3:23 - 7:11
August 12, 2000 – 11 Av 5760
comes in the aftermath of Tisha B’Av, the fast in which we
commemorate the destruction of both the First and Second
Temples and other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish
people. The theme of our asceticism on this day is not only
mourning, but more importantly, a spur to teshuvah,
week’s Torah portion informs our understanding of calamity
and its relation to teshuvah. Moses warns the Israelites,
“take care, then, not to forget the covenant that the Lord
your God concluded with you...For the Lord your God is a
consuming fire, an impassioned God” (Deuteronomy 4:23-24).
Turning away from God will surely result in calamity: “You
shall not long endure [upon the land], but shall be utterly
wiped out. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and
only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations . .
.” (Deuteronomy 4:27).
at this moment of hopelessness, Moses declares, “but if you
search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only
you seek Him with all your heart and soul--when you are in
distress because all these things have befallen you and, in
the end, return to the Lord your God and obey Him.”
words are perplexing. Are we to wait for calamity to befall us
before seeking out teshuvah, or do we repent of our own
initiative? What is the biblical model of repentance? And is
this a model we seek to incorporate into our own lives?
Torah’s model of teshuvah is one which occurs only in the
shadow of punishment and often does not result in success.
Only once the people have transgressed are they given an
opportunity to return to God. Such is the essence of God’s
pronouncement in Leviticus 26:40-41.
the very beginning of VaEtchanan is a perfect example of such
an attempt at repentance when Moses recounts his pleading with
God to let him enter the Land of Israel despite previous
wayward behavior. Although God acquiesces to Moses’ request
to see the land, God does not relent on the core of the
punishment--a refusal to let Moses cross over the Jordan
slaying of Zimri and Cozbi (Numbers 25:7-8), which stops a
plague in its tracks, further illustrates biblical repentance
at work. For as Jacob Milgrom writes, “repentance can only
terminate the punishment but cannot prevent its onset” (Milgrom,
Cult and Conscience, 120).
is only much later, in the writings of the Prophets, that the
idea of teshuvah as a proactive measure becomes rooted in
Israelite theology and then later rabbinic thought. Isaiah
proclaims the word of God: “Come, let us reach an
understanding, says the Lord. Be your sins like crimson, they
can turn snow-white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become
like fleece” (Isaiah 1:18).
speaks directly to the need for human initiative in teshuvah
as he declares, “Return O Israel to the Lord your God, for
you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you and
return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:2-3).
the most explicit and illustrative of episodes in which
teshuvah preempts God’s wrath (in sharp distinction to the
episodes of the Torah) is found in Jonah. When Jonah is given
a second chance to proclaim a message of teshuvah to the
people of Nineveh, he does so and his message is heeded. We
read how “the people of Nineveh believed God. They
proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on
sackcloth.” The King of Nineveh even declares, “Let
everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice
of which he is guilty.”
chapter concludes, “God saw what they did, how they were
turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the
punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not
carry it out” (Jonah 3:10). The prophetic model presents us
with the capacity to return of our own accord. Rather than
waiting for disaster and mishap to occur, we are capable of
taking charge of our destiny and returning to God. It would
not be an overstatement to say that this prophetic sentiment
represents a maturation of the idea of returning to God.
B’Av commemorates not only physical destruction, but even
more critically, spiritual alienation from God’s presence.
The schinah (divine presence) is exiled from our midst.
More than the physical destruction and tangible calamities
experienced by the Jewish people, we mourn this loss. We are
saddened by the perceived distance God has placed between
ourselves and the Divine.
is not surprising, then, that VaEtchanan comes on the heels of
Tisha B’Av and on the cusp of our season of repentance
leading up to the Days of Awe. The portion challenges us to
rethink our understanding of returning to God. It declares,
“But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will
find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and
the continuation of this verse, however, we cannot wait for
tragedy to befall us. Teshuvah is a proactive experience.
Quite beautifully, Jakob Petuchowski, a leading scholar of the
Reform movement, writes, “…if I am able to return to God,
it follows that, notwithstanding my going astray, I must
originally have been with God. Man’s ‘natural state,’ so
to speak, is therefore, to be with God, to lead his life in
the presence of God and in accordance with God’s
will”(Judaism 17, 178-179).
Matthew Berkowitz is the rabbinic fellow at JTS,
a Jewish university committed to promoting Jewish learning for
all, and the academic and spiritual center of Conservative
Judaism. The Jewish Theological Seminary grants undergraduate,
graduate and professional degrees and offers enriching
programs for the Jewish community in the US and around the
world. Study more with JTS at http://www.learn.jtsa.edu.