By HaRav Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute
(1) “Wisdom was asked, what is the punishment of a sinner? And it replied, ‘Sinners will be pursued by evil’ [Mishlei 13:21].Prophecy was asked, what is the punishment of a sinner? And it replied, ‘A soul which commits a sin must die’ [Yechezkel 18:4]. The Torah was asked, what is the punishment of a sinner? And it replied, let them bring an Asham Sacrifice for atonement. The Holy One, Blessed be He, was asked, what is the punishment of a sinner? And He replied, let him repent and he will be forgiven.” [Pesikta D’Rav Kahane Shuva, 24].
(2) “Seven items were created before the world... Repentance... as is written, ‘Before the mountains were born... And You said, let the people return’ [Tehillim 90:2].” [Pesachim 54a].
(3) “The act (the sin of Batsheva and Uriyah) was not appropriate for David, and the act (the sin of the Golden Calf) was not appropriate for Yisrael... Why did they take place? It is to tell you that an individual who sins is told to learn from an individual (David) and a community which sins is told to learn from a community. This is the declaration of David Ben Yishai, who established the standard for repentance.” [Avoda Zara 4b].
Teshuva – Repentance: Is it Irrational?
The concept of teshuva is unique to the Jewish faith, as a kindness of the Holy One, Blessed be He. Only He puts His hand out to accept those who repent, as opposed to wisdom, prophecy, and the Torah (quote 1, above). The Torah proposes a path of atonement: “Let them bring an Asham Sacrifice for atonement.” This is a sacrifice which accompanies an act of repentance with a symbolic act of sprinkling the blood of an animal and burning its flesh. Only the Holy One, Blessed be He, is satisfied with repentance alone, on condition that it is an act of truth, performed with honesty and from the depths of the heart. “Wisdom” and “prophecy” (that is, the intellect and the emotions), as opposed to the Torah, demand strict judgement for violating the sins: “Sinners will be pursued by evil... A soul which commits a sin must die.”
In modern terms, we can add other figures of “authority” which are involved with the question of “what to do with a soul which commits a sin.” These modern systems do not recognize the realm of repentance either. For example, the justice system gives only marginal recognition to the concept of repentance, in the framework of extenuating circumstances when setting a sentence. However, “the law is the law,” and misdemeanors and crimes are forbidden. And there is no mechanism to erase the record of sin.
One realm that is even more stringent is the “media,” especially of the inferior sort, which does not recognize any possibility of forgiveness. This is especially true in a case of sins by a public figure. The press makes its living from a lack of mercy, by pulling out past sins and quoting them from forgotten sources or collecting them from the “cloud” of the internet. There is absolutely no room in this system for repentance!
An Injunction to Forbid Publication
When King David admitted “I have sinned” [Shmuel II 12:13] after the affair of Batsheva and Uriyah, he became a symbol of the act of repentance (quote 2, above). And it may surprise us to see that he too encountered a hostile press! According to our tradition (see below), David made two requests: “That my iniquity will not be recorded.” That is, to “delete” the report of his sin. The reply of the Holy One, Blessed be He, was: “That cannot be done!” His second request was that “the rabbis shall not discuss my sins (in the Beit Midrash).” And to this, the Holy One, Blessed be He, replied: I agree! In modern terms: nothing will be erased from the secret protocols, but there is an injunction that prohibits discussing the matter in public!
Here is the full quote of this discussion from the Talmud:
“David said to the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the world: You know very well that if they would tear my flesh no blood would flow. Moreover, when they discussed the matter of the four types of death punishment, they stopped their studies and turned to me, saying, What is the punishment of one who lies with a married woman? I replied to them: One who lies with a married woman is killed by choking, and he still maintains his portion in the world to come, but whoever makes his colleague’s face go white with shame in public has no portion in the world to come. David said to the Holy One, Blessed be He: “Who can understand mistakes” [Tehillim 19:13]. And G-d replied, I accept that (that is, okay!)... Do not let the rabbis discuss my sins. And G-d replied, okay. That my sin should not be recorded. And He replied, ‘That cannot be done.’” [Sanhedrin 107a].
And that indeed is the accepted halacha: “The affairs of David and Amnon are not read in public and are not translated” [Mishna Megillah 4:10].