The Path to Repentance

Noah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 16, 1999 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

The first eleven chapters of Genesis make for dismal reading. In contrast to the grandeur and harmony of the heavens, the primeval history of humanity is wracked with violence, one moral debacle after another. God quickly comes to regret the creation of unfettered sentient beings and decides to start over, though with no better results. Both before and after the flood, God concludes ruefully that the penchant of humankind to do evil is beyond dispute (6:5, 8:21). The second time, God chose to be more directive, explicitly forbidding murder and the ingesting of blood, while permitting the consumption of meat.

Judaism and Christianity parted company over how to read these few spare chapters of universal history. For the Church, the Garden of Eden became the soil for the doctrine of original sin. In their waywardness, Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, fell hostage to the domain of the devil. The narrative bespoke the immutably depraved condition of human nature. To know the Torah was not sufficient to do it. In the words of Paul: “In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves and making me a prisoner under the law that is in my members, the law of sin (Romans 7:22 – 23).” Not human willpower then but divine grace alone in the person of God’s own Son who had died on the cross could hope to break this vicious cycle of human malice.

The Rabbis took a totally different theological tack. They too could not afford to leave the lugubrious stories of Genesis unaltered. The function of religion, within the constraints of reality, is surely to comfort and uplift. What the Torah lacked was the prospect of a second chance. None of its many narratives conveyed the possibility that the consequences of a misstep could ever be reversed. Those who stumbled and sinned had no recourse to make amends, to avert punishment. There is not a single instance of a reprieve attained by repentance, neither in the case of Adam and Eve nor Cain nor the generation of the flood. When Abraham comes to plead with God for the decadent inhabitants of Sodom and Gamorrah (Genesis 18:17 – 33), he does not ask for the chance to get them to change their ways. The argument turns rather on mechanistic grounds, whether there are enough righteous people left to offset the malevolent effects of the wicked majority. Similarly in later narratives, neither Pharaoh nor Moses nor all Israel are ever able to deflect or deny by atonement the punishment decreed for them by God.

It is not till we come to the late and marginal book of Jonah, that we first confront in full view the idea of teshuvah, repentance, as efficacious. Nor is it an accident that we read all of it in the synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon, for Jonah encapsulates the essence of the day: that atonement, resolve and initiative can get us beyond the impediments of our past and ourselves. Indeed, the book preserves an echo of the displeasure with which the new idea of teshuvah was greeted in some circles. Jonah, the prophet, is not at all enamored with the dramatic and wholehearted acceptance by Nineveh society, from top to bottom, of his urgent call for repentance. Though the instrument of an expanded notion of divine compassion, Jonah himself holds to the older view that it is unregal for God to have a change of heart.

On the basis of this small book, the Rabbis softened their understanding of the divine-human relationship with a large dose of compassion. God stood ready to forgive and humans had the capacity to grow. Thus R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus in the early second century proclaimed: “Repent one day before your death.” When his students asked him how one might know that day, he replied: “Then repent today for you might die tomorrow (Avot de R. Natan, ed. By Schechter, p. 62).” In other words, each and every day, and not just Yom Kippur, was suitable for repairing one’s ties to God.

On fast days when the Torah shrine would be taken into the street for prayer, a synagogue elder would admonish the congregation: “Brethren, it is not said of the people of Nineveh, ‘And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting,’ but rather, ‘And God saw their works that they turned from their evil way’ (Mishnah Taanit 2:1).” The assurance of a receptive God inspired self-transcendence.

Finally, the Rabbis reread the early stories of Genesis through the lens of repentance, detecting instances unnoticed before. Midrash served to modify an outdated theology. For example, the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah by Onqelos gave Genesis 6:3 a significant twist. Whereas the original Hebrew text seemed to express divine exasperation at human inconstancy, limiting the life span of humankind to but 120 years, Onqelos rendered it to mean that God would allow but another 120 years for teshuvah before God would unleash a universal flood: “And God said that this evil generation shall not endure before me forever; for they are flesh and their deeds are evil. I will grant them an extension of 120 years, [to see] if they repent (James T. Kugel, The Bible As It Was, p. 113).”

A few verses later (Genesis 6:14), Rashi introduced another version of the same midrash on repentance. God instructed No·ah to begin building his ark long before the onset of the flood in the hope that people would ask him its purpose and be moved to repent. In contrast to the biblical text in which No·ah appears silent and unconcerned about the fate of his neighbors, the midrash portrays No·ah as a Jonah- like preacher of repentance.

In short, the rabbinic concept of teshuvah rested on deeds rather than faith, on the discipline of Torah rather than divine grace. Its implicit optimism about the correctability of human nature tempered the near fatalism that darkened the original meaning of Genesis.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch