Reversing Course – The Role of Teshuvah in Jewish History by Yehuda Fuksbrumer


The bulk of Parashat Ha’azinu is devoted to a song which outlines the course of Jewish history and the relationship between Hashem and Am Yisrael. A major theme in the song is Hashem hiding His face from His backsliding people and leaving Am Yisrael in the hands of cruel nations. The end of the song anticipates the day when Hashem will take mercy on Am Yisrael and take revenge on the nations that oppressed His people. What appears to be missing from the song, however, is any act of Teshuvah on the part of Am Yisrael. Can we imagine Hashem taking mercy on Am Yisrael without any effort on their part to return to Him?

There are primarily three approaches Meforashim take regarding what role Am Yisrael plays in Hashem's change in attitude from complete alienation of Bnei Yisrael to  acting with mercy towards them. Ramban, in his powerful interpretation of the song at the end of this week’s Parashah (Devarim 32:40-43 s.v. Ki Esa El Shamayim Yadi) states, “And behold, this song does not contain the conditions of Teshuvah and service to Hashem… this song is an explicit promise of the future redemption to be forced upon the non-believers by Hashem.” In other words, Teshuvah is not part of the process outlined in the song of Ha’azinu. Chizkuni, on the other hand, takes the exact opposite approach, writing (32:36 s.v. VeAl Avadav Yitnecham) that Hashem’s mercy on Am Yisrael is dependent solely upon their Teshuvah. An intermediate approach offered by Seforno (ad loc. s.v. VeAl Avadav Yitnecham) is that Hashem will reverse course because of His servants, i.e. the righteous members of Am Yisrael, even though they will make up the minority of Bnei Yisrael.

The approaches of Chizkuni and Seforno appear to be the most sensible to us during this period before the Yamim Nora’im, when we devote time to self-reflection and Teshuvah. Ramban’s approach, however, appears to be problematic. Can it be that Ramban indeed eliminates Teshuvah as a critical element in our relationship with Hashem? The answer is a resounding no. In Parashat Nitzavim, Ramban (30:12 s.v. Ki HaMitzvah HaZot) famously interprets – in contrast to Rambam – the words “Ki HaMitzvah HaZot” as specifically referring to the Mitzvah of Teshuvah. Why, then, did Ramban remove Teshuvah from the course of Jewish history in his interpretation of Ha’azinu?

A possible solution may be found in Ramban’s introduction to Sefer Devarim. In explaining why Moshe reminded Am Yisrael of their various sins in the desert, Ramban states that it was in order to emphasize that Hashem had repeatedly treated them with Rachamim (mercy) and would continue to do so in the future, despite the fact that they will sin. With this in mind, the song in Ha’azinu is to be interpreted as the course of Jewish history when viewed from the unique vantage point of Hashem. There will be times when Hashem will hide His face, but ultimately He will judge us with mercy. During this special time of Aseret Yemei Teshuvah given to us by Hashem as yet another indication of His mercy and kindness, we must strive – as a nation and as individuals - to self-reflect, do Teshuvah and aim to be counted among the servants of Hashem.

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