Destruction, Repentance and Rebuilding

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19 Sep 2019

Every year, I’m struck by the way the themes of the month of Av seem to morph seamlessly into those of Elul. During the summer, we talk about the variety of sins blamed for the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, and focus especially on reversing the sinat chinam, baseless hatred, that brought about the destruction of the second.

Then, as summer comes to a close, we find ourselves in the season of teshuva, working to prepare ourselves for the days of Judgment and Atonement by improving our conduct in a variety of areas – often with a focus on asking and granting the forgiveness necessary to repair relationships with our fellow humans.

Or at least, we say that’s what we’re doing. We certainly want to, and certainly many of us do. But it’s complicated.

One reason it’s complicated is that we don’t always know what we’ve done wrong, or even that we’ve done wrong. And we’re in good company.

The relationship between the Beit Hamikdash and teshuva actually dates much earlier than the calendrical proximity between mourning the Temples and repenting our sins; in fact, one of the key purposes King Shlomo outlined for the Temple he built was as a focal point for teshuva. And one of the key verses in his speech about it hints to one of the key challenges that makes it all so complicated:

When they sin against You (for there is no man who will not sin), and You are angry with them…and their captors carry them off to the enemy land…And they return to their heart in the land where they were captives… And they return to You… and they pray to You towards their land, that you gave to their ancestors, the city You chose and the house that I built for Your Name… (I Kings 8:46-48)

Shlomo’s parenthetical comment, “for there is no man who will not sin,” strikes us as almost poignant in its obvious truth. Nebach, we all know we’re human, and humans aren’t perfect; we all make mistakes, right?

But this verse is even more striking in light of Shlomo’s own missteps just a couple of chapters later, and what Chazal have suggested about the reasons behind his conduct. We are told at the beginning of chapter 11 that Shlomo “loved many foreign women” (11:1) and that his many wives “turned his heart away after other gods” (ibid. 4) – exactly as warned in Devarim 17:17, that a king “shall not have many wives, so his heart will not go astray.” (For our purposes, we will leave aside the question of whether Shlomo himself worshipped other gods or – as seems to be the consensus among traditional commentators – “simply” allowed and perhaps assisted his wives to do so.)

How could Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest man who ever lived, who had experienced prophecy and who merited to build the Temple even his devoted father couldn’t achieve, fall into such an obvious trap?

A well-known statement in the Gemara points out that he also messed up with regard to the prohibition for a king to have an excessive number of horses, and ended up going to Egypt for them just as predicted in Devarim – and explains that he fell into both errors precisely because the traps were so obvious:

The rationales of two texts were revealed, and the greatest in the world stumbled in them. It is written, “He shall not have many wives”; Shlomo said, “I will have many but will not stray.” … And it is written, “he shall not have many horses”; and Shlomo said, “I will have many, but will not return [to Egypt, to get the best horses].” (Sanhedrin 21b)

The Gemara attributes Shlomo’s sins to overconfidence coupled with too much information. The Torah usually refrains from telling us the reasons for mitzvos, says the Gemara, because look what happens when it does tell us: we get someone who thinks he’s smart enough and strong enough to achieve the goal without following the mitzvah – and in truth, no one is. Even the one with the divinely-gifted wisdom that might offer good reason for thinking he can handle it, can’t.

Why couldn’t he? “There is no man who doesn’t sin,” said Shlomo – and yet, he apparently thought he could be that man. Shlomo understood the fallibility of the human race, yet didn’t apply it to himself.

How could that be? Why didn’t his wisdom protect him? He knew better; he understood it all!

Because wisdom is not a great mirror. A person can be tremendously wise, possessing insight into everything about the world and people and Torah – yet be completely blind when it comes to his or her own conduct. Imagine a person schmoozing with a friend, and the name of a mutual acquaintance comes up, followed by the remark, “It’s so hard to be friends with her; she’s always gossiping about others!” It looks ridiculously, obviously, hypocritical in black and white print, right? A trap so obvious no one could fall into it? Yet we say things like that all the time. We can’t see the obvious in ourselves, and so we make mistakes.

And really, the reason we are so blind about ourselves might be obvious too – though we experience meta-blindness about it. Ralbag, in the toalot section of his commentary, asserts simply that the reason Shlomo did mess up, despite his wisdom and Hashem’s very clear warnings, was “his desire”: he wanted more horses, and he longed for those many wives. Because he longed for those wives so deeply, “they led his heart astray in a manner that he hid his eyes from them…”  Because when we want whatever it is we can’t have – the extra horse, the clever comment, whatever it is – we allow our vision to blur. We hide our eyes from what would be obvious if we saw it in anyone else.

And afterwards, too, it can be incredibly difficult to recognize the mistakes we’ve already made and do teshuva. We see that challenge even more explicitly in Shlomo’s predecessors: Shaul, who greeted Shmuel with the enthusiastic claim that he had done as commanded and couldn’t understand that he had actually directly disobeyed explicit instructions; and David – who offers a model not just of the challenge, but of overcoming it.

The most famous example in David’s life occurs after his infamous encounter with Batsheva and removal of her husband.  David apparently doesn’t realize his own somewhat obvious misbehavior (however we identify the precise sin, even the Talmudic statement that “anyone who says David sinned is mistaken” does not mean he was blameless), though he certainly would recognize it in others. When the prophet, Natan, shows up with a contrived case that the reader recognizes immediately as a parallel to David’s story, the king issues an immediate ruling – because it’s clear! – but doesn’t realize until Natan spells it out for him: “atah ha’ish!” You are that man, David! Why can’t you see it in yourself?

But at least he sees it when someone else points it out.

We find the same phenomenon in II Samuel, when one of David’s sons has fled and David’s general feels it’s time to call him home. Rather than telling the king directly – which might only succeed in eliciting the sort of defensiveness that goes hand-in-hand with blindness to our own failings – Yoav hires a clever woman to offer another contrived parallel case. Once again, David misses the point, blind to the obvious relevance of his own ruling to his own life – until it’s pointed out to him.

The challenge of objective assessment of one’s own character, failings, and room for improvement is familiar; we know of our own subjectivity just as Shlomo knew of the fallibility of the entire human race – in theory. How do we translate that theory into practice, to identify our own mistakes and work towards forgiveness and redemption?

If we’re lucky, a prophet or other clever person will show up to set us straight; if we’re wise, we’ll take the point.

But perhaps there’s another way too, a mental exercise. Can we imagine explaining our daily behaviors – that time I didn’t bentch because I “might still eat more… oh, whoops, too late”; that time I shared a funny story that probably wasn’t funny to those it was about. Can we imagine how it would hear to their ears, or to our own if the tables were turned?

When my oldest was a baby, we lived in a garden apartment building with no laundry room; we had to walk to another building in the complex. It was hard to bring the baby with me to do laundry, and during those blessed months when she took regular and lengthy naps, I faced a major dilemma: Can’t I just run over there while she’s sleeping and switch the laundry? What are the odds that anything will happen in those few minutes? She’s in her crib, I can even bring the baby monitor and see if it reaches far enough… But I never did it, prevented by one perhaps morbid thought: If chas v’shalom anything did happen, could I explain myself to the police? How would my rationalizations sound to other ears? To my own ears, if I heard the words spoken aloud?

The famous adage says not to judge another person until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins – or as it’s stated in Avot 2:4, until you “arrive in his place.” But maybe sometimes, we have to step into someone else’s vantage point in order to judge ourselves.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.