all within the parameters of right.

In Your Mouths and Hearts

When we stumble on the path of life, stray from the path to diversions and digressions, we can despair of finding the road back.

דברים פרק ל:יד  כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ:

Devarim 30:14: For the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and heart to do.

Ramban reads this as reaching back to the first verses we saw this time, which spoke of an obligation to notice history, to notice when all of the Torah’s promised blessings and threatened curses have befallen us, and to return to Hashem. At the same time as it obligates, it is supposed to reassure, to tell us that no matter how far flung we may be, no matter where the punishment of exile may take us, we can return to Hashem.

And this verse adds to that, tells us that it’s not even that hard, that it’s in fact instinctual—in our mouths, where we articulate our sins and those of our fathers, and hearts, where we recommit to observance and fidelity to the Torah, for us and all our generations.

Sadly, while Ramban can make it sound simple (and, if we reach for it sincerely, it likely is simpler than it seems from the outside), it has proven to be anything but. As we approach Nitzavim this year, we can hope that this is the year we hear this call, in our millions, and in fact return to Hashem fully and wholeheartedly, and reap the wonders that await us when we do.

About Gidon Rothstein

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