Yesterday, we noted the verse in Sefer Yirmiyahu (2:22), in the section read as the haftara for the second Shabbat of the Three Weeks, in which God warns the people that even if they try “laundering” themselves, “your iniquity is an indelible stain before Me.” As we saw, the Gemara in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (18a) understood from this verse that harsh decrees issued on account of sin, in some instances, cannot be revoked, even through heartfelt repentance. Other sources, as we discussed, imply otherwise, prompting some discussion as to how to interpret the Gemara’s remark.
Leaving the Gemara’s remark aside, the commentators offer other explanations of this verse. Rashi writes that the prophet refers here specifically to the sin of the golden calf. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) teaches that every punishment brought upon us contains an element of punishment for the golden calf, and thus this sin constitutes an “indelible stain” that can never be completely eliminated, and its effects are felt in each and every generation.
The Radak explains this verse based on the concept developed by the Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (86a) that certain transgressions cannot be forgiven through repentance, and demand some punishment. According to the Radak, then, the prophet here tells the people that they could avoid exile by repenting, though their sins were so grievous that they must be punished, albeit in lesser form, without being exiled from their land. In a similar vein, some have noted that the Gemara points to the sin of chilul Hashem (defamation of God’s Name) as an especially grievous offense for which atonement cannot be achieved until death. Yirmiyahu in this chapter condemns the people for abandoning the service of God in favor of idol worship, which constituted a grave chilul Hashem, and for this reason repentance would not be effective in achieving atonement. (This point was made by Rav David Soloveitchik, in Shiurei Rabbeinu Meshulam David Ha’levi al Ha-Torah.)
Others, however, including Abarbanel and Metzudat David, explain this verse much differently, as referring to external, insincere repentance. The analogy to somebody rinsing himself with soap, according to these commentators, is intended to criticize the people of the time for thinking it suffices to make “cosmetic” changes to their behavior, outwardly appearing pious, without a real, substantive transformation. The message conveyed in this verse is that spiritual ills are not like filth on one’s skin which can be removed with water and soap. Improper conduct must be changed, not just given a different external appearance. The prophet here excoriates the people for their tepid response to his call for repentance – their making outward changes without fundamentally changing their behavior.
Indeed, in the very next verse, Yirmiyahu cries, “How can you say: ‘I have not been defiled, I have not followed the Be’alim’?!” Apparently, the people had falsely responded to his earlier prophecies by claiming that they had changed – but this was not the case. He thus admonishes the people that teshuva must take place at the core of a person’s being, and not just in the way he presents himself to other people. It is about not improving our appearance, but improving our essence, and making the real changes that we need to make.