Parshat Ha’azinu: Shabbat Shuva

“My lesson shall drop like rain. My saying shall flow like dew – like wind-blown rain upon the herb, like a powerful shower upon the covering of vegetation.” (Devarim 31:2)

Rashi explains that in this pasuk Hashem is describing the effects of the Torah upon its students. In the first portion of the pasuk, the Torah is compared to rain and dew. What is the message transmitted through this comparison?

Rashi comments that although the earth needs rain in order to sustain life, rain is not always appreciated. Rain can cause inconvenience. The traveler does not wish to battle inclement weather. A farmer whose harvested crops are still in the field is not pleased with a summer storm.

Dew does not have the life-sustaining power of rain. However, it is more appreciated. Dew provides moisture, without inconvenience. [1]

Rashi understands the pasuk to contain a fundamental lesson. A few preliminary observations are necessary to understand this message. Some activities only provide future reward. Often a person is required to make a tremendous sacrifice in order to secure this future benefit. A person may work fifty years, in a despised job, in order to someday enjoy a dreamed-of retirement. A parent will sacrifice and endure hardship for years in order to provide the best opportunities for his or her beloved child.

In contrast, other activities provide only immediate and fleeting benefit. These activities offer no long-term gain. For example, an extra-rich dessert is great for a moment. But the consequences are not as pleasant. The pleasure of a drug-user epitomizes this type of activity. The pleasure of the high is short-term. The long-term effect of the activity is a shattered life.

Rashi understands rain to represent an activity with a long-term sustaining effect. Dew, in contrast, symbolizes activity providing immediate joy and benefit. He explains the pasuk to mean that the Torah combines the benefits of rain and dew. Like rain, Torah sustains life. Through observance and study of the Torah we can achieve eternal life in Olam HaBah – the world to come. Yet, the Torah also has the quality represented by dew – immediate gain. We are not required to sacrifice happiness in this life. Instead, the Torah enhances our temporal existence in the material world.

How are these two outcomes accomplished? The Torah provides us with guidance in our everyday affairs. It teaches us a way, an outlook and discipline designed to help deal with the challenges of life. At the same time, the Torah encourages the development of the human’s unique spiritual element. This element is immortal and survives the temporal material world.

The second portion of the pasuk makes reference to wind-blown rain falling upon an herb and a powerful shower falling upon the mantle of vegetation. Again, the pasuk is teaching some lesson about Torah. But we must determine the meaning of the various symbols – wind-blown rain, the individual herb, a powerful shower, and the mantle of vegetation. The association between the symbols also requires analysis. The wind-blown rain is associated with the individual herb. The powerful shower is associated with the mantle of vegetation.

Again, Rashi provides a hint to the interpretation of the pasuk. He comments that the wind-blown rain strengthens the herb it strikes. In a similar way, the study of Torah strengthens the student.

Rashi seems to understand this second portion of the pasuk as a describing two manners in which Torah can be transmitted. These two methods are described as wind-blown rain and as a powerful shower.[2] Apparently, each method has its application. One method is applicable when dealing with the individual – the single herb. The other method is required when teaching a large group – the mantle of vegetation.

Torah is taught in many forums. It may be transmitted from rebbe to talmid – teacher to student. Even in the classroom the rebbe works with a small group of students. In this situation the teacher has the opportunity and responsibility to recognize the individuality of the pupil. Torah is also transmitted in larger forums. In the synagogue the rav must inspire a congregation. He cannot study the reaction of each individual as he addresses his congregation. He must speak to the group. The rebbe deals with the single herb. The rav must communicate with the entire mantle of vegetation.

Each of these situations requires a unique approach. The rebbe’s success depends upon assuming the role of wind-blown rain. The teacher must be demanding. High expectations cause the student to grow and become a scholar. The rebbe can be demanding because each individual student is carefully observed. This allows the teacher to provide measured demands corresponding to the abilities and needs of the pupil.

The rav of a kehila – a congregation – does not have this luxury. He must use a different means to achieve his goal of effectively teaching the lessons of the Torah. He must present his thoughts with power and impact. This requires a clear, sharply-defined message. In this way he inspires his congregation through demonstrating the wisdom and beauty of the Torah.

“To Hashem do you act this way? You are a foolish nation without wisdom. He is your Father and the One who established you. He made you and placed you upon a foundation.” (Devarim 32:6)

The pasuk addresses a future generation of Bnai Yisrael. It is confronting a people who reject Hashem and His Torah. This rebellion against the Almighty and His law is characterized as the action of a nation of fools.

Rashi comments that such people are foolish for they forget the past. The history of the Jewish people serves as testimony to the Almighty’s relationship to Bnai Yisrael. The nation has no wisdom for it fails to foresee the outcome of its behavior. The rejection of Hashem can only result in disaster.[3]

Rashi’s comments correspond a famous teaching of the Sages. The Sages ask, “Who is wise?” They respond, “One who sees the future.”[4]

This teaching requires some analysis. There are many characteristics that can be associated with a wise person. Why did our Sages specifically associate the wise person with the ability to foresee the future? Another problem stems from the strange phraseology adopted in this teaching. No human can see the future. We can see only the present. Regarding the future, we predict likely outcomes.

The present we perceive with our senses. These sense perceptions are very real. No normal person would purposely walk in front of an oncoming train. We have no doubt as to the reality of the speeding train, and no doubt that crossing its path will result in disaster.

In contrast, we can perceive the future only as an idea. The future cannot be seen through the senses. For this reason the future often seems less real than the present. Mere ideas do not strike us as quite as definite as sense perceptions. It is difficult to take ideational material completely seriously. However, this denigration of the reality of ideas is an illusion. Ideas are just as real as sense perceptions.

Our Sages did not regard a person as wise simply as a consequence of the accumulation of data. A wise person is an individual who is guided by wisdom. This means that the reality of ideas is as definite to the wise person as input received through the senses. The Sages characterized this quality by referring to “seeing” the future. The future, although only an idea, is as real as the present that is seen through the senses.

The message of the pasuk is now clearer. The rejection of the Almighty will inevitably result in a negative consequence. Why would the people expose themselves to this outcome? The pasuk responds that this behavior reflects a lack of wisdom. The people will become attached to the material life. They will strive to fulfill their immediate desires. These desires will seem very real and pressing. The future consequences of this behavior will be disregarded. The future only exists as an idea. To a people steeped in materialism an idea will seem illusionary and vague. The result is that the future will be ignored in order to enjoy the present.

“Among the repentant behaviors are for the repentant individual to constantly call-out to Hashem with cries and supplications. And one should give charity according to one’s ability. One should distance oneself from one’s sin. One should change one’s name. One is stating that I am a different person. I am not the person who did those inappropriate actions. One should alter all of one’s actions so that they are positive and just…” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:4)

Maimonides describes the behaviors of the repentant individual. One of these behaviors is somewhat confusing. Maimonides suggests that the repentant individual should alter all of his or her actions. One must be positive and just in all actions.

In order to understand the difficulty regarding this suggestion, a short introduction is required. What is repentance? Repentance is not accomplished through a temporary cessation of the sinful behavior. Teshuva is much more demanding. Teshuva requires that a person make a complete break with the sinful behavior. This complete break is only achieved through a commitment to never again commit the sin. Maimonides’ position on this issue is emphatic. He explains that a person who confesses a sin and does not resolve to completely discontinue the sinful behavior has not fulfilled the mitzvah of teshuva. He compares this person to one who immerses in a mikveh – a body of water – while holding an impure object. The immersion cannot affect a state of purity until the person releases the impure object. Similarly, the purification and process of teshuva cannot proceed without a complete break from the sin. This complete break is expressed in a firm commitment to abandon the sinful behavior.[5]

Maimonides suggests that the repentant individual must alter all of his or her behaviors. Does this mean that repentance must be all-encompassing and include all aspects of a person’s life? Is Maimonides suggesting that the repentance from a specific sin requires a person to repent from all other inappropriate behaviors? This is not a reasonable interpretation of Maimonides’ words. As we have explained, teshuva requires a complete and permanent cessation of the sinful behavior. Maimonides cannot intend to suggest that repentance from a single sin requires that we permanently abandon all other wrongdoing. Such a requirement would render teshuva virtually unattainable!

We must conclude that Maimonides is not suggesting that the repentant individual must permanently discontinue all other inappropriate behaviors. Instead, Maimonides is acknowledging the value of change that is not accompanied by complete commitment. The repentant person should endeavor to discontinue all inappropriate behavior. It is true that such a drastic undertaking will not result in a permanent cessation of all wrongdoing. That is an unrealistic expectation. Nonetheless, temporary change has a value. The sincerely repentant person should appreciate that value a seek change – even temporary change.

This interpretation of Maimonides’ suggestion is implied by his carefully chosen wording. He does not suggest that the repentant individual should repent from all other wrongdoing. He suggests that repentant person alter his or her behavior. There is a tremendous difference between altering a behavior and repenting from the behavior. An alteration is achieved even through a temporary suspension of wrongdoing. Repentance requires a complete commitment to permanently discontinue the behavior. This analysis confirms our interpretation of Maimonides’ suggestion. He is acknowledging the value of positive change – even temporary change.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 32:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 32:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 32:6.

[4] Mesechet Tamid 32a.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:3