The Inspiration to Change
Rabbanit Sally Mayer
Rosh Midrasha, Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum
We will read soon in Parshat Nitzavim that the mitzvah of teshuvah is “לא בשמים היא” – it is not in heaven or across the sea, far away and unreachable, but rather it is within our grasp and our ability to accomplish. The Torah makes it sound so easy! Let’s look together at three cases of teshuvah in Tanakh to think practically about what inspires teshuvah? What precipitates this return? And under what circumstances does Hashem embrace ourteshuvah, and welcome us back into His presence?
With the first sin in history comes the first opportunity for teshuva – though it turns out not to be a case of teshuva at all, but rather a missed opportunity. Adam and Chava eat from the etz hada’at, and when they hear Hashem walking in the garden, they hide from Him. Interestingly, Hashem does not confront them openly with their sin at the outset. Hashem asks Adam, “Ayeka” – “Where are you?” Hashem of course knew where they were: He was giving Adam the opportunity to admit his sin and take responsibility. Unfortunately, they do not – Adam answers the question as though Hashem had really been wondering: I heard You walking, and hid because I was embarrassed that I had no clothing. Hashem responds, “How do you know that? Did you eat from the forbidden tree?” The answer, we intuitively expect, should have been an ashamed and contrite: “Yes, I did.” However, Adam shifts responsibility to his wife, who shifts it to the snake. The result: they are all cursed, and the concept of death enters into the world.
In Beresihit Perek 4, we read about Kayin, Adam and Chava’s son, who experiences anger, frustration and jealousy over the fact that his offering was not accepted while his brother Hevel’s was. God tries to encourage Kayin: “Why are you dejected? You have the capacity to rule over your inclination” – your desire, in this case, to kill your brother. The Ramban writes here, “הורהו על התשובה”: Hashem taught Kayin about the possibility of redeeming himself, of ruling over his inclination. One could formulate the goal not as removing the evil inclination, but rather channeling that inclination – which can lead one to pursue so many divergent paths – towards a positive, moral purpose. Kayin, however, like his parents before him, not only did not heed G-d’s warning to mend his ways; even when confronted with the sin of killing his brother, he denies rather than accepts responsibility for his actions.
Many generations later, we find Yehudah, the brother who proposed selling Yosef into slavery. In Perek 38 of Bereishit, we read how Yehudah’s daughter-in-law Tamar, realizing that Yehudah will never fulfill his promise of allowing Sheilah to marry her, disguises herself as a prostitute to tempt Yehudah, who does not recognize her. Several months later, when Tamar’s pregnancy from that encounter comes to light, Yehudah condemns Tamar to death for her adultery, as she was still tied to Sheilah. As she walks to her death, she sends Yehudah his ring, staff, and cord that she had taken as collateral from him, and says “haker na” – please recognize these items – whose are they? Yehudah hears the echo of the cruel “haker na” message he sent to his father – “Do you recognize this coat dripping with blood as your son Yosef’s?” At this moment, Yehudah faced a terrible choice: publicly humiliate himself by admitting to this intimate encounter with his daughter-in-law, or allow Tamar – and his own unborn children – to die by fire. After being confronted with his personal effects, and recognizing his accountability for Tamar’s desperation, Yehudah summons up the courage, and in two words redeems himself and ascends to the leadership of the family: “צדקה ממני” – she is more right than I. His recognition of his responsibility for the situation, combined with his strength of character and willingness to be humbled, inspired his successful teshuvah.
Later in Bereishit, when Yosef’s brothers encounter the Egyptian viceroy’s hostility and false accusation, they whisper to each other, “אבל אשמים אנחנו” – we are guilty, for we did not listen to the cries of our brother. What inspired their feelings of teshuvah? It seems that they did not feel remorse after the sale, nor after they see their father’s suffering when he concludes that Yosef has been killed. They feel remorse when they experience yisurin: difficulties and suffering. While they did not know for sure that this was a punishment from God, as they experienced this persecution, they began to question, why is this happening? Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik, זצ”ל, speaks of this reaction to suffering in his beautiful and inspiring article, קול דודי דופק: He speaks of how one can never understandwhy bad things happen to good people, and that we ought not to try. However, if one does unfortunately suffer, he or she must take the opportunity to return to Hashem, to doteshuvah.
Our final example of teshuvah is David HaMelekh, descendant of Yehudah and Tamar. In Shmuel Bet 11-12, we read of David’s seeing, desiring, and taking Batsheva while her husband is away at battle. Upon discovering that she is pregnant, David invites her husband Uriah home from the battlefield, in the hopes that he will go home to his wife and thus assume that the baby is his own. Uriah’s refusal to go home to be with his wife whileam yisrael is in danger on the battlefield is an ironic condemnation of David’s sin. David then orchestrates Uriah’s death in battle and takes Batsheva as his wife after she mourns her husband.
It is striking how similar this situation is to Yehudah’s – a woman who was connected to another man (Batsheva to Uriah and Tamar to Sheilah), a pregnancy, and a death sentence for an innocent person – only Yehudah stops before carrying out the execution, and David unfortunately does not. Natan Hanavi goes to David and tells him a story about a rich man who takes a poor man’s sheep to feed to his guest instead of taking one from his own sizable flock. David pronounces that this man should be killed. Natan Hanavi responds to David – You are that man, and therefore you will suffer punishment: the sword will never leave your family, and another man will take your wives openly: while you were able to sin secretly using the power of the king, your punishment will be public humiliation.
After hearing this, David acknowledges his guilt: “chatati laHashem.” This is the formulation we were hoping for – no excuses but simply: “I take responsibility.” Natan responds that Hashem accepts the teshuvah, at least partially, for he will not die. But the other punishments stand. One wonders – did Natan hope that David would have figured out the story before he explained it? And had he done so, would his teshuvah have been even more effective?
We have now three models: the teshuvah of Yehudah, which is the ideal, since he is lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to admit his sin without suffering or punishment, and who has the courage and character to seize the chance; the model of the brothers, who, as a result of their suffering, look at themselves and how they can mend their ways; and finally, David, who admits his sin only after hearing his punishment, but yet that teshuvah is meaningful and accepted as well.
Rav Soloveichik writes in Halakhic Man that “Repentance, according to the halakhic view, is an act of creation – self-creation. The severing of one’s psychic identity with one’s previous “I,” and the creation of a new “I,” possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals – this is the meaning of that repentance compounded of regret over the past and resolve for the future.” May we all find within ourselves the creative power to transform ourselves this year with sincere teshuvah and lasting change.