The Purpose of Repentance

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Mabit’s Sha’ar Ha-Teshuvah, Chapter One: The Purpose of Repentance

Mabit is the acronym for R. Moshe b. Yosef di-Trani (1500-1580), for fifty five years the rabbi of Safed (while R. Yosef Karo, author of the Shulhan Aruch lived there; they had some well known disagreements. One was about the obligation to declare produce hefker, unowned, in a shemittah year, an issue I saw last night as I have started R. Yosef Tzvi Rimon’s updated sefer on shemittah, because it’s coming). Mabit wrote important responsa, and Kiryat Sefer, where he discusses whether laws in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah are Biblical, inferred from the Torah, Halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, and so on.

Our concern here is his other well-known seferBeit Elokim, the House of Gd, which has three sections, one on prayer, one on yesodot, principles of faith, and the shortest one, the one I aim to study here, on repentance. Despite its size, its richness means I am not sure we can cover its 56 pages in the six weeks we have until Yom Kippur (yes, there are six weeks until Yom Kippur; get cracking). For this week, I think the first chapter will take our available attention.

Repentance Is About Closeness to Gd

He starts with a bombshell, the point of repentance is to restore closeness to Gd, to close the distance created by sin. We might think repentance is about avoiding punishment (and, as we may know from other discussions of repentance, there are some sins for which we say repentance alone only staves off punishment, while the penitent waits for other elements, such as Yom Kippur, to complete the absolution process).

Mabit says it is an error: sin damages in two ways, creating a need for punishment and “angering” Gd with the sinner’s disobedience. A human king (Mabit will use the image more than once, I think a way of making the ideas relatable) is upset by people disregarding his words regardless of whether he chooses to respond. The penitent must therefore correct both elements of his/her sin, and without addressing the distance of sin, the person has not been shav, has not returned. Teshuvah is about return, not about avoiding consequences.

Earning Gd’s Help with the Repentance

The sinner who understands the path ahead will verbally seek forgiveness from Gd, as Hoshe’a 14 tells us, we can take our words to return to Gd. His/her sincere attempt to bridge this gap will bring one immediate form of assistance, says Mabit, Gd will help shape the person’s heart and path to Gd.

(He knows he cannot mean that as it sounds, because it takes away freewill, so he adds) The help comes in the form of protecting the sinner from sufferings or adverse events the sin should have brought. With peace and quiet s/he did not deserve, the penitent has more time/space to repent fully, to restore the relationship with Gd.

Of course, successful repentance will also avoid punishment, because a person who has found his/her way back to a close relationship will no longer need that punishment. [He does not here address the traditional idea some sins incur yisurim, suffering, as punishment regardless of the person’s repentance; I suspect he would say the yisurim are needed to complete the return to a relationship with Gd, but we will wait and see.]

Hashem Responds to Teshuvah, Not Elokim

The verses regarding teshuvah all refer to Gd with the four letter Name (YHWH in English), a Name usually thought of as signaling Gd’s mercy. By strict justice, Mabit says, sin deserves death, regardless of repentance, because any sin flouts Gd’s orders, and doing so to a human king would bring death. [A perspective I fear is dismissed too quickly in our times, when we are confident we deserve our lives, and our financial comfort, and our health. Mabit says all sin deserves death, meaning only those of us without any sin can claim our lives by right.]

Only because of Gd’s rahamim—a word we commonly translate as mercy or compassion, but which I have come to believe is better translated as parental patience—does Gd take into account the weight of Torah law, how many commandments there are, and allow that to create a path to repair after failure. For non-Jews, who have a much smaller set of laws (referred to as the seven Noahides, although there are more than seven), any transgression brings death.

[Admire his neat trick: he has sidestepped the usual question, why Judaism would ascribe the death penalty for any non-Jews’ transgressions, by saying that really all sin deserves death. Only because Gd acknowledged the weight of trying to fulfill a large corpus of laws did Gd’s Merciful Attribute leave open a door to repentance. This does not explain why non-Jews deserve death for shogeg, unwitting sins; we will get there.]

In many of the passages where the Torah refers to repentance, it adds Elokecha, the Name thought of as the Attribute of strict justice. Mabit reads it to mean the strict justice produced so much law, in recognition of which Gd instituted repentance.

Gd Before and After Sin

Rosh Ha-Shanah 17a says the two Names of Gd at the opening of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the ones Gd taught Moshe after the sin of the Golden Calf (Hashem, Hashem), tell us Gd is “the same” before a person sins and after, with rahamim in both instances. Mabit wonders about the need for a parentally patient attitude before the sin. He offers two ideas: first, it could mean Gd knows the thoughts of the person who has decided to sin, and might have intervened or reacted even before the person acted on his/her resolve [like PreCrime in Minority Report, for those who want to convince themselves there was some avodat Hashem value in seeing the movie]. The rahamim of the first Name in the Attributes said Gd waits, gives the sinner up until and including the sin to step back on his/her own.

Alternatively, the rahamim is in the idea of repentance. Without Gd having embedded the possibility of repair after rupture in the makeup of the world (as Bereshit Rabbah says, teshuvah kademah la-olamteshuvah was prior to creation), the whole endeavor would have been futile, because people sin, necessarily.

Third, the point of being “the same” before and after sin might mean repentance can bring the sinner all the way back to before the sin. By rights, as we have said, sin could have brought death. The parental patience of teshuvah could have succeeded only in avoiding that, but leaving a permanent stain. The two four letter Names refer to the ability of teshuvah to fully restore, what was once is always available to be found again, with full enough teshuvah.

But Not For Everyone

Hoshe’a 14;5 speaks of Gd healing their waywardness, loving them nedavah, out of freewill. Mabit says the promise of teshuvah extends only as far as relinquishing punishment. Full restoration is a nedavah, a free gift of Gd’s, not extended to all. [If you think back to where we started, he has just said some sins are so serious, the penitent cannot accomplish what he defined as the essential purpose of repentance, a daunting thought.]

The idea explains R. Yirmiyah b. Abba’s statement in Sotah 42a, four groups of people will never greet the Shechinah, the Divine Presence [Rabbenu Yonah devoted a full third of the longest sha’ar of Sha’arei Teshuvah to describing these four groups]. Such people will be forgiven their need for punishment should they repent, will be given their share in the World to Come, but will not enjoy the experience of the Divine Presence.

[Mind-blowing: Mabit is saying repentance cannot always make up what was lost, even if the person tries as hard as possible. Full return to closeness with Gd, the main and central point of teshuvah for Mabit, is permanently beyond certain sinners, in his view. Another reason not to fall prey to such sins to begin with.]

Awareness of Gd’s Presence is the Key

The way to have avoided sin to begin with is also by feeling the closeness of Gd. When Bamidbar Rabbah 9 says a person only sins if a ruah shetut, a spirit of insanity or stupidity enters him/her, Mabit identifies the ruah shetut as losing sight of Gd’s Presence. [Years ago, I heard R. Daniel Mechanic describe the difference between us and very righteous people as a function of how immediately they felt the Presence. We all believe in Gd, but sort of over there, at a distance; for tzaddikim, Gd is in front of their faces all the time. I think it is a beautiful and accurate image, and fits what Mabit is saying.]

With these ideas, we can also see why shogeg sins, ones done without full knowledge of the sin, also need atonement [he doesn’t bring it up, but I think his idea works for non-Jews’ shogeg as well]. If we are fully aware of Gd and Gd’s commands, we will be careful to ensure there is no way we are sinning [the level of care we take to avoid a certain outcome depends on how bad we find that outcome; we will be more careful to avoid danger of death than danger of losing a few dollars. How much “danger” is the possibility of sin?].

Shogeg inherently involves a certain lack of attention, either by not having studied the relevant issues well enough (Mabit reminds us of R. Yehudah in Avot 4;13, mistakes of learning count as deliberate; Mabit says he meant, mistakes of not having studied well enough count as willful).

If it mattered enough, we would have made sure it could not happen, as we would with other things that matter to us (if you have a job interview, or a flight, or a family event, how hard do you work to be sure it will go well? Gd deserves no less, Mabit is saying).

This was the first chapter of eighteen. My hope is to go faster in the upcoming five weeks, but this was too rich to pass over quickly. Gd willing, in weeks to come, Mabit will help each of us find our way back to a full relationship with our Creator.

About Gidon Rothstein

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