Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Vaet'hanan 5765
August 20, 2005 15 Av 5765
Parashat Vaet'hanan comes in the aftermath of Tish'ah Be'av, the fast in which we commemorate the destruction of both the First and Second Temples and other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. The theme of our asceticism on this day is not only mourning, but more importantly a spur to teshuvah, repentance. This week's parashah informs our understanding of calamity and its relation to teshuvah. Moses warns the Israelites, "Take care, then, not to forget the covenant that the Lord your God concluded with you . . . For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God" (Deuteronomy 4:23-24). Turning away from God will surely result in calamity: "You shall not long endure [upon the land], but shall be utterly wiped out. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations" (Deuteronomy 4:27). Yet, at this moment of hopelessness, Moses declares, "But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul - when you are in distress because all these things have befallen you and, in the end, return to the Lord your God and obey Him." Moses' words are perplexing. Are we to wait for calamity to befall us before seeking out teshuvah or do we repent of our own initiative? What is the biblical model of repentance? And is this a model we seek to incorporate into our own lives?
The Torah's model of teshuvah is one that occurs only in the shadow of punishment and often does not result in success. Only once the people have transgressed are they given an opportunity to return to God. Such is the essence of God's pronouncement in Leviticus, when God, only after calamity befalls the Israelites, declares, "And they shall confess their iniquity . . . When I, in turn, have been hostile to them and have removed them into the land of their enemies, then at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself, and they shall atone for their iniquity" (Leviticus 26:40-41). Similarly, the very beginning of the parashah is a perfect example of such an attempt at repentance, when Moses recounts his pleading with God to let him enter the Land of Israel despite previous wayward behavior. Although God acquiesces to Moses' request to see the land, God does not relent on the core of the punishment - a refusal to let Moses cross over the Jordan River: "But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, 'Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again'" (Deuteronomy 3:26). Pinhas' slaying of Zimri and Cozbi (Numbers 25:7-8), which stops a plague in its tracks, further illustrates biblical repentance at work. For as Jacob Milgrom writes, "Repentance can only terminate the punishment but cannot prevent its onset" (Milgrom, Cult and Conscience, 120).
It is only much later, in the writings of the Prophets, that the idea of teshuvah as a proactive measure becomes rooted in Israelite theology, and then later, rabbinic thought. Isaiah proclaims the word of God: "Come, let us reach an understanding, says the Lord. Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece" (Isaiah 1:18). Hosea speaks directly to the need for human initiative in teshuvah as he declares, "Return O Israel to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you and return to the Lord" (Hosea 14:2-3). Perhaps the most explicit and illustrative of episodes in which teshuvah preempts God's wrath (in sharp distinction to the episodes of the Torah) is found in Jonah. When Jonah is given a second chance to proclaim a message of teshuvah to the people of Nineveh, he does so and his message is heeded. We read how "the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth." The King of Nineveh even declares, "Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty." The chapter concludes, "God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out" (Jonah 3:10). The prophetic model presents us with the capacity to return of our own accord. Rather than waiting for disaster and mishap to occur, we are capable of taking charge of our destiny and returning to God. It would not be an overstatement to say that this prophetic sentiment represents a maturation of the idea of returning to God.
Tis'hah Be'av commemorates not only physical destruction, but even more critically, spiritual alienation from God's presence. The Shekhinah is exiled from our midst. More than the physical destruction and tangible calamities experienced by the Jewish people, we mourn this loss. We are saddened by the perceived distance God has placed between ourselves and the Divine. And so it is not surprising that Parashat Vaet'hanan comes on the heels of Tish'ah Be'av and on the cusp of our season of repentance leading up to the Days of Awe. The parashah challenges us to rethink our understanding of returning to God. Like the parashah declares, "But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul." Unlike the continuation of this verse, however, we cannot wait for tragedy to befall us. teshuvah is a proactive experience. Quite beautifully, Jakob Petuchowski writes, "If I am able to return to God, it follows that, notwithstanding my going astray, I must originally have been with God. Man's 'natural state,' so to speak, is therefore, to be with God, to lead his life in the presence of God and in accordance with God's will" (Judaism 17, 178-179).
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz