Shabbat Shuvah: knowing the ways of repentance

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Shabbat Shuvah

Vayelekh

Deuteronomy 31:1-30

Isaiah 55:6-56:8

Hosea 14: 2-10,

Joel 2: 11-27

Micah 7:18-20

Who knows?

The prophet Joel had a horrible vision: An awesome plague of locusts descending on his homeland, a swarm consuming everything it touched. "Like the Garden of Eden the land before it, behind it a desolate desert" (Joel 2:3).

Joel wrestles with the hope that his frightening dream does not have to come to pass. "Even now," though he has seen this vision, the people might wholeheartedly turn toward the One who accepts penitents with compassion (2:12-13). Let us try to repent, for "who knows if he will not respond and reconsider" (2:14) our destiny. The haftorah we read now, on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, includes Joel's appeal for repentance. (Some congregations omit the Joel, Hosea and Micah readings and read Isaiah.)

In my paraphrase of verse 14, I interpreted the two words, "who knows," to mean something like "perhaps." In support of this interpretation, the modern Daat Mikrah Bible commentary points out that "who knows" does mean "perhaps" elsewhere in the Bible (2 Samuel 12:22; see also Esther 4:14).

But, in one of those beauties of the biblical language that absolutely frustrate attempts at an authoritative translation, the simple phrase has at least three possible meanings in context.

The words might also mean "whoever knows," as in, "Whoever knows that he has guilt, let him repent of that." So reads the ancient Aramaic translation known as the Targum, and so too the great medieval commentator Rashi.

Perhaps those who have no sense of guilt are too far gone to repent; perhaps those who are truly innocent have no need to repent; but those of us who know that we have earned guilt, let us repent. Notice that, in this interpretation, the prophet describes our turning toward God rather than God's turning towards us. The same verb can serve for turning, or returning, in either direction.

Rabbi David Kimhi (1160-1235), in his commentary on Joel, suggests that "whoever knows" refers to a different kind of knowledge: "Whoever knows how to repent." But I wonder how anyone "knows how to repent." If repentance means, as in the classical formulation of Maimonides, that one regrets past errors, resolves for the future, confesses one's errors and then will not ever repeat them (Laws of Repentance 2:2), this knowledge must not be easy to find.

Someone might use intellectual scholarship to learn how to repent. The psychologist who has studied texts about personal change, for example, or the sage who has understood Maimonides' "The Laws of Repentance," may know how to repent. Maybe not.

These scholars know a description of the process of penitence, which is not penitence itself. They might know the form of the dance of penitence, which, Yehuda Gellman tells us, is not its essence. They might know only how to re-enact someone else's penitence.

Someone might rely on personal experience to know how to repent. This person must have failed deeply to qualify as an experienced penitent, and then have overcome the failure, so that he can now be certain that he will not fail again. This person knows how to repent, or at least knows the experience of penitence, but has no need to do so now. So "whoever knows how to repent should do so now" cannot refer to him.

Maybe our hero knows from personal experience, having succeeded in overcoming one set of faults, but now needs to work on another. I wonder, though, how much carry-over we can expect. Someone who has given up smoking might have an easier time giving up unhealthful foods, and someone who has learned to observe Shabbat might have an easier time learning to avoid gossip, or perhaps each next improvement will seem just as hard.

Maybe our hero knows penitence from personal experience, having succeeded in overcoming his errors, and then failed again. Unlike Maimonides' penitent who never fails again, this expert in penitence achieves expertise by failing repeatedly. This hero knows how to repent, but not how to make it stick, so he would seem a poor role model. Yet Adin Steinsaltz (in his powerful book "Teshuvah") writes that repeated failure is inevitable for anyone who would strive to rise. Steinsaltz quotes the Chassidic saying, "The righteous may fall down seven times and yet arise; the [thoroughly] wicked falls once and for all" (35-36).

Or perhaps "whoever knows how to repent" knows how from sheer need. Sometimes when one has become sick of failure to live up to ones ideals, of estrangement from religious values, of ruptured relations with others, of the seeming insignificance of ones life, then one might "know how to repent" because one has to.

At this season of repentance, may each of us "who knows how to repent" do so, wholeheartedly, and with enthusiasm.