A World Without Teshuvah

Ha'azinu | Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Sep 18, 2004 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

The Torah is largely a series of legal texts set in a narrative context. It is not replete with outbursts of poetry. Our poetic sensibility seeks satisfaction elsewhere in the Tanakh – in the passion of the prophets, or the poignancy of the psalmist, or the protest of Job, or in the sensuousness of the Song of Songs. The Torah touches only some of our senses. And yet, it closes in a great poetic flourish. As Moses nears his end, he switches from didactic prose to incandescent poetry.

Ha’azinu is a final meditation on the nature of the covenant that binds God and Israel. It is that relationship – its gestation, content and fate – which, after all, forms the essential plot of the Torah’s narrative. Graphic, taut and focused, the poem is written from God’s perspective, a foreboding view of the instability of the divine-human relationship. Israel’s faithfulness will not be of long duration. Nor will the memory of God’s beneficence in the period of its infancy reinforce its faith. Rather prosperity will become its solvent, obliterating any sense of indebtedness and gratitude to God. Worse still, Israel will sever the covenant by cavorting with deities it has never heard of.

At this point, Moses boldly shifts from the voice of a third-person narrator to God speaking in the first-person. God erupts in anger, announcing the intention to let Israel be overrun and devastated by a rapacious enemy. But before the havoc runs its course, God’s hand is stayed by the fear that the enemy will attribute the victory to its own contemptible deity. To punish Israel for its infidelity might actually end up enhancing the prospects of polytheism. So God desists, vanquishes the invader and renews the covenant.

My summary hardly does justice to the power and beauty of the language, or the daringness of the conception. The poem is no less than a CAT scan of God’s mind. Yet in terms of theology, it falls disappointingly short. God’s reversal is not motivated by compassion, but by pride. Revenge has its price, even for God. No one may detect that God is the author of the script. What is wholly missing from the poem is any expectation that repentance by Israel ought to precede reconciliation with God. In depicting a vision of things to come, Moses seems to have made light of Israel’s own religious growth. While its sin did ignite God’s wrath, it is not required to do anything to reverse its fate and restore its covenant. The poem bespeaks a world without teshuvah, the capacity to alter God’s will through our contrition. It offers little in the way of consolation to soften its somber vision.

This week’s Shabbat, coming as it does between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, bears the name Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of returning. The name derives from the opening words of the haftarah, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God . Say unto Him: ‘Forgive all guilt and accept what is good . Never again will we call our handwork our god'” (Hosea 14:3-4). The passages from the prophets Hosea, Joel and Micah, which are joined to make up our haftarah, breathe a world view far less deterministic than the one that animates Ha’azinu. Without the possibility of righting our wrongs, who needs prophets? Their very mission is predicated on the promise of a second chance, if merited. In the sagas of the Torah, a recourse to repentance is conspicuously absent. Neither Adam and Eve or Sodom and Gemorrah, or Moses and Aaron, or the Israelites, themselves, are ever given a chance to atone for their misdeeds. Retribution always follows inexorably. The belief in a forgiving God of mercy is on the horizon but not yet evident in the course of human events.

Thus, when the covenant is renewed after the debacle of the Golden Calf because of Moses’s intercession rather than Israel’s repentance, God reveals the attributes which govern divine behavior. The revelation opens with resounding affirmation of God’s compassion but closes on the equally unequivocal avowal that not all is forgiven: “He does not remit all punishment (ve-nakeh lo yenakeh)” (Exodus 34:7). These thirteen attributes became the core of the selihot, prayers for forgiveness, throughout the High Holy Day period, with one striking omission. The liturgy drops the final lo yenakeh to change the negative note into a positive one: “He does remit all punishment.” In that emendation of the text, the Rabbis adjusted the Torah to accord with the prophetic stance on the efficacy of repentance (BT Yoma 86a).

What would it be like to live in a world bereft of teshuvah? The Rabbis imagined Cain taking his leave of God in good spirits after being sentenced for the murder of Abel. He met Adam, who asked about the disposition of his case. Cain told him that he had repented (literally, done teshuvah), and was pardoned. Dumbstruck, Adam hit himself on the head and exclaimed, “Such is the power of repentance! If only I had known!” (B’reishit Rabbah 22:13). Had teshuvah been available to him, we might still be living in Eden! In truth, so indispensable for human welfare is teshuvah that Resh Lakish insisted it was woven into the very fabric of creation, that is: God conceptualized it before creating the world (Urbach, Hazal[Hebrew], p. 412). Conversely, had we, humans been made without moral imperfections, we could readily dispense with it. Prosperity is corrosive of character. Rabbi Yannai, the teacher of Resh Lakish, and a man of great wealth, imputed some responsibility to God for the sin of Golden Calf. Had God not enabled the Israelites at the time of the Exodus to strip the Egyptians of their wealth (Exodus 12:35-36), they would never have been tempted in the wilderness to build an idol of gold (BT Yoma 86b).

In short, the prophetic and rabbinic concept of repentance is one of Judaism’s most ennobling beliefs, wrought visibly and painstakingly over time. By rejecting fatalism of any sort, Judaism gives us a measure of control over our lives. As we reach for self-improvement and not perfection, during the High Holy Days, we find ourselves buoyed by the prayers that envelop us and the community that surrounds us. Our struggle ended, we leave the synagogue at peace, cleansed and transformed to start living afresh.

May you be inscribed for a year of contentment and good health.

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ha’azinu are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.