Regret, Retribution, Resilient Resistance

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Mabit’s Sha’ar Ha-Teshuvah, Ch. Two -Three: Regret, Retribution, Resilient Resistance

Regret and Resolve, the Markers of Repentance

Last time, Mabit asserted the essential goal of teshuvah, finding our way to a restored relationship with Gd. This time he takes up the essential elements of teshuvah, haratah, regret, and azivat ha-het, the intention to refrain from this sin in the future. To regret what we fully intend to do again seems empty, where deciding not to repeat a certain action without regret implies s/he is doing it for reasons other than Gd’s command (I don’t like pig anymore, or the way they’ve started preparing it seems unhealthy to me).  The word teshuvah indicates both of these, shav in the sense of turning away from a current path, in thought—it was wrong, I won’t do it anymore–and in practice.

[His point might seem obvious, except I have heard more than a few fine Jews laugh about their sinful younger days with a comfort or nostalgia I think belie true regret. We do not laugh and reminisce about wrongs we have committed if we are sure they were wrong. Enough said.]

Teshuvah needs the involvement of mind and action because the sin had both components. (In this sense, repentance reverse the sin, winds the clock back). The idea brings to Mabit’s mind the sin of Kayin, who says to Gd, is my sin too great to bear? Bereshit Rabbah 22 reads him as complaining about Gd’s “bearing” the upper beings (angels and the like) and the lower ones (animals), but not Kayin. Since Gd implanted an animal side in humanity, Gd had to know sin was inevitable, and therefore had to have made room for the possibility of repentance.

Even so, Mabit is sure the essence of azivat ha-het, leaving the sin, is mental as well, the decision not to sin again the essence of it. Were the person never to face that sin again, s/he would still count as a ba’al teshuvah, a penitent.

Through Thought Alone

He proves the idea first from a Mishnah’s saying (Kiddushin 49) a man can betroth a woman on condition he is fully righteous; even if we all know him to be evil, she needs a bill of divorce in case he had been meharher teshuvah, had thoughts of repentance, making him a ba’al teshuvah, and fully righteous.

Still, it is better to repent when the opportunity for sin might arise again, because—as Mabit will say in the next chapter—resisting a temptation demonstrates the fullness of a person’s internal resolve. Rock bottom, though, the thought alone does it.

He sticks to his guns regarding sins we might think cannot be fully repented through regret alone, such as wrongs committed against other people and/or violations of the Torah too serious for repentance alone to atone. For examples, Yoma 86a recorded R. Yishma’el’s idea that violations of the Torah need Yom Kippur or more in addition to repentance, a Mishnah on 85b said Yom Kippur cannot atone for interpersonal sins without appeasing the offended party, and many sources required a sinner to return objects of sin (such as items s/he had stolen).  With all that, Mabit sets out to prove mental regret and resolve make the sinner a full penitent already, anything else only about ways to round out the absolution.

He proves it from Bava Metzi’a 62a, where a father passes away, leaving interest he had collected improperly, in violation of the prohibition of ribit. The sons only have to return the interest if he repented before he died, had not had a chance to return the ill-gotten gains. Apparently, the Gemara can speak meaningfully of his having repented without yet having returned the money; for Mabit, it is because repentance happens in the mind alone.

Teshuvah Makes the Punishment Wipe Away the Sin

One obvious problem for his view regret and resolve are the entire sum and substance of teshuvah is the Gemara’s inclusion of Yom Kippur, yisurim, and possibly death as necessary for full kapparahMabit says those are about punishment for sin, not about bringing the sinner back to Gd.

A sinner who does not repent will receive those punishments, and they will do nothing to clean his or her slate. To help the punishment also produce absolution, Sanhedrin 43 ordains those being punished by a court acknowledge their sin before. Were the sinner not to do that, s/he would not be a penitent and the punishment will have no effect on his/her sin slate/status. The same for sacrifices, usually brought for sins committed without full knowledge, where the Torah itself (Vayikra 5) says the sinner should articulate his/her sins when bringing them.

Note his separation of teshuvah from cleaning the slate. I might have thought a penitent does not count as a tzaddik if s/he still owes a debt of punishment. Mabit separates them. Also, the Gemara had spoken of earlier stages as tolin, usually read to mean they prevent the later punishments from coming. Mabit instead thinks it means they ensure those later stages have their hoped-for effect, eradicating the debt created by sin.

With hillul Hashem as well, sacrilege of Gd’s Name, Gd forbid, the Gemara seems to say the sinner is not done with the teshuvah process until death; Mabit  instead insists s/he returns to being a tzaddik gamur, wholly righteous, as soon as s/he reenlisted in Gd’s service, regretted the past and recommitted to obeying Gd’s commandments. All the rest is about paving the way for this person to be able to avoid punishment in the World to Come, to receive full absolution here.

The Advantage and Disadvantage of Sin in the Time of a Temple

Mabit is aware his view seems to make sacrifices unnecessary. If we have lived without sacrificial service for centuries, and teshuvah alone restores us to full righteousness (and sacrifices mainly address shogegin, who sinned unwittingly and therefore reasonably do not need punishment) why was there ever a need for sacrifices?

The first step of his answer defines the repentance of someone who sinned through lack of knowledge as revolving around the not knowing, his/her not having been concerned enough with Gd’s Will to make absolutely sure s/he not step over those boundaries. The penitent must commit to better care, more awareness of Gd’s Will.

In Temple times, it would require a sacrifice as well, Mabit says because of the greater visibility of the Divine Presence. In our times, the Presence is in exile with the Jewish people, more diffuse and less directly noticeable. When it is concentrated in the Temple (as is one of the key points of a Beit Ha-MIkdash, having Gd’s Presence reside among the Jewish people), Jews are supposed to be more affected by it, making sin less possible. Should a Jew sin anyway, it constitutes a greater rebellion, more actions needed to clean the slate.

Still and all, Mabit insists, the thought alone constitutes the entirety of repentance. All the rest is about paying off spiritual arrears.

[This might imply we are better off without a Beit Ha-Mikdash, as some readers surprised me by saying in reaction to Murderer in the Mikdash and its sequel The Making of the Messiah, 2048. I am confident Mabit disagreed, although he does not address the issue. I assume he would say the benefits of a clear Divine Presence, its help in focusing our lives properly, far outweigh any costs.]

Chapter Three: Other Parts of Repentance Support and Elevate the Repentance

Mabit now turns to why previous writers had so many steps if it’s all regret and resolve. There is a well-known likely Biblical requirement of vidui, articulating one’s sins, and Rabbenu Yonah had listed twenty steps to repentance, including especially keni’ah, submission, and shiflut, humility [Rabbenu Yonah’s steps take up most of his first sha’ar of Sha’arei Teshuvah; they reward repeated study].

For Mabit, they are all about imprinting repentance on the sinner. Regret and resolve do turn the sinner into a righteous person, a status not held onto easily. By saying one’s sins out loud, the sinner will be more embarrassed to return to them in the future, because s/he will remember his/her commitment not to. All the rest of the steps as well put the sinner in more of a frame to adhere to his/her resolution.

The more the sinner’s past fuels his/her future, such as always doing acts of justice and charity because of the remembered regret over past failures in those regards, the more we understand Resh Lakish’s idea of sins becoming like merits. [R. Soloveitchik has a very similar idea in On Repentance, teshuvah me-ahavah, repentance out of love, is where the memory of the past is always on the sinner’s mind, a spur to do better.]

Resisting Return Temptation

He uses the same idea to explainYoma 86b’s idea a ba’al teshuvah, a penitent, is someone who resists the sin; R. Yehudah adds, in the exact same circumstances, sounding like the person is not ba’al teshuvah until that happens. He repeats his idea, this experience proves how resolved the sinner was, shows him/her to be a master (ba’al) of his/her repentance, to be so well resolved s/he will not return to the sin. But the bare status of penitent came with the first moment of regret and resolve.

It sort of has to be true, he notes, because a Jew only counts as having avoided a sin if the opportunity comes to hand, and for observant Jews, such temptations might never come to hand. His example is a Jew who ate non-kosher meat, then finds him/herself in a place where there is no meat to be had. We cannot mean such a Jew can never repent; rather, s/he will never have the chance to prove his/her new self-control. It is the presence of sin, and refraining from it, that proves the tzaddik’s mettle.

In his last point in chapter three, Mabit says that is why Palit b. Layish cries when Michal is taken from him [background: when King Sha’ul turned against David, he gave his daughter Michal, David’s wife, to Palti b. Layish. After Sha’ul is killed in battle, his son Ish Boshet accommodates David’s request to have Michal returned to him. II Shemuel 3;16 describes Palti as following his wife, crying. The simple reading of the verse has it that Palti and Michal were married, and he was upset about losing her].

Mabit says no, Palti b. Layish would never have consummated a relationship with Michal, because she was married to David. He was crying because he was losing the nightly opportunity to prove his dedication to proper conduct. [I think the idea caught my attention because it does not seem to fit the text well, and also because Mabit brings it up here despite our having no evidence Palti b. Layish ever sinned with Michal; he does not seem a model of repentance, yet Mabit thinks of his moral strength as a good example for penitents].

With all the counterevidence, Mabit has stayed firm with his view of repentance as regret and resolve, anything else ways to support, implant, bring that resolve to fruition. A good starting point for us to work on until next week, when we will see further of his ideas about repentance.

About Gidon Rothstein

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