Two Paths of Teshuvah
This week marks the commemoration of great national calamities in Jewish history. The Torah reading for the morning of Tisha B’Av is a selection from this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 4:25–40). This reading highlights an important aspect of our spiritual response to tragedy:
“The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations to which the Lord will drive you… 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. For the Lord your God is a compassionate God: He will not fail you nor will He let you perish…”
Commentators such as Ramban interpret this passage as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and exile to Babylonia. In an attempt to understand the tragedies of Tisha B’Av within the framework of biblical theology, the rabbis interpreted our suffering as an occasion for teshuvah, return to God. The link between Tisha B’Av and repentance is accentuated by the rituals of the day. We fast and observe the other forms of abstinence obligatory on Yom Kippur. We conclude the reading of the Book of Lamentations with the words: “Cause us to return to You, Lord, and we shall return…”
According to the Or HaHayyim (Rabbi Hayyim ben Attar, 1696–1743), the Torah reading on Tisha B’Av reflects upon two different paths of teshuvah. The first, and more optimal form of teshuvah, is described by verse 29: “if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul.” Or HaHayyim explains that this teshuvah sh’leimah, complete repentance, is achieved when one is self motivated to return to God out of love and a desire to submit to God’s will. The second form of teshuvah comes as a response to suffering (verse 30): “When you are in distress because all these things have befallen you and, in the end, return to the Lord your God…” From this perspective, the pain of exile serves as a catalyst for repentance. While this is certainly not the ideal scenario for teshuvah, our sufferings may move us to reach out to God in new ways. In fact, God’s mercy is always present in the midst of our suffering, because God is always ready to embrace us in our attempts to draw close.
As modern Jews living in the era of the modern State of Israel, the observance of Tisha B’Av has become more and more complex. How do we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and the tragedy of exile while we celebrate sovereignty in our own land? Perhaps the tragic events of this past year in Israel and in Jewish communities throughout the world highlight, as never before, the need for our continued observance of this day of mourning. Suffering and oppression are sadly omnipresent in all eras of Jewish history. When we can turn our tragedies into opportunities for deeper spiritual connection, careful introspection about our actions, and greater commitment to our community and to God, then we may find the divine spark of compassion and hope in our darkest times.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.