Levels of Ease and Efficacy of Teshuvah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Mabit’s Sha’ar Ha-Teshuvah, Chapters 13-18: Levels of Ease and Efficacy of Teshuvah for Various Populations

Teshuvah Is Mainly for Jews

Chapters thirteen and fourteen support a view of Mabit’s we could spend a lot more time pondering than we have space: he is certain teshuvah works differently for non-Jews than for Jews, is primarily for Jews, although it helps non-Jews a bit. Midrashic sources say the world was created for the Jewish people to accept the Torah, existed for the twenty-six generations until the Giving of the Torah only by Gd’s hessed, unjustified goodness to the world.

To Mabit, if the goal of creation was the Jews’ relationship with Torah, there was no need or point in hoping for non-Jews’ change. He also assumes only souls of the Jewish people were carved out from under the Throne of Glory, a whole other topic in Jewish thought, whether Jews are essentially different from non-Jews, and not our issue now.

[My Bar-Ilan showed me the idea in a commentary on the Zohar, so perhaps Mabit got it from the Zohar; it is clearer in Tzror Ha-Mor, a Torah commentary by R. Avraham Saba, whose granddaughter was the wife of R. Yosef Caro, author of Shulhan Aruch and Mabit’s colleague.]

He points out a contrast between how nevi’im, prophets, address Jews and non-Jews; they call for Jews to repent, where they just prophecy the future for non-Jews. Even Yonah, sent to Nineveh—twice—does not explicitly call for them to repent, he only announces what is currently planned. The people of Nineveh have no confidence changing their ways will change their fate, as the verse has them say mi yode-a im yashuv me-haron apo, who knows if He will relent from His righteous wrath.

With Yom Kippur coming, any reference to the book of Yonah perks up our ears, yet I am going to leave it now, because Chapter Fourteen expresses the dichotomy in a way with more immediate value for understanding teshuvah in a way that helps us get closer to repenting fully. He has taken a position I personally do not, non-Jews are less able to change deeply, and therefore are less expected to change in those ways [it would mean the Messianic future would have those nations completely embarrassed when Gd fully reveals, mostly shuffled off the stage of history and/or made completely subservient to the Jewish people, other than the very few hasidei umot ha-olam, righteous gentiles, as he mentions ancillarily below. This isn’t the place for the discussion].

The Mass of Mitzvot Can Be a Help

In chapter fourteen, Mabit gives more teeth to the distinction: repentance helps Jews in this world and the next (remember, he was adamant just the fact of repentance already restored a Jew’s full righteousness, although s/he likely had a spiritual debt of sin to repay), where it only helps non-Jews in this world. A Jew who repents has already re-earned his/her place in the World to Come, where a non-Jew who repents will have successfully removed Gd’s immediate wrath, but does not thereby earn a place among the hasidei umot ha-olam, who do receive a share in the World to Come.

(It took me several readings before I got this: he does accept that non-Jews who are “righteous of the nations” will have a share in the World to Come, he just doesn’t think the bare fact of repentance gets them there, where the bare fact does put a Jew back in the World to Come, as we have seen.)

He offers three reasons for the difference: first, Jews were commanded to repent, so their repentance is itself fulfillment of a mitzvah, merits them a place in the World to Come. Second, and what he spends more time explaining, Jews have so many more mitzvot, the idea of perfection is less plausible. There had to be a way for Jews to rectify when they go wrong, because it was inescapable in such a law-heavy world.

As opposed to non-Jews, to whom Gd commanded only very basic rules (another topic of its own, the nature of the Noahide laws, on which I once spent what I considered a productive few months). Their minimal legislation makes their failures less immediately excusable, so repentance has less of an effect.

The Kindness of Gd, the Teshuvah of the Community

He closes Chapter Fourteen with two more important ideas about teshuvah. First, he defends the fairness of teshuvah earning only Jews a share in the World to Come; the whole institution, the idea a person can change his/her entire spiritual persona with verbal regret and commitment to change, is not intuitive, is a complete favor from Gd. We therefore have no right to expect Gd to accept repentance, and no reason for non-Jews to complain about Gd commanding Jews to repent, and rewarding them for it.

Getting away from the justification of how Jews differ, he closes the chapter with an idea R. Soloveitchik discussed movingly in On Repentance, that the repentance of a Jewish community benefits even individuals from that community who do not repent (for those looking ahead to SukkotMabit points out the tradition the four species of the lulav symbolize Jews of all kinds, including those with neither knowledge nor observance, who yet get to be part of the bundle).

The Ten Days of Repentance

With Yom Kippur coming, chapter fifteen has particular resonance. Mabit says—and I am omitting his prooftexts in the name of brevity—repentance at this time of year has greater effect than usual, because Rosh HaShanah is when the world was created. Gd had to embed the idea of repentance in the original creation, of a way back on track after straying, because people clearly could not be perfect all the time.  When Rosh HaShanah comes around again, Gd is “reminded,” as it were, of the condition included with creation, making Gd—as it were– especially alert to accept repentance.

It would have been inappropriate to make it true of Rosh HaShanah itself, however, because it is a Yom Ha-Din, a day of judgment, so Gd gave us all the days until Yom Kippur to repent and improve our conduct, to then be forgiven. [I call attention to his point despite it already being after Rosh HaShanah—a day of judgment is not a day when repentance is on the table, because repentance functions in hessed, of letting us get away with less than absolute justice. Rosh HaShanah is a day to remember Gd judges us fully and completely, and then also allows us the escape hatch of teshuvah.]

The Hindrances to Repentance

In the fourth chapter of Hilchot Teshuvah, Rambam collects sources to list twenty-four kinds of sinners who will find the way to repentance blocked or hindered. Mabit puzzles over why this should be; if Gd granted the great kindness of accepting repentance, why would some sinners lose the right, or be forced to overcome hurdles to get there? Rambam suggested it is a punishment, a sinner can sin so much, Gd withdraws this right. Mabit doesn’t like it, because he knows of no source that lists loss of repentance as the punishment. We know of sins that get lashes, excision, or death, and know Gd will give some similar punishment should a court not do so, but where do we see loss of the right to teshuvah as a punishment?

More, when the Talmud lists the ways to full atonement, with neglect of an obligation at the lowest level, healed fully simply by repentance, and up the ladder of severity, loss of the right to repentance never appears. Finally, he recognizes the possibility that it could be about the weight of many sins, except even the worst sinners, Rambam throws in at the end of the chapter, still have the possibility of repentance effective should they accomplish it. So he thinks the answer must lie elsewhere.

He suggests a metaphor: one who has taken a wrong path and needs to get back to the correct one must retrace his steps. For most sinners, the path had no particular pitfalls, so the road back is not arduous to any noticeable degree. The sinners in Rambam’s list of twenty-four, however, have created a path strewn with barriers and challenges, so the road back for them will be harder [The metaphor makes it seem like these sinners had to make their way through these hardships to find their way to sin as well, a sobering thought he does not say, so he may not have meant to imply that].

In addition, these groups of people have stamped themselves as evildoers; ordinary sinners still retain membership in the overall righteous group (remember Mabit thought ordinary righteous people were clearly better than ba’alei teshuvah despite having fallen prey to temptation occasionally). Becoming an evildoer suppresses the desire to be better, and that heightens the degree of difficulty in repentance as well.

Finally, some such people (and others, too) repent only because of fear, because something in their lives right then pushes them to change. For most people, it’s still teshuvah, but with great evildoers, Gd will prevent it, since it is not really repentance, it’s yielding to force of circumstance. (Someone who quits smoking because s/he has developed shortness of breath and worries about worse consequences has not given up smoking, they’ve stopped because they can’t do anything else. For evildoers, Gd will not let that be sufficient to be considered repentance from a sin).

The Significance of Teshuvah

Chapters seventeen and eighteen make points about the significance of repentance, its encompassing the entirety of Torah and bringing redemption. For the former idea, he notes how Parashiyyot Nitzvam and Va-Yelech put three commandments at the very end, repentance, Torah study, and avodah zarah, the prohibition against worshipping any power other than Gd. Their being placed as a sort of summary tells Mabit we are supposed to see their significance, Torah study because it is how we learn all of Torah, worshipping other powers because it inherently counts as rejecting all of Torah, and repentance because it, too, brings us back to keeping all of Torah.

The short chapter eighteen says repentance brings redemption, an idea already found in Yoma 86, said by R. Yose Ha-Gelili. Mabit adds that a verse we say daily speaks of the go’el, the redeemer, coming to Zion, the next phrase being u-le-shavei pesha, those who retreat from sin, to Ya’akov, telling Mabit it is teshuvah that brings the redemption.

He offers a reason why: teshuvah redeems the soul, where redemption is physical. If we do the soul redemption, Gd will give us the physical redemption we desire.

May this be a year of teshuvah and redemption for us all!

About Gidon Rothstein

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