Friday, May 20, 2011

WHEN SAYING SORRY ISN’T ENOUGH: PARASHAT BECHUKOTAI: 2011/ 5771


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT BECHUKOTAI:  2011/5771


WHEN SAYING SORRY ISN’T ENOUGH



  And they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, in their treachery which they committed against me, and also that they have related to me with indifference. I also will relate to them with indifference, and shall bring them to the land of their enemies; if then perchance their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then make right their iniquity; then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land…    and yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies I will not reject them and shall not abhor them to destroy them by abrogating my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God.  I shall remember the covenant of their ancestors for their sake.  (Lev.  26: 40-45).

This text concludes the first of the two great rebukes [tokhechot] in the Torah.  The first occupies the greater part of this parashah.  Moses delivers the second in his final speech to a new generation of Israelites on the eve of his passing.  That tokhechah is recorded in parashat Ki Tavo (Deut. 28:15-68). 

There are at least five striking differences between the two tokhechot.  The first is their authorship.  In our parashah, Moses transmits God’s own words of rebuke.  The author is God.  The second rebuke is Moses’ own version of that rebuke that he shares with a different generation four decades later. 

The tokhechot are of unequal length.  God’s rebuke is recorded in a mere thirty-two verses whereas Moses’ rebuke is recorded in fifty-four verses.

 Furthermore, God’s rebuke is addressed collectively to the Jewish people and is expressed in the plural.  Moses’ tokhechah is formulated in the singular and is addressed separately, as it were, to each of his listeners.  If you will, Moses’ is personal and direct whereas God’s is more general.

God’s tokhechah repeatedly highlights the unacceptable attitude of the sinners.  He refers several times to the fatal flaw in their relationship with Him, declaring:  “You have behaved toward me with indifference [halakhtem imi be-keri].” God rebukes them for their uncaring, unfocussed and almost accidental connection with Him.  In contrast, Moses does not refer to flawed relationships but merely to non-compliance.  It would seem that whereas God’s concern is attitudinal, experiential and spiritual and relates to the inner emotional processes of His people, Moses’ concern is behavioral, relating exclusively to the performance and non-performance of commandments.

The final distinction between the two tokhechot is their conclusion.  God’s tokhechah concludes with our text.  Having specified the horrifying consequences of spiritual indifference, God ends with the optimistic promise of ultimate redemption.  Moses’ tokhechah offers no hope.  It is an extensive, vividly portrayed catalog of terrible suffering, and must have left his listeners feeling hopeless.  Moses’ rebuke reflects a posture of strict, uncompromising justice.  Human freedom implies acceptance of responsibility.  The wages of disobedience are therefore inevitable.  In contrast, God’s tokhechah reflects divine mercy.  Human failures and errors are redeemable through appropriate contrition and spiritual transformation.

The promise of forgiveness and redemption with which our tokhechah concludes is the basis for the central Jewish notion of teshuvah [repentance].   We are indeed responsible for our attitudes, decisions and actions, but their dire consequences are not inevitable.   We can redeem ourselves and wipe the slate clean if we genuinely repent our shortcomings and reprehensible behaviors.   This is the message of our text. It contains the basis elements of the process of repentance: “ And they shall confess their inequity.   And I shall bring them to the land of their enemies. If then their uncircumcised heart will be humbled, then will their inequity be atoned”. 

Maimonides codified the substance of our text:  “And what is teshuvah?  It is that the sinner forsakes his sin, removes it from his thoughts and resolves in his heart not to do it again. …Likewise, he should regret his past behavior. And the One who knows secret things must testify that he shall never again repeat that sin.  And he must confess aloud and mention those things that he had resolved in his heart.  Anybody who makes verbal confession and does not resolve in his heart to leave off sinning is no different from one who attempts [purifying] ritual immersion while grasping a source of defilement.  (Hil. Teshuvah 2:2-3).

But Rambam’s codification of the process of teshuvah carries the risk of its reduction to mere robot-like performance.  It may lead to self-deception.  One might think that following the delineated steps of regret,
discontinuation of transgression, confession and resolution to change  together suffice to avoid retribution and to achieve transformation.  The danger of such a reductionist attitude to teshuvah is recidivism. 

It is clear from the wording of our text that God was aware of this possibility.  The order of its verses is deliberate.  The process commences with confession of sin.  But saying sorry is simply not enough.  After enduring the terrible consequences of inequity, it is likely that many might confess simply to stop the pain.  In a sense, their confession is coerced by their suffering and is not a genuine expression of contrition.  For this reason, the next verse refers to the need for genuine inner transformation, which it calls the circumcision of the heart--the removal of its many covers of spiritual insensitivity.  The purpose of the consequences of inequity is not retribution, but rehabilitation.  The process of teshuvah defines the human responsibility for rehabilitation, change and transformation. 

It would seem that the often-repeated motif of indifference to the Divine [halakhtem imi be-keri], the almost accidental connection of the Jewish people with God, is the background of this process of rehabilitation.  The effect of human indifference to God is Divine indifference to human beings.  Mindfulness of the Divine and reestablishment of genuine connection opens us to the protection of Providence.  The Torah articulates this as God’s turning his face to his creatures [u-faniti aleikhem]. On the other hand, absence of human connection to God results in the hiddenness of the Divine [hester Panim] and disconnection from the protective Providence.  The sages famously declare:  “One who comes to engender purity is assisted [by Providence].  One who comes to defile, has his way open to him. This means that when we sever our connection with God we are on our own, adrift in the world like a leaf floating in the wind, and as vulnerable to raging storms. This is the consequence of a life of indifference and unconnectedness. The act of teshuvah is the reestablishment of the connection, the redirection of the open, contrite heart to the Divine Presence.   

Our text contains an additional redemptive motif.  Not all individuals are capable of this sort of rehabilitative spiritual transformation.  Many will continue along the path of disconnection and suffer the consequences. Therefore God addresses his people collectively, assuring them that in the absence of genuine teshuvah by all the individual members of the community, the collective as a whole need not despair.  Redemption is a function not only of individual spiritual effort, but, ultimately, of God’s fulfillment of His Covenant with His people.   And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies I will not reject them and shall not abhor them to destroy them by abrogating my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God.  I shall remember the covenant of their ancestors for their sake. This is the closing consolation of God’s tokhechah.


1 comment:

  1. Interesting that Moshe's tochecha should be sterner than God's. 40 years earlier, Moshe argued for mercy on the people's behalf when it was God who wanted to destroy them. Did Moshe change over the next 40 years? Did he become more cynical in their ability to do teshuva? And the corresponding blasphemous question is did God change (not over the course of 40 years, but in response to the golden calf) and become more merciful?

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