Rabbenu Yonah’s Calls to Repentance

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by R. Gidon Rothstein (previous post on this subject: here)

The Call of Torah Scholars

In all times, the Jewish people have had leaders who try to point out to them places they are going wrong. Rabbenu Yonah urges readers to be open to their messages, recognize and accept where they hit home, and repent accordingly. Just doing so takes the person from darkness to great light, he says, because the very act of listening, accepting, and resolving to do whatever Torah leaders tell him/her, to be careful about whatever they say, remakes the person more positively.

Such a resolution is itself a merit, and will bear the fruit of more merit going forward. Hazal inferred the idea from Shemot 12;28’s saying the Jewish people went and did all Moshe had told them, when his commands were about the fourteenth of Nisan, a date that had not yet arrived. Gd equates resolution with performance, accounts it to one’s merit already.

Avot de-Rabi Natan uses the idea to explain Avot 3;9’s seemingly oxymoronic reference to a person whose actions exceed his/her wisdom–if the person does not have the wisdom to do something, how could his/her actions exceed the wisdom? Avot de-Rabi Natan a bit cryptically cites na’aseh ve-nishma, the Jews’ commitment to observe before they heard or understood. Rabbenu Yonah reads Avot de-Rabi Natan to be saying their commitment counted, as does the person committed to more than s/he yet knows—that person’s actions are indeed greater than his/her knowledge.

Of course, s/he has to follow through, has to seek out teachers from then on, to expand his/her knowledge of the obligations and values of the system.

A Digression on Finding Leaders

Before we study Rabbenu Yonah’s negative comments about those who ignore the words of Torah scholars, let’s consider two problems people today have with the idea of finding and following a teacher’s Torah advice. First, we sadly know of teachers of Torah unworthy of the name (and, sometimes, we do not find out they are unworthy until long into their careers, when they have devotees who continue to follow them despite their clearly having disqualified themselves).

Even when they are generally worthy, and deserver to be heard and heeded, many teachers of Torah are obviously flawed in certain ways (as are we all). It can be hard to accept the idea we have to listen to them, when we know ways they aren’t better than us.

Second, we live in a time when people are very taken with their own abilities to make valid and valuable decisions. Someone who successfully runs a business, or invests in the stock market, or wins athletic or musical competitions, or performs complicated surgeries, can easily come to imagine s/he has a well-enough developed intellect not to need such Torah scholars, to be able to find truths on his/her own.

I think Rabbenu Yonah is trying to help us see the error in both views. If a Torah scholar’s flaws affect the Torah s/he transmits, that might be cause to seek out a different teacher. More often, Torah scholars present valuable Torah ideas, from which most of us would profit from learning, as direction toward a life more focused on what Gd wants, where their particular challenges have zero impact on the Torah being transmitted. We don’t know those ideas because we have not immersed ourselves as the scholar has, so we would do well to listen to him/her.

Could there be people who know well enough on their own, without consulting a Torah scholar? Sure, if they are themselves Torah scholars. Even then, there are hierarchies, and most Torah scholars seek out more senior and/or more learned ones to alert them to what they may have missed. The fact you or I study Torah an hour or two a day doesn’t exempt us from what Rabbenu Yonah is saying, listening to the call of Torah scholars to show us where we are neglecting our obligations, and committing to doing what they say.

Willful Ignorance

Not to do so is worse than just not listening, because now the person’s formerly unwitting sins have an element of rebelliousness, a deliberate decision to do what s/he now knows is wrong. In attaching the idea to Mishlei 17;10-11, Rabbenu Yonah takes a reference to a cruel angel as the tit-for-tat response to the rejection of remonstration. A Torah scholar telling the public how to do better counts as a malakh, a messenger of Gd.

He knows this because II Divrei Ha-Yamim 36;16—the very end of Tanakh–says the first Temple was destroyed, and exile came, because the Jews rejected, reviled, and denigrated mal’akhei Elokim, the messengers of Gd, where the verse also specifically refers to prophets. Torah scholars who seek to help us our service of Gd are mal’akhim, as are angels.

Worse than those who ignores remonstration, some people hate it, avoid it, or stop others from sharing it. Such people have put themselves at a daunting disadvantage, because they can no longer excuse their sins as a yielding to temptation, a temporary situation that can be rectified by turning towards the good. The people who reject or hate remonstration have given up on self-improvement, which translates, Gd forbid, into hatred of Gd’s Word.

Shemot Rabbah Yitro 27 expresses the value of accepting rebuke memorably: if someone falls off a roof, they need medical care for each affected limb. A sinner sins with his/her entire body, yet the healing comes through just the ear, as Yeshayahu 55;3 says, turn your ear and come towards Me, listen and your soul will be revived.”

Call Four: Torah Study

Torah scholars channel and package the message for us, sort of pre-digesting it. Self-study of Tanakh can also teach Jews lessons on how to live, should they be open to them. [He does not mention Mishnah or Gemara, I think because his audience studied Tanakh more than other texts; it seems to me Sephardic writers such as Rabbenu Yonah and Rabbenu Bahya in Hovot Ha-Levavot, focused their citations on Scripture, because their audience knew it. Alternatively, Rabbenu Yonah thought study of Talmud less efficient in teaching the kinds of lessons most relevant to repentance. Tanakh is all about how to live more closely connected to proper service of Gd, where many sections of the Talmud are legal, their ethical/ spiritual lessons requiring another layer of analysis.]

Aside from a missed opportunity, study that does not foster improved observance runs afoul of Yerushalmi Berakhot 1;1, better not to have been born than to learn without fulfilling its lessons.

Whether hearing it from others or learning it ourselves, Torah study is more than material to be read, it informs us where we are not yet perfect. The more of it we open ourselves to hearing, the closer to full repentance we will come.

The Fifth Call: Aseret Yemei Teshuvah

Rosh HaShanah is this week, kicking off the period Rabbenu Yonah labels the fifth way to hear the call to repentance. During this time, those who fear Gd will have their hearts pound (in fear), knowing all their deeds are being written down (I think he means rewritten, taken from the record of when they happened, evaluated for the side of the ledger to be recorded, towards life or the reverse, Gd forbid).

We’re judged for all of it, every single thing we have done, on Rosh HaShanah, with a decree sealed on Yom Kippur. Knowing we are being judged—and the judgment of Rosh HaShanah is much more significantly about absolute truth, what objective evaluation of our actions and failings says we deserve—should make us all tremble, he says.

And take action. The judgment comes to awaken us to change, and we should laser focus on rectifying our situation, on finding the way to earn or merit a better outcome than what our usual lives would have gotten. He writes farmers should not go to their farms, people to work, not when this awesome judgment hangs over their heads!

He moderates the idea in the next paragraph, says one who fears Gd will reduce his/her business involvements in this time, should direct his/her thoughts to the more important events of the Heavenly Court, set times day and night to be alone and consider him/herself carefully, honestly, and fully, and from there to busy him/herself with the paths of repentance and prayer. For these are also days when prayer is more accepted than usual, as Yevamot 49b says, the words dirshu Hashem be-himatze’o, seek Gd when He is found, refer to these ten days, when even the individual has greater access to Gd than usual.

It starts with Rosh HaShanah: if we are honest, we know that our objective merits and flaws would leave us in a much worse place than we hope. Our best strategy is to use two tools Gd granted us, repentance and prayer. Both take more time than we realize, the reason Rabbenu Yonah wants us setting aside time, to engage in the kind of reflection and repentance we need—which we can also find by hearing Torah scholars and/or studying Torah ourselves, to let it show us where we have still to grow– and to pray to our Creator to accept our efforts with good will, that we might merit a ketivah-ve-hatimah tovah.

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