To Err is Human: The Human Element in Teshuva

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

To Err is Human:

The Human Element in Teshuva

 

Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

 

 

I

 

            The Amida of the Musaf prayer on Rosh Ha-Shana is one of the high points in our annual cycle of prayer and worship. Following on the heels of the shofar blowing, the Amida itself is intertwined with the sound of the shofar, as we express through text and trumpet the sense of respect and reverence experienced on this Day of Awe. The Amida develops the major themes of this solemn day: it is replete with the majesty of God’s Kingdom as expressed in the berakha of Malkhiyot (Kingship); it encompasses His exacting standards of absolute justice as reflected in Zikhronot (Summons/Recollections); and it emphasizes and proclaims the past and future redemption in the numinous glory of Shofarot.

 

            Chazal devoted much attention to the structure of this special Musaf, which is expanded to nine blessings, instead of the ordinary seven, in order to accommodate the concepts of Malkhiyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot. The prayer is designed to optimize symmetry and balance within the tefilla; each berakha is tightly organized, consisting of a series of three verses from the Torah, three verses from the Prophets, three verses from the Ketuvim (Holy Writings), and a concluding statement of the Torah, totaling ten verses per unit. The structure is closely regulated and meticulously organized, each element functioning in its proper place.

 

            Surprisingly, a most unlikely figure appears in the center of this carefully orchestrated prayer. In the heart of the Amida, as we conclude the Zikhronot and transition between the biblical verses and the blessing itself, we encounter the story of Noah and the flood. Noah’s fate is used to illustrate the divine attribute of loving recollection:

 

And Noah, too, was lovingly remembered as You redeemed him with a proclamation of mercy and redemption when you brought the flood waters to destroy all flesh because of their evil deeds. Therefore did his memory appear before You, Hashem our God, to increase his progeny as the dust of the earth and his descendants as the sand of the sea, as is written, “And God remembered Noah and all of the animals and the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God sent a wind on the land and the waters receded.”

 

            This passage deserves close attention, as it is central to the thematic development of the Rosh Ha-Shana Musaf. Structurally, it is situated midway through the Amida, preceded by the berakha of Malkhiyot and the first half of Zikhronot and followed by the second half of Zikhronot and the berakha of Shofarot. More importantly, the figure of Noah serves a pivotal role in the transformation that takes place at this juncture in the text. It is at this point that a transition in tone and approach takes place – from the exacting severity of absolute divine justice (Middat Ha-Din) to God’s compassionate mercy (Middat Ha-Rachamim).

 

            Until this point, the motif of the prayer has been one of sublime majesty, distant grandeur, and the exalted greatness of the Master of the Universe. God’s power and omnipotence, as reflected through creation and His sovereign mastery of the world, are the focal points of the Malkhiyot text, which anticipates a future in which the divine Kingship will be evident to all of mankind. In this section, the relationship between man and God is transcendent; the created is subordinate to the Creator. As such, Man recognizes God and stands in judgment before Him, accountable for all of his actions and misdeeds. Zikhronot continues this line of thought, advancing the concept of Rosh Ha-Shana as a day of judgment and depicting God as the supreme Judge, who summons all of mankind to appear at His bar of absolute justice as He reviews creation at the beginning of each year.

 

            The emphasis that the text of the berakha places upon the uncompromising comprehensiveness of divine scrutiny, and the resulting fear and trembling, is famously described in the prayer U-Netaneh Tokef. This passage, recited during the chazzan’s repetition of the Amida, is firmly rooted in Chazal’s conception of divine justice:

 

“His surroundings are very tempestuous” (Tehillim 50:3) – this teaches us that God is very stringent with His surroundings, even on the most trivial matters. R. Nechunia derived this principle from this verse: “God is exalted in the company of the holy and is awesome over His surroundings” (Tehillim 89:8). R. Chanina said: Anyone who says that God is a compromiser, his life will be compromised, as it is written (Devarim 32:4), “The Mighty, His works are perfect, for all His paths are just.” (Bava Kama 50a)

 

Rosh Ha-Shana, the day of accounting for and judging creation, reflects these divine attributes and expresses them in the tefilla.

 

            But this is true only of the first berakha and a half of the three special Rosh Ha-Shana berakhot. From the moment the latter half of Zikhronot is introduced, we find ourselves in a totally different world – the world of divine love and fond memory. The stern, exacting world of Din (Judgment) has been replaced by the compassionate love of Rachamim (Mercy). The Master of Aleinu Le-Shabe’ach, Who dwells in the Heavens above, is now joined by the covenantal Partner of man, Who lovingly recollects the mutual covenant and the relationships of past years. The imagery employed by the verses cited in Zikhronot describes our relationship as that of a favorite child and a faithful companion, not as subjects to a Master. Similarly, Shofarot, although emphasizing the awesome greatness of God, does so in the context of revelation and redemption – God’s interaction with humanity.

 

            Noah is positioned at the very point at which this transformation occurs, and he seems to be the vehicle through which it is brought about. Why is Noah singled out? He was certainly not the only figure whom God saved due to a covenant or commitment. Furthermore, the Torah tells us that Noah was saved because he was a righteous person who found favor in the eyes of God, and God Himself told him that he was a tzaddik (“And Noah found favor in the eyes of God;” “For I have seen you as a tzaddik in My presence in this generation”). How can he serve as a paradigm of a man receiving God’s abundant mercy despite an otherwise guilty verdict befitting of his deeds?

 

            The path to understanding Noah’s enigmatic role in the Rosh Ha-Shana Musaf must lead us through some basic issues regarding man’s relationship with God and the world.

 

II

 

            Zikhronot opens with a ringing declaration of the exacting standards of the Supreme Master and the omniscience and omnipotence that combine to achieve absolute divine justice. Man’s accountability before God, and God’s uncompromising standard that takes into account all of man’s actions, are basic tenets of Judaism; they allow the absolute truth associated with God to realize itself.[1] Zikhronot outlines the workings of God within the world; it celebrates creation on the anniversary of the world, unflinchingly exposing God’s demands upon us as laid down in the original plan of the world. This is the “chok zikkaron” – the “rule of world” mentioned in the opening paragraph of Zikhronot.

 

            Such a world, however, is not without its own problems. It is awe-inspiring, overwhelming, majestic, and absolute – but precious little room is left in such a world for the concept of teshuva. If exact justice must always be meted out, if every sin triggers a penalty, if there is a price tag for each and every human act, whence repentance?! The exacting standards of God’s attribute of Truth cannot and will not allow Him to overlook, forget, forgive, or understand any error or transgression, essentially eliminating the option of repentance and atonement.

 

            Clearly, such a conclusion is untenable, and it cannot be incorporated into any system of Judaism. We are left with the conclusion that if Truth and Justice are only compatible with adherence to a policy of strict accountability, teshuva must be an act of divine grace (chesed), which overrides the concept of accountability. Put slightly differently, teshuva is due to Middat Ha-Rachamim (the attribute of Mercy) and stands in paradoxical opposition to the inner logic of natural law and the standards of justice required by Middat Ha-Din (the attribute of Justice).

           

            In one of the most famous statements of Chazal regarding teshuva, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Makkot 2:6) formulates exactly such an approach:

 

Wisdom was asked: What is the sinner’s punishment?

Wisdom answered: “Evil shall pursue sinners.”

Prophecy was asked: What is the sinner’s punishment?

Prophecy replied: “The soul that sins shall die.”

God was asked: What is the sinner’s punishment?

He responded: Let him do teshuva and he will be forgiven.

 

Teshuva is portrayed in this passage is an unacceptable option to Wisdom and Prophecy; only the Supreme Commander can allow repentance, against the advice of His appointed advisors, who represent the claims of Truth and Justice.

 

            Nevertheless, it seems that this is not the whole story. A close analysis of the story of Noah will lead us to modify this picture and enable us to understand his role within the Rosh Ha-Shana prayers.

 

            The following remarkable midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 19:33) serves as a good starting point:

 

“Then Israel sang” (Bamidbar 21:17): This is one of the three things that Moshe told God and He responded, “You have taught Me.”

 

[In the first instance,] Moshe said to Him: Master of the universe! How will Israel know what they have done? Were they not raised in Egypt, a land in which all of its citizens are idol worshippers? And did You not give the Torah to me and not to them, and they even stood at a remote distance at the time while I approached you, as is written, “And the people stood at a distance” (Shemot 20:17); “And to Moshe, God called out and told him to go up the mountain to meet Him” (Shemot 24:1). Moreover, when You gave them the Ten Commandments, You did not address Yourself to them, but to me; You did not say, “I am Hashem your [plural] God (E-loheikhem)” but rather “I am Hashem your [singular] God (E-lohekha).” Perhaps, however, I am sinning [by advising God]? God responded to Moshe: By your life, you have spoken well; you have taught Me. From now on, I will address the whole people…

 

The second instance was when God proclaimed that He will “visit the sins of the fathers on the sons.” Said Moshe: There are many righteous people whose parents are evildoers; will they pay for their parents’ sins? Avraham was the son Terach, Chizkiyahu was the son of Achaz, and Yoshiyahu was the son of Ammon; is it proper that they should pay for the deeds of their sinning fathers? God replied: You have taught Me. I shall nullify My policy and adopt yours. Henceforth, “The fathers will not die for the sins of their sons and the sons will not die for their father’s transgressions” (Devarim 24:16). Moreover, I will register it on your name, as stated in the verse, “The sons of the assassins were not executed, as is stated in the Torah of Moshe, the man of God, that each person shall die only for his sins” (II Melakhim 14:6).

 

The third instance was when God told him to go to war with Sichon and to wage a campaign against him, even if Sichon did not provoke the Israelites, as the verse states, “Cross the Arnon River and engage Sichon” (Devarim 2:24). Yet Moshe did not do so; the verse tells us, “I sent envoys to Sichon” (ibid. 26). God said to him: By your life, I will nullify My words and fulfill yours, as it says, “When you approach a city to battle against it, extend an offer of peace” (Devarim 20:10).

 

            The midrash tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu made three claims that resulted in a change of policy regarding God’s governance of the world. Moshe’s basic claim in all three cases is, in fact, one and the same, and can be paraphrased as follows.

 

Ribbono Shel Olam, Beloved Father – You have absolute standards of exact justice. Undoubtedly, these reflect the absolute, indisputable truth. However, frail, fickle human nature cannot possibly live up to these exacting standards. Man is bound to fail in such a world; he is unable to function without a margin of error. Man needs a world in which allowance can be made for error. Otherwise, he will be overwhelmed; not only will he be unable to live up to our expectations, he will simply be psychologically paralyzed by the severity of the demands of absolute truth.

 

There is no doubt that if You command Bnei Yisrael to attack the Emorites without prior negotiations or peace offers that the war is justified; by the standards of Heavenly justice, Bnei Yisrael are indeed deserving of the land promised to their forefathers, and not the sinning Emorites. Nevertheless, human nature cannot function in such a manner. Either the people’s compassion will not allow them to assault the Emorites, or, conversely, cruelty and ferocity will be bred within them. To arrive at the proper balance between compassion and justice, man’s psychological needs must be addressed.

 

Similarly, divine justice dictates visiting the sins of the parents on the children, but human existence and activity would be doomed in such a world. No community could possibly survive in such circumstances. Look how many tzaddikim there are who have ancestors who sinned; would they not be psychologically paralyzed in such a world? Please, realize, Father in Heaven, that if You maintain this approach, there will be so much despair; many will never even bother to make the effort to be a tzaddik! Apathy and fatalistic resignation will replace spiritual energy. There must be a relaxation of standards and a recognition that the needs of frail man must be provided for in this world.

 

            Essentially, the midrash tells us that Moshe provided God with the human perspective and made Him aware of the view from within the human psyche, thereby convincing Him to adapt the system to account for these needs.

 

            The midrash’s presentation of Moshe as teaching God something of which He is unaware of is extremely daring and theologically problematic, to say the least. A modified form of presentation, and a more readily palatable one, would attribute these positions to the classic opposition of Din (Justice) and Rachamim (Mercy). Be it as it may, the midrash has established a crucial point – human survival within the created world is contingent upon a world-order rooted in a more forgiving and less exacting approach. If “to err is human,” then a world that is inhabited by humans must be organized along principles that will allow human life to exist. If divine wisdom willed the creation and maintenance of a world designed for fallible humankind, then the possibility of forgiveness and understanding must be intrinsic within the system. Teshuva must therefore be an integral part of mortal man’s cosmos; otherwise, the entire endeavor will collapse.

 

            This principle is strongly emphasized in Tehillim. In a chapter devoted to God’s benevolence towards Man, King David states that He forgives us, “since He is aware of our desires, mindful that we are dust” (103:14). David repeats this theme in his grand statement of teshuva, Psalm 51, which details his spiritual response to the sin of Batsheva. There, he advances the sweeping claim that God should forgive all sinners because man is sinful by his very nature, as witnessed by the fact that the act of human conception itself is rooted in sin. Man is “begotten in sin and brought to his mother’s womb through transgression” (51:7), and he must therefore be forgiven. King David is not expressing a Protestant sentiment regarding the irreparably corrupt nature of man, nor is he flippantly arguing from this observation that pleasure and anarchy may overrule discipline. Rather, he is stressing that failure and shortcoming are integral to human nature and must therefore be accepted and dealt with in a world dedicated to human existence. God’s desire to create His world and populate it with humans presumes that an outlet of purification and regeneration must be provided, so that man can cleanse himself of his sins and scrub away the stains of his errors, which most certainly must be removed.

 

III

 

            Once we have established that a world inhabited by humans, whose nature is to err and sin, will readily arrive at an abrupt end if no allowance will be made for their errors, Noah enters the picture. Although the Torah does not present Noah as actively engaged in the act of repentance, nor is he identified as a ba’al teshuva (penitent) by Chazal, his story is nevertheless crucial to the concept of teshuva.

 

            For what is Noah if not a symbol of weak and frail human nature, the story of a meek, non-heroic figure called upon by circumstances to justify human existence? The text of the Chumash does not say much about Noah’s character other than attesting to his righteousness, leaving us to wonder what kind of man he truly is. Is he a tzaddik whose merits protect an entire generation, whose righteousness shines like a beacon across the land, impressing all? Or is he simply a more-or-less average human being who has his share of both strengths and weaknesses?

 

            Seizing upon the phrase, “A tzaddik, righteous in his times” (Bereishit 6:9), the midrash unhesitatingly portrays Noah as a passive figure, lacking leadership qualities and sensitivity to the spiritual state of the surrounding society. He reacts to events, but is unable or unwilling to initiate any positive action. He is conscientious and honest – the maintenance of personal integrity and honesty in a wholly corrupt society is itself a noteworthy accomplishment – but he is certainly not a heroic figure or a tzaddik for the ages. Actually, in some contexts, Chazal consider him simply the best of the lot; someone had to be saved so that creation would not be defeated, and Noah was merely the best available candidate.[2]

 

            Support for this approach is found in Noah’s later history. Although the Torah does not provide much insight into the nature of Noah’s character before the deluge, it does detail at length his behavior afterwards, portraying Noah as an earthy figure (“ish ha-adama,” Bereishit 9:20) whose affinity for the bottle leads him to a bitter and disgraceful old age.[3]

 

            Thus, Noah can be viewed as an “Everyman” whose heroism lies precisely in the fact that he is not a hero. He is a positive, honest, well-meaning person with a measure of human weakness who was called upon to save humankind. This is what makes him a limited figure, who, lacking the greatness of Avraham Avinu or Adam, neither leads the way before God nor attempts to be as a God. Like the famous story of Zusha, all he wants is to be Noah. He wants to follow God in a normal, human fashion. He is an average person; he represents us and our human composition, our “normal” righteousness.

 

            Thus, if God remembered Noah with love, there is hope for us too, since Noah is essentially the same as us. Love and compassion are indeed required; we (and Noah) are sinners who cannot withstand the scrutiny of absolute justice. Yet Noah’s fate is proof that God’s mercy will prevail and that He will remember us with love and compassion on the Day of Judgment.

 

            However, the significance of the Noah episode runs much deeper than providing an example of God’s treatment of ordinary, unspectacular humans, important as this may be. Actually, the story of God’s selection of Noah is the drama of the transition from Din to Rachamim, from an antediluvian world judged by absolute exacting standards of behavior to a newly recreated cosmos whose inhabitants are evaluated and held accountable only through the loving prism of divine Mercy.

 

            This claim is based upon the premise that the pre-Flood world in which Noah grew up was qualitatively different from the one that replaced it afterwards. A careful reading of Parashat Bereishit indicates that its protagonists are great heroic figures, attempting to straddle the universe and interested in leaving their mark upon the world. From Adam through Kayin and Lemech and their progeny, the pattern holds true; they are more heroic and charismatic than Noah’s bland mediocrity, their transgressions more flagrant than his. Concurrently, they are held up to a higher standard of accountability than are Noah and his sons.

 

            The Torah addresses this point at the conclusion of Parashat Bereishit in the enigmatic story of the “Bnei Ha-Elohim” (sons of the gods/powerful) found in the opening verses of chapter 6. Who exactly the Bnei Ha-Elohim were and what precisely they did is highly unclear, and differing suggestions have been advanced by the various commentators. One thing, however, is abundantly clear – we are not talking about mere mortals, but about larger-than-life figures. Whether intended literally or not, the vocabulary employed here denotes a sense of mastery or control that these figures maintained over ordinary humans, or even the entire cosmos. It is theirs to master and control, and they bestride it accordingly. Tragically, however, they do not subordinate these powers to bring about the greater glory of God, but rather use it to subdue other humans and to exalt themselves as self-appointed gods. Although they have much more spiritual potential than ordinary, mortal Noah, the dangers of perversion and corruption are also much greater.

 

            Thus, at the conclusion of Parashat Bereishit, as the creation story reaches its tragic denouement, the Torah presents to us with a study in contrasts; there are the fallen, heroic “Bnei Ha-Elohim,” who have degenerated into moral and sexual depravity, and there is the plainer and simpler, un-heroic Noah, who has managed to maintain his integrity and honesty. These are the two alternatives – the heroic and the non-heroic – representing the two totally divergent paths that the course of creation may follow, and it is between these two options that the Torah chooses loudly and clearly, preferring Noah’s well-intentioned stability and commitment, with its attendant limitations and inevitable failures, over the competing alternative, whose failure is evident. The Torah’s statement that Noah found favor in God’s eyes, unlike his more heroic contemporaries, is not only a statement regarding Noah the son of Lemech as an individual. It is a choice of the model that Noah personifies as the better paradigm for a human world.

 

            Such a paradigm presumes love, mercy and compassion, for without them, man’s sins will always bring about his downfall at the bar of absolute justice. Although there is undoubtedly a price to be paid for forsaking the original model of absolute truth, Noah has proved that his unassuming obedience and the corresponding adoption of a more lenient approach will be the most productive and fruitful direction to adopt. The Bnei Ha-Elohim are unaware of the significance of their mortality, and they therefore sin;[4] Noah, who is all too aware of his material existence, attempts to steer clear from challenging God or disregarding natural law, although we are well aware that he will inevitably commit many infractions within the system.

 

            God’s choice of Noah and His loving redemption of him extend to us the hope that we, too, may be redeemed and forgiven on the Day of Judgment, as teshuva has been introduced into the natural system of the created world as a necessary element. Noah served as the vehicle through whom the original transition from the stern, absolute standard was modified to a more lenient one. It is therefore to his saga that we turn every Rosh Ha-Shana to request and implore God that He do the same for us on the day that creation is celebrated. The ability and necessity to forgive Man for his inevitable sins and misdemeanors is rooted in the very nature of creation since the time of Noah,[5] the human tzaddik.[6]



[1] God’s indispensable attribute of Truth is emphasized in the keriat shema, which we conclude by affixing the word “emet” (“truth”) to the text.

[2] The point is explicit in Bereishit Rabba (28:9) and implicit in the famous story of the lion wounding Noah in the ark. The point is that Noah is personally unworthy of survival, but he must survive in the most minimal way possible so as to ensure the survival of the race; he is therefore wounded. Needless to say, there are also midrashim to the contrary, which view Noah as an extraordinarily righteous and unique figure.

[3] A strong case could certainly be made that Noah’s drinking reflects the escapism of a devastated survivor who has witnessed the collapse of society and the destruction of the universe, leaving him as a desolate and lonely soul without anyone to lean upon, consumed by guilt, etc. Nevertheless, the descent into the pits of drunkenness, as opposed to other forms of expression, is significant. Moreover, the Torah’s labeling of Noah as an earthy person is the key phrase that supports the contention that Noah is neither a highly spiritual nor exalted tzaddik in his essential being.

[4] See Rashi, Bereishit 6:3.

[5] The Ramban describes the world after the flood as being newly created, and not merely repopulated, an idea supported by the many parallelisms between God’s charge to Adam after creation and to Noah after the deluge. This would certainly reinforce and further enhance the thesis suggested here.

[6] It should be self-evident from our discussion that the idea of teshuva as a necessary element of a created world applies only to the “regular” or “normal” sins to which we are all susceptible, but not to the more flagrant violations that are not assumed to be the result of inevitable human fallibility. These cannot attain atonement by the natural teshuva inherent in Rosh Ha-Shana as the day of creation; they must wait for Yom Kippur and its wholly different system.