Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: What is a Real Tikkun?
Rabbi Udi Abramovitz is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum-Lod
The Book of Deuteronomy is known for offering us a new way of looking at the events, the commandments and the concepts we encountered in the other four books of the Pentateuch, beginning with its attitude towards the sacrifice, and ending with the status of the Hebrew servant.
This happens once more in Parashat Nitzavim, though this time, it appears alongside the concept of teshuvah, repentance, which we may have mistakenly believed to have existed from time immemorial. Sin, in all of its forms, leads to kilkul. That is, it has a ruinous effect on the entire world, and on human beings in particular. The question is: How is sin rectified, and what is meant by tikkun, rectification? The main answer to this question in the biblical text appears in the concept of kapparah, atonement, a word that appears over a hundred times in the Torah. Literally, the word lechaper means to remove, to cleanse, to purify, and sometimes, it simply means “to cover”. Sin created an objective fault in the world, and the sinner must rectify it, that is, the sinner must remove it, or, at the very least, find some way of compensating for it. This is the primitive (or most basic and primordial) logic of the Torah: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Our moral intuitions are also founded on this. In the case of certain evil deeds, regretting them just isn’t enough; the opposite action must be performed on their account. Naturally, the concept of kapparah is tied to the world of sacrifices. We mustn’t forget that the greatest day of tikkun in the Torah is called Yom Hakippurim, the day the high priest “cleanses” the world of all of the spiritual filth that had accumulated throughout the year, through the painstakingly precise services tied to the offerings at the Temple, and other actions that were performed.
In 1958, the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a German volunteer organization comprised of people who wanted to atone for what their parents had done during World War 2, was founded. Are these people “regretful” of what the Nazis did? No, that would be a preposterous notion. They did nothing wrong, and they may have never identified with any of the things done by the Nazis. If so, why do they want to “atone”? They choose to do so because the moral void their parents left in the world is an existing reality, independent of what we feel about it. Almost always, atonement will be achieved through a physical act performed in this world. It is the victim, or Hashem, that will determine what it will look like and how the atonement is to be done – and not the one doing the atoning. Many years ago, someone who had accidentally run over someone else who had run out to the street, and was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, asked Rabbi Eliezer Melamed what he needed to do. How could he atone for what he had done?
The converse case could be given too, though. Every so often, we head about politicians that had served prison time for corruption, and now wish to return to public office, claiming they had paid their debt to society. “Give me a break”, they say. And perhaps, we might. However, some of us certainly might ask ourselves if those people had truly paid their debts to society. Who says they have really turned over a new leaf? This is exactly why the concept of teshuvah, repentance, was created. “… once you return to Hashem, your God, with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 30:10), and this concept is fleshed out in the Book of Ezekiel (Chapter 18):
Moreover, if the wicked one repents of all the sins that he committed and keeps all My laws and does what is just and right, he shall live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions he committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness he has practiced, he shall live. Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die?—says the Lord GOD. It is rather that he shall turn back from his ways and live.
From this point on, the emphasis will be placed on a subjective, inward rectification applied to a person’s attributes, emotions, and thoughts. If someone had “paid” for his evil actions, but hadn’t undergone any internal process, we fear that this person holds morality in contempt, using the system to engage in horse-trading. Our sages set this out very clearly when they discuss Yom Kippur. They say that this day does not have the power to atone for those who say “I have sinned, and I will go on sinning”, or for those who hadn’t reconciled with those they have wronged. In general, they celebrate the notion that repentance “preceded the world”. This notion is most aptly expressed in Maimonides’ Hilchot Teshuva.
Maimonides stresses that even during biblical times, the offering of sacrificies wouldn’t work unless a confession was made during the service. What is meant here by confession isn’t the uttering of empty words, where the sinner admits to having commited the sin and “sets it before Hashem”. Rather, it is referring to a full process of repentance:
“How is confession performed? One says: ‘Please, Hashem, I have sinned, I have erred, I have transgressed, I have done such-and-such, I am regretful, I am shamed by my actions, and I will never again return to my old way’. This is the essense of confession, and anyone who wants to lengthen [his confession], this is praiseworthy. (Hilchot Teshuvah, 1:1).
Moreover, currently, when the Temple does not stand, repentance substitutes for atonement. “At this time, when the Temple is not established and, therefore, no altar to atone for us, there is nothing else left for us but repentance. Repentance atones for all sins (ibid., 1:3).