These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

A Look at Teshuva Through Parshat Ki Tetzeh

Posted on August 18, 2013 by Naomi Bilmes

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From my blog:

In preparation for Elul, returning to Israel, and because Torah is awesome, I presented this d’var Torah at my synagogue tonight during seudat shlishit. I thought some of you might enjoy reading it.

Shabbat Ki Tetzeh

Seudat Shlishit D’var Torah
By Naomi Bilmes

Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s parsha, Ki Tetzeh, is full of rules; it is full of problematic scenarios and the correct subsequential actions. For example: What do you do if your kid acts up? Stone him. How should two people solve a serious argument? Take them to the court and give the guilty one lashes. What is the punishment for embarrassing another person? Expect to have your hand cut off. In all of these cases, the consequences or solutions are strictly prescribed—and they all prescribe a certain physical action.

Our parsha is big on tangible punishment. Every sin deserves a painful anti-sin. Of course, this is troubling on an ethical level, but what troubles me even more is that we read this parsha in the month of Elul, when all of our efforts are focused on teshuvah (repentance). We reflect on our sins and try to correct them, looking deep inside ourselves and having equally weighty conversations with those we have hurt. But this concept is nowhere to be found in our parsha. There is no commandment to think about our actions, make apologies, and try to do better. If there was, the parsha might sound something like this: After a man accuses his young wife of not being virgin at the time of marriage, and after her parents prove that she was, indeed, a virgin, the husband shall reflect on why he made the accusation. He shall speak to his wife about their lack of trust. He shall apologize to her for causing her public shame, and she shall apologize to him for causing suspicion. They will agree that if they find themselves with negative feelings again, they will talk it out rather than making public accusations of the other’s infidelity.

But this appears nowhere in the Torah—the Torah asks us for lashes and stoning. So why are we so insistent on ‘afflicting our souls’ something which only commanded on the day of Yom Kippur?

To answer this question, I am going to start by looking at the book of Haggai. I listened to a shiur this week on given by Rabbi Mordechai Torcyner. The class was entitled, “Chaggai, Cheerleader of Teshuvah.” Rabbi Torcyner examines an odd passage in chapter two, in which Haggai quizzes the Kohanim on two comparable scenarios. The first scenario refers to a long chain of contact regarding the transfer of impurity: If a person carries defiled flesh in a corner of his garment, and then his garment touches bread, and the bread touches stew, and the stew touches any other food, does that food become defiled? The second scenario refers to a case of direct contact: If one who touched a dead person touched any of these items (the garment, the bread, the stew), would the items become defiled?

The answers to both of these questions is yes — impurity spreads. But the source of impurity and the way in which it spreads is different. Rabbi Torcyner interprets the two different scenarios on a metaphorical level. He says that the first scenario, in which impurity passes from one object to the next in a continuing chain, refers to sin. Sin travels quickly. Once you become infected with the immorality bug, it is easy to give it to others. Once evil has arisen, it flies quickly from one person to the next. The second scenario, however, the case of direct contact, refers to holiness. In contrast to sin, we receive holiness directly from the source: Hashem. We do not receive holiness through people, or idols, or any other conduit. Holiness requires a direct line of contact.

And that’s where teshuva comes in. Teshuva is our line directly to Hashem. In the book of Haggai, Haggai must encourage the people to build the second Temple and through its construction, do teshuvah — return to the holy days of old. He tells them what God has related to him: “’I will be pleased with it and I will be honored,’ said Hashem.” Haggai tells the people this because they are unsure of how their efforts will be received. What if they build and build and God does not like it? What if they work and afflict themselves and toil and labor and all is refused? What if, after all, God wants something else?

And it is the same with teshuvah. Sometimes, we do not do teshuvah simply because we do not know how. We do not know what to say or do or feel in order gain forgiveness from another person. We are paralyzed by indecision and fear of rejection. So we do not shuv. We stay where we are.

To do teshuvah, we must find within ourselves the correct way. Each person atones differently; each person asks for forgiveness in a different manner. For some, writing a heartfelt email is the best mode of expressing his or her shame. For others, looking into someone’s eyes and delivering a true apology is the only way it can be done. Jewish tradition offers many guidelines — the Rambam, Rav Kook, and numerous rabbis of the Talmud, to name of few. Following these examples is a great way to explore teshuvah — but one cannot guarantee that anyone’s method other than his own will help him fully atone. One must be willing to explore, to reflect, and to atone on his own path.

And this is why the Torah does not command teshuvah. Teshuvah must come from within. The Torah commands external punishments, which will hopefully evoke a feeling of remorse and a desire to do better. But the Torah cannot command that desire. Finding that desire is up to us. Commanding us to apologize and forgive would produce only empty words. We must say the words when they can be full of truth. That truth cannot be commanded.

So when you embark on your path of teshuvah, think about who is involved in the process: you, Hashem, another person. What do you need to do to atone? What are the other person’s needs, and how can you appeal to his or her deepest sensibilities when truthfully apologizing? How can you connect to God when baring your soul? How can you fully cleanse yourself?

None of these questions are easy to answer. But to give us one little push in the right direction, consider another implication of teshuvah not appearing in our parsha: teshuvah is not a punishment. It is not meant to inflict permanent pain or damage a reputation. It is a privilege. It is a privilege that we have to heal others and heal ourselves.