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#343: Repentance Is Not Rocket Science!
Ramban on Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilekh, Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:10-14
Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory celebrate the landing and first data transmission of the Martian rover Curiosity. Public domain image.
Gimme Some Torah #343
Welcome to new subscriber Rabbi V.!
כִּ֣י תִשְׁמַ֗ע בְּקוֹל֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר מִצְוֺתָיו֙ וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו הַכְּתוּבָ֕ה בְּסֵ֥פֶר הַתּוֹרָ֖ה הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֤י תָשׁוּב֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃ כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃ לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ וְלֹא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבׇר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃
(10) since you will be heeding your God יהוה and keeping the divine commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching—ONCE YOU RETURN TO YOUR GOD יהוה WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND SOUL. (11) Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. (12) IT IS NOT IN THE HEAVENS, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” (13) NEITHER IS IT BEYOND THE SEA, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” (14) NO, THE THING IS VERY CLOSE TO YOU, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
Every now and then, a non-Jew asks me, “How do Jews repent for their sins if they reject Jesus and no longer sacrifice animals?” The question, though usually well-intentioned, betrays an ignorance of Jewish life as it has existed for nearly two thousand years.
One good answer to the question is, “You’re making repentance way more complicated than necessary. We haven’t repented through sacrifice for two millennia, and we certainly don’t need a foreign theology that, frankly, makes zero sense from a Jewish perspective. We repent by sincerely requesting forgiveness from God and the people we have hurt. That’s it. Oh, and by the way, Jews don’t need to be saved.”
Most sources say that the words הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת (hamitzvah hazot, this Instruction) in Deut. 30:11 refer to the whole Torah. But Ramban (bio) holds that it refers to one particular commandment, repentance, known in Hebrew as תְּשׁוּבָה, which literally means returning. Ramban bases his opinion on the fact that in the previous verse, Moses says, “once you return to your God יהוה with all your heart and soul.”:
FOR THIS COMMANDMENT. The meaning thereof is that it refers to the entire Torah. But the correct interpretation is that when Moses refers to the entire Torah, he says [as above] Every commandment which I command you this day. Rather [the expression used here] this commandment refers to [the commandment of] repentance aforementioned, for the verses, and you shall heed; and you shall return unto the Eternal your God constitute a commandment, wherein the Holy One commands us to do so.
Moses goes on to say “it is not in heaven” and “it is not beyond the sea” in Deut. 30:12-13, and the Ramban holds that the word it those verses refers to repentance rather than the whole Torah. He’s saying that it is repentance that is readily available, not an understanding of the whole Torah.
Repentance is like shoveling snow after a blizzard: hard work, but rather uncomplicated. Here are the basic steps according to the Rambam:
Recognize the action as a sin and stop doing it.
Make a verbal confession (to God or the person you have hurt).
Regret what you did.
Promise to never commit that sin again.
You can see that repentance, in terms of complexity, is easy-peasy to understand, and is (almost) always available. And yet, Ramban’s opinion notwithstanding, anyone who has actually gone through these steps knows that they can be very difficult to execute.
Repenting properly requires us to shut off the “Yeah, I’m basically a good person” circus calliope music in our heads. That can be very challenging. The valve is often badly rusted and difficult to rotate. When we do that, when we realize that we are occasionally not good people at all, we deservedly feel discomfort. That discomfort leads to the warm embrace of מְחִילָה (meḥilah, forgiveness), סְלִיחָה (seliḥah, pardon), and כַּפָּרָה (kapparah, atonement.)
Rosh Hashanah begins one week from tonight. Fellow Jews, cross check and all-call. Prepare for takeoff!
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