Saturday, September 15, 2012

Not in Heaven

The Meshech Chochma, in explaining the verse ושב ה' אלקיך את שבותך ורחמך, quotes rabbinic exegesis found in the Yalkut (brought in slightly different language in Yerushalmi Makot 2:6): "They asked Wisdom, 'what should happen to a sinner?' Wisdom answered, 'the one who sins shall die.'" Wisdom is the characteristic of pure Justice, untempered by Mercy. According to Wisdom, one who sins has forfeited his right to life by acting against the will of his Creator. However, as the rabbis teach regarding the story of creation, although God first thought, as it were, to create the world with strict justice, very quickly it became clear that the world could not survive on this attribute alone, and so God included an aspect of mercy, of loving-kindness, to allow the world atonement and survival.

The rabbis continue: "They asked the Torah, 'what should happen to a sinner?' And Torah answered, 'he should bring a sacrifice and find atonement.'" This is the classical form of forgiveness found in the Books of Moses. A sin committed requires expiation through the symbolic and educational lessons of the offerings in the Temple. The חסד, the loving-kindness, and רחמים, mercy, of God's word to Man allows for a way for sin to be forgiven. No mention of any transformation of the sin into anything different, not even mention of the sin being erased, is made. Atonement through sacrifice does not contradict any legal logic: a person may make good on his misdeeds in the proscribed manner, thus averting punishment for them. This is akin to a person who stole returning the object he stole, making further punishment unnecessary.

However, the midrash does not stop here. It continues: "Came the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and he said, 'let the sinner repent, יעשה תשובה, and it will be atoned for him.'" This is the part of the midrash that the Meshech Chochma aimed at. ושב ה' אלקיך את שבותך ורחמך, it is God himself who comes towards Man and presents a new concept: that of repentance. A person may have no ability to bring a sacrifice, and yet he may still achieve forgiveness through sincere repentance.

But what is it about repentance that is so special that it is an innovation, a חידוש, so to speak, of God's? How is it that it is not attributed to the Torah, and it must be God that comes along and suggests it? Furthermore, what type of distinction is this midrash drawing between God and the Torah? Surely, אורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד, God and the Torah are a unity in a certain sense! How can we distinguish between them in their approach to the sinner?

Perhaps an answer can be found in a passage of Talmud (Nedarim 62). There, Rabbi Elazar says, "עשה דברים לשם פועלן, ודבר בהם לשמן", explaining, do your good deeds for the sake of God's name, in the name of God. But all your learning, your give and take in Torah study, do it in the name of the Torah itself." Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (in נפש החיים) explains the distinction: when you learn Torah, do it for the Torah itself, to know and understand, to add lessons and analysis." Rabbi Chaim is saying, לא בשמים היא, this Torah is not in Heaven. Though it comes from God, it is in the hands of Man now, and God gave over its exegesis and interpretation to the human intellect and mind. Even if God were to send sure signs that the correct interpretation is one way, the rabbis, through their intellect, are the arbiters of Halacha. God gave the Torah into the hands of Man now, and relinquished the interpretive authority over it to us. Now, according to the normal human logic, even one infused with the Godly decision to judge our world with mercy (רחמים), and not only by the strict yardstick of justice (דין), a person cannot undo what is done. A sin committed is one that must be atoned for, but cannot be erased. It certainly cannot be turned into a good deed. The best the Torah can do, within reason, is provide a pathway to atonement.

And even so, God says, I can transcend reason, I can sidestep the rational judgment of human reason. If a person comes towards Me in sincere repentance, sorry for his actions and sublimely desirous to reconnect his fractured relationship with Me, I can make the impossible happen: זדונות נעשות לו כזכויות - even the worst sins become virtues. God can turn back the clock, and not only erase the bad, but make it good! This is possible when a person seeks out an immanent relationship with God out of love. This is why the suggestion of God, as brought down in the Yalkut, is specifically related to the verse ושב ה' אלקיך את שבותך ורחמך - since it is specifically God, creator of the world, who can abrogate all reasonable reaction to sin, can transcend the need for atonement, and, overnight (see יד החזקה הל' תשובה ז:ז), recreate a loving bond between the sinner and God.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Jewish sources include many different theories of teshuva. One that is particularly apropos to modern times is that expounded by Rav Kook, in his 1925 work Orot Hateshuva. In addition to discussing the benefits of teshuva, Rav Kook points out some of its potential pitfalls, which are instructive and worthy of mention.

Rav Kook says that repentance repairs the fundamental will, a will which comprises the depth of a person's very life. It is not the superficial will, but that essential will which forms the foundation of an autonmomous living (ch. 9 § 1). It is not hard to see that the will Rav Kook refers to is synonymous with the will described in Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. It is a proto-fundamental will which comes before thought, before reason or logic. This will establishes the psyche as separate and apart from the otherwise all-engulfing will of the universe. It is this will, this ego, essentially, that stakes out the possibility of an independent, free personality. Without it, man fades into the general cosmic will, a will that Rav Kook obviously identifies with the will of God.

Because of this, the will's essential characteristic is pride. Without Man's pride demanding of himself recognition as an autonomous being, he would not be independent, free or creative, since without a sense of his own value, he would regress into stagnation, recognizing no benefit he can bestow upon the world. As the author of the Tanya states (פירוש למגילת אסתר): "Anyone who begins to serve is impossible without the use of the crude characteristics, in that he must set himself up as a 'someone', an ego, that indeed must serve God."  In other words, a being that has no persona of his own, no ego, no 'crude' characteristic of pride at all, feels that he has nothing to offer the world, or even to offer God, as it were, in serving Him. Such a being cannot serve God. It is only when a person feels important enough to have a right to exist as an autonomous entity that he can affirm that his work on earth is pregnant with meaning and makes a difference.

In light of this, what is teshuva? Rav Kook explains that the word, meaning "return", is the return of the fundamental will to its healthy desire, to first stand autonomously, and then set as life's goal the will of  God and the perfection of the world.  Through the abhorrence at sin and regret over the distancing of oneself from the stream of God's will, a person corrects his foundational will, and returns, in deed. Thus, in place of the dischord between a person's pride-will and God, he reconnects himself and his will to the life-flow from God.

Of course, pride comes along with danger. The danger is that a person might place himself too high upon the rungs of importance, and lose his humility, which is necessary in order to subjugate  himself to the will of a Higher Power. This is one danger inherent in the teshuva process.

Additionally, another danger lurks in the paths of repentance: that a person might fall prey to depression. In ch. 9 §5, Rav Kook points out that the penitent must ensure that the feelings of sadness and regret only apply to the bad, and not the good. Thinking thoughts of repentance can remind a person of the existential tragedy and almost certain failures inherent in their sojourn in a mortal body: אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא. These themes can evoke regret and inaction - not just in the evil that a person commits, but also in the good. Angst can cause a surrender to fate - better that I not exist, better that I not act, better that I do nothing, though this means I do no good, rather than act, and also do bad. The penitent may end up regretting all actions, even the good ones. This is a danger against which teshuva must defend. The path of active duty is certainly fraught with dangers, but "לא אתה בן חורין להיבטל ממנה", we must not abdicate our duty.

It is for this reason, says Rav Kook (ibid. §10), that immediately after the High Holidays, the calendar brings us to Simchat Torah, the celebration of active service of Hashem in joyful communion. Teshuva must limit its resignation and sadness to the bad, and allow us to still fill ourselves with motivation and alacrity to continue in upright, positive service of God.

Thursday, September 06, 2012


The deep emotions that swell within the heart after reading about a life filled with self-sacrifice, commitment and dignity should be more than transitory. We must try as hard as possible to come away from such an examination reaffirming our desire to live valuable, useful and meaningful lives. I have just finished reading a collection of Jonathan Netanyahu's letters, Self Portrait of a Hero. It is easy to feel the pride and happiness of a young man, soldiering for the first years of his adult life, but this light-hearted feeling melts into the melancholy of a life cut short, of a person of value who was taken from his nation all too soon. The depth of his thought, the nobility of his soul, will live on in those who read this book and allow themselves to be affected by it. Two main thoughts strike me amongst many note-worthy aspects of Yoni.

First, I point out the development of his feelings towards the land of Israel. Obviously from the beginning, Yoni drank from his father's brand of Zionism, influenced by Jabotinsky. However, at the start, Yoni's passion about the army seems commonplace; though he writes with a maturity beyond his young years, his thoughts center around the excitement of being a soldier, and, along with his comrades, becoming an effective fighting unit. However, as time goes on, through his time at Harvard and his experiences during the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, Yoni develops a deeper appreciation for why he fights, and this appreciation keeps him in the army past when he would have stayed otherwise. He writes about his understanding that the IDF needed good officers such as him (p 173). He also sees this as a national responsibility, that our nation's homeland be defended against its enemies. He could not see himself returning to civilian life while Israel needed its reserves called up.

Yoni did not live in a dream-world; he saw many deficits in Israeli society, and sometimes wrote about his memories of the US with longing. He wished his homeland would develop the type of economic and entrepreneurial spirit common in the US. It is a shame that he did not live to see these ideas blossom in Israel in the late 90's. However, he was committed to Israel's security ahead of his own comfort. This continually deepening feeling of responsibility towards his people and homeland is instructive.

This leads into the second aspect of Yoni that is so important, and I think it is representative of Israel as a country and a people, in general. Yoni stands as a metaphor for the entire people of Israel. He constantly writes, piningly, of his desire to go back to school and finish his degree. However, every time he brings it up, he follows it up with the realization that at this critical point in Israel's security situation, how can he leave his men and the army? In a peaceful reality, Yoni would have been a scholar or some other highly educated person. But he had to constantly put this aspect of his personality and desires to the side, to wait for the future possibility of peace. He placed the needs of the country over and above his own fulfillment.

Israel, struggling to develop and maintain a viable economy, an innovative medical community, and a unique culture, persistently must do so with both arms tied behind its back. How many more medical breakthroughs, how many more Nobel Prizes, how much more robust an economy, would Israel have, if its gargantuan military budget could be used elsewhere? Israel's full measure of self-actualization and self-expression is constantly hampered by its need to, with the setting of the sun each and every evening, ensure that it is not destroyed by its enemies by the dawn of the next morning. Yoni's letters intimate this existential struggle, the eternal Jacobian wrestling match with the angel of Esav, always defending our existence, and never allowed by the world to lay to rest the question of its very right to live. Yoni lived a life stunted by military necessity - he did not revel in it, he suffered it, and met it with pride, proud to be a Jew defending Jews in Israel. He left behind many many plans, things he wished deeply to do, but did not, in order to make sure Israel would survive.

Yoni was dealing with a personal crisis of sorts in the weeks immediately before the raid on Entebbe where he died. The men who were with him speak of a peaceful calm that seemed to hold him, and some said that he seemed to know he was not going to come back. Perhaps the realization that he could never fulfill his personal dreams with full peace of mind, as long as the fate of Israel hung in the balance, led him to an ironic peace during this last fateful mission.

And thus, a nation of farmers, scientists, doctors, scholars, and manual laborers continue to struggle, forced to take up the rifle and defend what every other nation on earth takes for granted: the right to exist.

May his memory be instructive to us, and a blessing to our people. יהי זכרו ברוך, ה' יקום דמו.