Saturday, September 15, 2012

Not in Heaven

The Meshech Chochma, in explaining the verse ושב ה' אלקיך את שבותך ורחמך, quotes rabbinic exegesis found in the Yalkut (brought in slightly different language in Yerushalmi Makot 2:6): "They asked Wisdom, 'what should happen to a sinner?' Wisdom answered, 'the one who sins shall die.'" Wisdom is the characteristic of pure Justice, untempered by Mercy. According to Wisdom, one who sins has forfeited his right to life by acting against the will of his Creator. However, as the rabbis teach regarding the story of creation, although God first thought, as it were, to create the world with strict justice, very quickly it became clear that the world could not survive on this attribute alone, and so God included an aspect of mercy, of loving-kindness, to allow the world atonement and survival.

The rabbis continue: "They asked the Torah, 'what should happen to a sinner?' And Torah answered, 'he should bring a sacrifice and find atonement.'" This is the classical form of forgiveness found in the Books of Moses. A sin committed requires expiation through the symbolic and educational lessons of the offerings in the Temple. The חסד, the loving-kindness, and רחמים, mercy, of God's word to Man allows for a way for sin to be forgiven. No mention of any transformation of the sin into anything different, not even mention of the sin being erased, is made. Atonement through sacrifice does not contradict any legal logic: a person may make good on his misdeeds in the proscribed manner, thus averting punishment for them. This is akin to a person who stole returning the object he stole, making further punishment unnecessary.

However, the midrash does not stop here. It continues: "Came the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and he said, 'let the sinner repent, יעשה תשובה, and it will be atoned for him.'" This is the part of the midrash that the Meshech Chochma aimed at. ושב ה' אלקיך את שבותך ורחמך, it is God himself who comes towards Man and presents a new concept: that of repentance. A person may have no ability to bring a sacrifice, and yet he may still achieve forgiveness through sincere repentance.

But what is it about repentance that is so special that it is an innovation, a חידוש, so to speak, of God's? How is it that it is not attributed to the Torah, and it must be God that comes along and suggests it? Furthermore, what type of distinction is this midrash drawing between God and the Torah? Surely, אורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד, God and the Torah are a unity in a certain sense! How can we distinguish between them in their approach to the sinner?

Perhaps an answer can be found in a passage of Talmud (Nedarim 62). There, Rabbi Elazar says, "עשה דברים לשם פועלן, ודבר בהם לשמן", explaining, do your good deeds for the sake of God's name, in the name of God. But all your learning, your give and take in Torah study, do it in the name of the Torah itself." Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (in נפש החיים) explains the distinction: when you learn Torah, do it for the Torah itself, to know and understand, to add lessons and analysis." Rabbi Chaim is saying, לא בשמים היא, this Torah is not in Heaven. Though it comes from God, it is in the hands of Man now, and God gave over its exegesis and interpretation to the human intellect and mind. Even if God were to send sure signs that the correct interpretation is one way, the rabbis, through their intellect, are the arbiters of Halacha. God gave the Torah into the hands of Man now, and relinquished the interpretive authority over it to us. Now, according to the normal human logic, even one infused with the Godly decision to judge our world with mercy (רחמים), and not only by the strict yardstick of justice (דין), a person cannot undo what is done. A sin committed is one that must be atoned for, but cannot be erased. It certainly cannot be turned into a good deed. The best the Torah can do, within reason, is provide a pathway to atonement.

And even so, God says, I can transcend reason, I can sidestep the rational judgment of human reason. If a person comes towards Me in sincere repentance, sorry for his actions and sublimely desirous to reconnect his fractured relationship with Me, I can make the impossible happen: זדונות נעשות לו כזכויות - even the worst sins become virtues. God can turn back the clock, and not only erase the bad, but make it good! This is possible when a person seeks out an immanent relationship with God out of love. This is why the suggestion of God, as brought down in the Yalkut, is specifically related to the verse ושב ה' אלקיך את שבותך ורחמך - since it is specifically God, creator of the world, who can abrogate all reasonable reaction to sin, can transcend the need for atonement, and, overnight (see יד החזקה הל' תשובה ז:ז), recreate a loving bond between the sinner and God.