Gratitude and Repentance

  • Harav Yehuda Amital





Parashat ki tavo



Gratitude and Repentance

Translated by Kaeren Fish


And you shall come to the kohen who will be in the those days, and you shall say to him: My father was a wandering Aramean… (Devarim 26:3)

Rashi (ad loc.): [To show] that you are not ungrateful.


God, in His great mercy, permits man to be His partner in creation. After years of labor in the field – plowing, sowing, weeding, watering, and so on – a person goes to his field and sees the first fruit of his labors. He ties a string to the first fruit, indicating “This is bikkurim.” This act, and the awareness behind it, demonstrate the person’s gratitute to God for giving him the fruit.


The midrash (Tanchuma, Ki Tavo 1) tells us that “Moshe saw with prophetic vision that the Temple would be destroyed and that bikkurim were destined to cease.”  Therefore, the midrash continues, “Moshe instituted that the Jewish people should pray three times each day.”  Corresponding to the annual experience (and demonstration) of gratitude, Moshe instituted daily prayer. That way, when a person needs wisdom – he prays for it; when he needs healing, he knows to Whom to turn.  Thus a person comes to know his Creator; he knows the ultimate address for everything in the world.


Bikkurim are called “reshit” (the beginning or the first). When a person brings bikkurim, he recounts a brief history of Am Yisrael, going back to the beginning at the time of the Patriarchs: “My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Devarim 26:5). From this we learn that it is possible and desirable to go back to the beginning, which brings us to the concept of teshuva (repentance).


Wisdom was asked: What is the punishment for a sinner? It replied: Evil pursues sinners.

Prophecy was asked: What is the punishment for a sinner? It answered them: A soul that sins will die.

Torah was asked:[1] What is the punishment for a sinner? It answered them: Let him bring a guilt offering and be atoned for.

The Holy One, blessed be He, was asked: What is the punishment for a sinner? He said to them: Let him repent, and he will be atoned for. (Yerushalmi, Makkot 2:6)


Wisdom and logic dictate that if a person sins, his sin should pursue him for the rest of his life and cause him continually to stumble and fail. As Chazal taught, “One transgression leads to another” (Avot 4:2) – because that is the nature of things. Even prophecy insists that a sinner must die; there is no possibility of turning back the wheel. The Torah speaks about atonement, with the bringing of a sacrifice and with suffering. Only God Himself introduces the concept of repentance.


Atonement and repentance are two separate concepts. A person can achieve atonement without repenting, and the opposite is also true. The Gemara teaches that if a man betrothes a woman “on condition that I am completely righteous,” then even if he is completely wicked, the betrothal is honored, for it is possible that he repented in his heart (Kiddushin 49b). One might ask, isn’t it necessary, for the purposes of proper teshuva, that a person confess his sins verbally? This man made no mention of his sins! We must therefore conclude that teshuva is a different concept that operates according to different rules.


For the purposes of atonement, it is necessary that there be a process of confession and all the required stages of the process; the Gemara (Yoma 86a) even enumerates four different types of atonement. But repentance is something unique; only God Himself can allow for it. It is above nature, because through teshuva a person returns to the beginning, the “reshit,” to his situation prior to the sin, to a situation that allows him to start over and not to be swept away by the current of “one transgression leads to another.”


Who is able to repent? Only someone who recognizes God’s gift of this “reshit.” Only a person who is not ungrateful, and who recognizes the Source, the Giver, of this opportunity. Only someone who recognizes this can understand that the idea of teshuva is indeed possible – for without recognition of God’s immanent presence and God’s kindness, the concept of teshuva could not exist at all.


[1]  The Yerushalmi here does not mention “the Torah,” but the Maharal brings a different version of the text in his Netivot Olam, Netiv ha-Teshuva (chapter 1).