In our last several editions of S.A.L.T., we’ve examined the question as to whether one’s repentance for a sin retroactively loses its value if he then repeats the sin. One of the starkest examples of this phenomenon – the recurrence of sin after repentance – is Sefer Shoftim, where we find a disturbing pattern of sin, repentance, and the recurrence of sin. Sefer Shoftim tells of numerous occasions when God punished Benei Yisrael for their pagan worship by subjecting them to enemy rule or persecution, in response to which Benei Yisrael repented and cried to God for help. God accepted their prayers, and helped them defeat the enemy, but then, once peace and tranquility was restored, the people returned to their idol-worship. This process repeated itself several times over the course of this period, as told in great detail in Sefer Shoftim.
Rashi, in his commentary to the beginning of the sixth chapter of Sefer Shoftim, notes a subtle nuance in the formulation of this pattern. Generally, throughout Sefer Shoftim, Benei Yisrael’s return to pagan worship after defeating their enemy is described with the verb “va-yosifu,” which indicates that they resumed worshipping idols after a hiatus. However, in the beginning of chapter 6, after the account of Benei Yisrael’s miraculous victory over the Canaanites under the leadership of Devora and Barak, the verse says simply that Benei Yisrael worshipped idols, not that they “resumed” worshipping idols. Apparently, as Rashi observes, there is a difference between Benei Yisrael’s resumption of idolatry after the battle against the Canaanites and their resumption of idolatry after their other victories during this historical period. It seems that on the other occasions, Benei Yisrael picked up where they had left off before they turned to God for help, whereas in the time of Devora and Barak the people’s sins somehow began a new chapter of wrongdoing. To explain this distinction, Rashi writes that previously, “one sin accumulated over the other,” but after the victory over the Canaanites, Benei Yisrael’s record was cleared, and thus this sin began an entirely new accounting of sin. Rashi explains that the magnificent song of praise sung by Benei Yisrael after the triumph over the Canaanites (“Shirat Devora”) had the effect of erasing their record, such that their subsequent idol-worship began a new record of sin, whereas previously their resumption of idolatry added onto their previous account of wrongdoing.
The clear implication of Rashi’s comments is that throughout most of the story of Sefer Shoftim, Benei Yisrael’s repentance did not permanently erase their sins. When they resumed their worship of idols, their new wrongdoing was added onto their previous account of wrongdoing – presumably, because the recurrence of sin retroactively invalidated their repentance. The lone exception is the time of Devora and Barak, when Benei Yisrael reached a level of repentance that could not be retroactively invalidated by the resumption of sin.
Rashi’s comments must be examined in light of the theory advanced by the Mabit (Beit Elokim - Sha’ar Ha-teshuva, chapter 6), which we have examined over the last several days, claiming that the recurrence of sin does not retroactively invalidate repentance. Seemingly, Rashi disputes this position, and maintains that generally, a sin repeated after repentance indeed renders the repentance meaningless, such that the offender becomes once again culpable even for the earlier misdeeds. However, if this is the case, then we need to understand why an exception was made in the time of Devora and Barak. Apparently, Rashi maintains that lower-level repentance can be reversed through a recurrence of sin, whereas higher-level repentance cannot, but this distinction requires some clarification.
Tomorrow we will iy”H examine Rashi’s comments further.