Nitzavim: Understanding the Gift

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25 Sep 2008

For this mitzvah that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, – Nor is it overseas, [for you] to say – For the matter is extremely close to you; in your mouth and in your mind to fulfill it.

A poetic and moving description indeed! One technical question that the careful reader may wonder – what exactly is the subject of our text – for “this mitzvah” remains quite ambiguous.

Many (Ramban, Seforno, ibid) assume that our parsha [1] refers to the teshuva (repentance, return) imperative. For these commentators, teshuva is not merely a good idea; it’s the law. More precisely formulated, teshuva, for the sinner, becomes an obligation akin to other positive mitzvos. Failure to engage in teshuva might be equivalent to nullifying a positive mitzvah, just as one who neglects to lay tefillin for a day [2].

Teshuva in scope however, is far more than a mitzvah; Whereas a mitzvah operates in the contours of the present, teshuva famously and mysteriously transcends time barriers to transform our past. It would almost seem that the greatness of Teshuva flows specifically from its irrationality. Witness the following Talmudic comment [3].

Rabbi Pinchas said: “.They inquired of Wisdom, “What is the punishment of a sinner?” Wisdom said: “Evil pursues the wicked” (Mishlei, 13:21). They inquired of Prophecy, “What is the punishment of the sinner?” Prophecy said “The sinful soul shall die” (Yechezkel,18:20). They inquired of the Holy One: “What is the punishment of the sinner?”.He said to them “Let him repent and he shall be forgiven”.

At its very core, the midrash is teaching that teshuva defies intellectual reasoning and transcends prophetic wisdom – for how can one undo what was. Quite simply, teshuva is a Divine gift.

Similarly, a compelling Talmudic account [4] records that wicked King Menashe [5], after being taken captive to Babylon, turned to his righteous father’s (Chizkiyahu) God to engage in a last-resort, pragmatic teshuva. Hashem, above the angels’ protestations, accepts his teshuva – for to not accept Menashe’s petitions would cast doubt in the minds of all future aspiring returnees. Here too, teshuva defies angelic comprehension – residing solely in the domain of the Divine.

Finally, a cryptic piece of Talmud (Pesachim 54a ) now becomes somewhat clear:

Seven things were created before the world was created… The Torah, Repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna (hell), the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah. Repentance, for it is written, Before the mountains were brought forth…(Tehillim,90)

If teshuva “preceded” the natural world, then it does not and need not conform to natural law [6]. Indeed, Mesilas Yesharim explicitly formulates [7] that teshuva‘s novelty is its ability, via thought, to wipe away a past action.

And yet … A striking piece of Talmud seems to wreak havoc upon this notion [8]:

R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Even if he is perfectly righteous all his life but rebels at the end, he destroys his former [good deeds], for it is said: The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression. … Said Resh Lakish: It means that he regretted his former deeds.

Just as one who engages in proper teshuva may remove his past sins, so one who has charata (regret) may wipe away previous mitzvos. Were teshuva to be a gift, should it also redound to our detriment? Apparently, rather than being a special gift, teshuva simply conforms to the Divine playbook; a mere manifestation of some metaphysical notion that subsequent thought can erase prior deed – in either direction!?

This very question was posed by Rav Elchonon Wasserman to his Rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim – who responded by reformulating the gift of Teshuva in light of a classic teshuva dichotomy.

Resh Lakish said: Great is repentance, for because of it, premeditated sins are accounted as errors (unintentional sins), but didn’t Reish Lakish also say that repentance is so great that premeditated sins are transformed into merits, That is no contradiction: One refers to a case [of repentance] derived from love, the other to one due to fear.(Yoma 86b)

Teshuva from fear (teshuva m’yir’ah) mitigates the sin and limits its damage – just as regret of mitzvos can undo their reward. God’s gift to His people is to be found in the stunning notion of Teshuva from love (teshuva mei’ahava). Rather than blotting out the past, teshuva elevates and redeems it! In explaining the spiritual metaphysics of teshuva mei’ahava, Rav Dessler formulated that the depth of sin created within the sinner a sense of alienation from a God that provides all; That crisis – sparked by sin, ultimately catalyzed him to come closer to Hashem than ever before. Ironically then, sin becomes a rung in the sinner’s ascendant ladder of spirituality.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman himself offered a second approach: Sin and Mitzvah have multiple residual effects; Of course, Sin begets punishment and Mitzvah yields reward. But there is more. Sin is metamei; it besmirches the soul and leaves it distant from God. Conversely, Mitzvah refines the soul and draws it nearer to the Divine [9].

While regret of a mitzvah might serve to revoke the formal reward; the neshama remains in close proximity to its Creator – still able to bask in the enduring light of its mitzvah performance . It is simply not possible to wipe away the “soul effect” of a mitzvah.

Herein, says R. Elchonon lies the secret of the Teshuva gift, for not only does it mitigate punishment, it dissolves the soul stain, bridging the gap between man and God and creating incredible intimacy.

In this vein, Rambam’s comments [10] are indeed striking:

How great is Teshuva that it brings man close to the Shechina… Yesterday he was hateful in the sight of Hashem – despised, forsaken and repulsive- and today he is beloved desirable, near and befriended.

Wherein lies the gift of teshuva? Is it to be found (a) in its ability to nullify our past, (b) elevate our past or (c) dissolve our past stains? Probably the correct answer is all of the above.

The undeniable notion of teshuva: Hashem desires a relationship with us, and as long as we live, it is never too late. For many, that message of eternal hope which springs from the fountain of teshuva might just be its greatest gift of all.

Kesiva V’chasima Tova, Shana Tova and Good Shabbos from Los Angeles,

Asher Brander


1. Cf. Rashi who understands the section to be referring to accepting all the mitzvot of Torah; Rambam [Talmud Torah, ; Netziv (in one approach) understands the section to be referring to teshuva m’eiahava
2. In reality, this is a matter of debate. From Rambam (Teshuva 1:1), it appears that it is the confession, not the act of return that constitutes the formal mitzvah of Teshuva (see Minchas Chinuch 364). Thus not returning would not violation a positive mitzvah.
3. Yerushalmi Makkot,2: 6
4. Yerushalmi Makkot, 10:2
5. Amongst his many heinous crimes was placing an idol in the Beis Hamikdash. Cf. Melachim 2:21,10-15. Also, Cf. Divrei Hayim 33:1-20 and a fascinating Talmudic dispute (Sanhedrin, 101b) between R. Yochanan and the Sages regarding whether Menashe ultimately has a share in the World to Come.
6. Teshuva is also listed separately from Torah, implying that some aspect of Teshuva also transcends the halachic universe.
7. end of Chapter 4
8. Kiddushin 40b
9. A similar point is made by Rav Soloveitchik in Al HaTeshuva, in his article entitled Kaparah & Taharah
10. Teshuva, 7:6

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

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