The Path Towards Perfection
When Louis Finkelstein was Chancellor of the Seminary and I was a rabbinical student, he would always start the opening breakfast of the year by reciting the verse from Second Isaiah (57:19): “Peace, peace unto those from afar and near.” consisting of but four words in Hebrew, the verse offered a ringing welcome to students new and old, those coming from abroad and those from nearby. Word was that the custom dated back to Solomon Schechter, whom Dr. Finkelstein revered.
I have continued the practice as Chancellor because the verse — as surely Schechter and Finkelstein knew — is more than just a clever application of an ancient text. The rabbinic interpretation of that verse takes it well beyond the dimension of geography. In a brief but significant exchange in the Talmud, the verse becomes the venue for a fundamental disagreement over what constitutes the path toward religious perfection. It is a discussion as important to us as we enter this High Holy Day season of introspection and repentance, as it is for incoming rabbinical students.
As I have often said, the most basic mode of Jewish thinking is interpretation. Scripture, sacred and accessible, is the core of Jewish consciousness. Large issues often spring forth from small verses. And so Rabbi Abahu, a third century Palestinian sage, ponders the deeper meaning of the adverbs “afar” and “near” in our verse. Prophets are not prosaic, and Isaiah must have meant more than a geographical distinction. Dramatically, Rabbi Abahu shifts the verse into a moral discourse. Isaiah is talking of the spirit, and not of space.
Accordingly, Rabbi Abahu unveils a surprising religious belief: A person who has sinned and stopped is of a higher religious order than one who has never known sin. Or in his own provocative words: “In the spot where penitents stand, there is no room for the perfectly righteous.” His prooftext, without which his view would be quickly dismissed, is our verse. Isaiah speaks of the religiously distant and alienated first. Their return is especially pleasing to God. Only then does the prophet welcome the near, those who have, in truth, never departed.
But the Talmud is a culture of conflict, of divergent views clashing in the twilight zone of human existence for religious insight. Its editors remind us at this point that Rabbi Abahu’s declaration is a radical departure from the more conventional position of his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan, who read the verse in Isaiah differently. Yes, we are in the realm of morality and piety. But the word “afar” is to be understood as someone who has lived an unblemished life far removed from any sin. The word “near” comes second, because it refers to someone long in the shadow of wickedness (i.e. near to sin) who has chosen to come back.
I am mesmerized by this dispute. Not only does it validate the right of a mature student to reject the view of his teacher, but in this case the more daring and compassionate stance of Rabbi Abahu became the normative posture of Judaism. Maimonides in the twelfth century reiterated it in his all-embracing code of Jewish law, adding the underlying reason:
“The merit of penitents is higher than that of the perfectly righteous, because the former have struggled harder to subdue their passions.”
I know of no more appropriate or uplifting message for the start of a new year, academic or religious. We all fall repeatedly short of our ideals and aspirations. It is crucial to our psychic welfare to remember that what Judaism values supremely is our struggle to overcome ourselves. At the top of its spiritual hierarchy are not those naturally endowed with all the right instincts or hermetically sealed off from all temptation, but those who have strayed and stumbled and fought their way back. Judaism puts a moral premium on the agony it takes to achieve a life of virtue and piety.
Nor is that goal quantifiable. In a profound piece of religious counsel, the Rabbis who gathered at Yavne to revive and restructure Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple repudiated the impulse to correlate piety with any fixed number of commandments: “Whether we succeed in observing a lot or a little, what counts is that our heart be solely directed toward God.” It is the purity of intention in each and every single religious act which makes the difference in our lives and the world around us, and not the mechanical or obsessive proliferation of such acts.
At this time of year, Judaism beckons us again to consider how reasonable, wholesome and attainable are its expectations of us. I pray that in the serenity of the High Holy Day services, you will discover yet another aspect of Judaism which you will resolve to make your own during the coming year, and that God will inscribe you and your loved ones — both near and far — in the Book of Life.
The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Rosh Hashanah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.