Monday, September 26, 2016

Parshat Nitzavim - Shedding Light on "Teshuva"

Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

By Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed (Summarized by students)
Dedicated to the memory of R. Avraham Ben David

1. Repentance - Fact or Obligation?
2. Something Very Close to You
3. Levels of Teshuva
4. Intellectual Teshuva and Emotional Teshuva

Repentance - Fact or Obligation?
With regard to the section of the Torah dealing with Teshuva , or repentance, we ask ourselves, "Is the Torah describing for us a fact - that eventually we will return to God; or are we dealing here with a positive commandment, an obligation to return to Him through Teshuva.

On the verse, "This mandate that I am prescribing to you today is not too concealed or remote from you," Ramban (Nahmanides), in his classic Torah commentary, explains that we are dealing here with both a commandment and a promise. The Torah promises that the People of Israel will repent, in addition the Torah commands us to return to God through Teshuva.

Something Very Close to You
Regarding the commandment to return to God though Teshuva the Torah declares that it, "is not too concealed or remote from you... It is not in heaven... it is not over the sea." TheSefer HaIkkarim explains that this can be compared to a man who had a son who was severely sick. The father thought that for such a serious illness his son would certainly need special treatments and expensive medicines costing him, no doubt, a fortune. He took his son to a specialist who said that for this sickness there is no need for any expensive or hard-to-find medicine - "It is not remote from you." "Everybody," says the doctor, "can find it in his own back yard. You simply take certain herbs which grow in your yard, cook them up, and allow the sick boy to drink the broth. It won't cost you a thing - you can make it on your own." So, too, says the Torah with regard to Teshuva: It's simple to do, just: "Take with you words, and return, and return to God." (Hoshea 14:3)

In fact, Teshuva is so simple that it appears implausible. Everybody knows how serious sins are and how much damage they do. Everybody knows that when there a lot of sins they accumulate and become, "Like," in the words of Isaiah, "the ropes of a wagon." How is it possible that with such ease one can erase all that has been done. Do not the Scriptures themselves teach, "That which is crooked cannot be made straight"?! Why, every transgression which a person performs leaves a blemish on his soul and taints his moral capacities. How is it conceivable that through a person's doing Teshuva he instantly repairs all the damage which has been done?
Yet this is God's will, that man be allowed to return to Him through Teshuva. God forgives anybody who wholeheartedly repents.

Levels of Teshuva
True, there are different levels of Teshuva and of the spiritual elevation which Teshuva brings about, yet as far as casting off the sin is concerned it's enough that man regrets his actions and does not wish to repeat them. This, in itself, is Teshuva.

The Sages teach that even in a case where a man sinned his entire life and then, in his old age, sensing his day of judgement approaching, decided to do Teshuva, his repentance is accepted. The fact that there is no great difficulty in repenting at an old age, when the urge to sin has waned and there is no longer any attraction to the pleasures of the world, does not detract from a persons Teshuva - his sins are nonetheless forgiven.

There are, as we have said, levels in depth and in greatness of Teshuva. The supreme Teshuva is epitomized by the verse in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), "Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the onset of old age." When man is still at the height of his potency, his Teshuva is of a more complete nature. The famed Mishnaic Sage Rabbi Yehudah taught that perfect Teshuva is demonstrated in a case where a man finds himself in the same situation, in the same city, same place, and same woman, possessing the same desires and the same urges, yet does not repeat his sin. His standing the test proves that he is a true Ba'al Teshuva (master of repentance).

Who exactly is a Ba'al Teshuva? The Rambam (Maimonides) writes that the one who repents has "the 'Knower-of-Secrets' (i.e. God) testify to the fact that he will never return to his sin." Yet is not man's Teshuva dependent upon the one repenting and his personal decision, not upon the testimony or witness of God, the "Knower-of-Secrets". The commentators answer that man takes for himself God as witness to the fact that he will not repeat his sin. Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik explains that there are people who return to God through Teshuva saying, "I hope, from now on, never to repeat my transgression," "I'll try," or "I'll do my best." But that is not complete Teshuva, and the one repenting cannot be termed a Ba'al Teshuva. True Teshuva calls for a promise to the Almighty, that the 'Knower-of-Secrts' testify to the repenter's sincerity: "Now, God, you are my witness - that I won't repeat this transgression." A firm decision. Absolute. Final. "That's it, I've detached myself from that transgression."

Intellectual Teshuva and Emotional Teshuva
Teshuva is composed of two elements: rational intellectual understanding, and healthy instinct. Man may come to Teshuva as a result of the realization that what he did was wrong, while harboring a desire to do it again. From an intellectual-rational point of view he understands that it is wrong and therefore wishes to separate himself from the weakness, from the transgression he performed. Yet his desire has not yet abated and his craving is still strong. On the other hand, there is a sort of Teshuva where the sin simply disgusts the sinner. He is repulsed by the rut of desire in which he had once been stuck, by the environment of lust, competition, esteem-seeking, and impression-making. He simply can no longer stand it.

You might say that there is Teshuva which is characterized by a desire to flee from evil. "Sur MeRah ," in Hebrew. The repenter, in this case, doesn't even know where he wants to go - yet he knows where he doesn't want to go. Then, there is a Teshuva in which man is drawn to the good. "Aseh Tov." Complete and perfect Teshuva is composed, of course, of both of them together.

With the approaching New Year, let us merit a good "inscribing and sealing," all of us and all of the People of Israel, Amen.

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