Teshuvah Me’Ahavah and Kabbalat HaTorah by Rabbi Daniel Fridman


In a celebrated series of Pesukim in Parashat Nitzavim[1], Moshe Rabbeinu encourages the Jewish people that “this mitzvah” that he is commanding them on that very day, is not beyond their individual or collective spiritual powers.  It does not reside in the celestial realm, Lo BaShamayim Hi,  that one might be required to ascend into those realms so as to possess it, nor is it across the far reaches of the sea, such that one might require an extended maritime voyage to acquire it.  On the contrary, Moshe concludes, ‘the thing’ is indeed very close to you, ‘in your mouth and in your heart to perform it.’

With the reference to that singular expression, it is not in the heavens, our minds are instinctively drawn to a series of rabbinic statements concerning the proprietary relationship between the Jewish people and the Torah, on one level, and the process of Torah study on the other.  In what is undoubtedly the most famous utilization of the term, R. Yehoshua demands that the Heavenly intercession in support of R. Eliezer’s permissive view concerning the Tanur Shel Achna’i be disregarded as halachic discourse is now the sole province of the Jewish people[2].  A parallel passage, demonstrates that R. Yehoshua’s prerogative, while correct, is only one side of the coin, and that ‘it is not in the heavens’ is as much a responsibility as it is a privilege, thus precluding Yehoshua from recovering the Torah lost in the aftermath of Moshe’s demise through the medium of prayer[3].  Finally, our Sages note the significance of the expression for the process of acquiring Torah, noting that humility is a prerequisite for mastery of Torah, as it is not found in those whose conduct is marked by pretentiousness and intellectual self-certainty[4].

And yet, these rabbinic statements, magnificent as they are, seem far from the simple reading of the verse.  As noted by Ramban[5], in the context of the antecedent verses in Parashat Nitzavim, there can be little doubt whatsoever that the specific Mitzvah which is being referred to in these Pesukim is the obligation to repent.  Indeed, the use of the dual mechanism, ‘in your mouth and in your heart to perform it,’ as noted by Ramban, is a reference to the dual character of repentance[6], which requires confession in the mouth and a profound emotional movement in the heart.  Why then do Chazal so insistently and repeatedly interpret these verses as relating to the Torah writ large, and to the process whereby it is acquired?

Perhaps two further questions can help illuminate our first query.  As we find ourselves in the midst of the forty day period of repentance which commences with Rosh Chodesh Elul and concludes with Yom Kippur, we know that we are doing so in accordance with a forty day period observed by Moshe at Mount Sinai.  And yet, of the three successive forty day periods which Moshe Rabbeinu observed on Sinai, from the day following the giving of the Torah through Yom Kippur, it seems strange that the forty day period we observe does not align with the middle forty days, during which Moshe was pleading with the Almighty for the Jewish people, hoping to spare them from destruction.  Indeed, we mark our period of repentance in accordance with the final forty day period of the triad, the one in which Moshe received the entirety of the Torah for a second time.  Are we not, if we wish to capture the spirit of Moshe’s paradigmatic moment of repentance, quite simply observing the wrong time of year?

Finally, we know very well, and it is relevant to the invalidation of a shofar from a cow, of the principle of “Ein Kateigor Na’aseh Saneigor,” that elements which are reminiscent of the sin of the Golden Calf can play no role in atoning for the Jewish people, at least in the context of the Kodesh Kodashim, the sanctum sanctorum[7].  How, then, as our Sages teach us, could the first set of Luchot have been kept in the Ark[8]?  Were they not the ultimate reminder of the sin of the Golden Calf, and its aftermath, when Moshe, rightly, smashed the tablets? While it is true that the Talmud limits the scope of this principle, Ein Kateigor Na’aseh Saneigor, to elements which are designed to bring atonement[9] to the Jewish people, Rabbeinu Tam’s [10]inclusion of the silver poles which rested in the Aron as subject to this principle, at minimum, raises the question with respect to the first Luchot, which are indubitably a far more direct link to the Golden Calf than the mere use of gold.  At minimum, even if one does not concede that there is a technical violation of Ein Kateigor Na’aseh Saneigor at risk, one can still wonder, in a more general sense, what the smashed Luchot were doing there altogether?

It seems to me that the lynchpin in answering this series of questions resides with a seemingly quixotic statement of Reish Lakish[11] regarding the capacity for Teshuvah to, astonishingly, transform previous sins of a deliberate nature, into merits, Zechuyot.  While a prior statement of Reish Lakish, that Teshuvah can dilute, as it were, intentional sins into unintentional ones is surely novel in its own right, the latter statement almost defies any kind of logic.  It is one thing to mitigate the past through serious repentance, but to transform it, to revise one’s personal history?  This seems almost preposterous.

In internally reconciling Reish Lakish’s two statements, the Talmud notes that he reserved the Zedonot to Zechuyot transformation for those who engaged in Teshuvah Me’Ahavah, as opposed to those who were engaged in Teshuvah MiYirah, repentance rooted in fear of the consequences of one’s sins. The latter suffices only to mitigate the sin from intentional to unintentional, and yet the stain very much persists.  The former, astonishingly, goes two steps further: it not only removes the sin altogether, but it transforms it into a kind of merit. 

Perhaps this model can serve as a paradigm for the distinction between the intermediate period of forty days which Moshe observed at Sinai and the final period of forty days, when he received the Torah anew.  As is stated explicitly by Moshe in Sefer Devarim[12], the intermediate period of forty days was marked by profound fear, “Ki Yagarti MiPenei Ha’Af VeHaCheimah Asher Katzaf Hashem Aleichem LeHashmid Etchem.” In pursuit of this narrow, albeit obviously vital goal,Moshe was successful, “VaYishma Hashem Elai Gam BaPa’am HaHi,”, the Almighty hearkened to Moshe’s entreaty, and there was no destruction of the Jewish people. Yet, the stain persisted.  As noted by Moshe in the succeeding verses, the Calf still required obliteration.  At this stage, the shattered Luchot could indeed only be seen as an object of sin, reminiscent of the cataclysm which had transpired.

The final days, however, represented a new phase, something analogous to what the Talmud describes as Teshuvah Me’Ahavah.  Love of God is characterized by a desire to be close to Him, to come to understand Him as deeply as is possible[13], despite the infinite chasm between the Divine and the human.  Even the most cursory reading[14] of the final period of forty days, when Moshe ascended Sinai for the third time, reveals that this is precisely what transpired.  Moshe had already saved the Jewish people from destruction.  The question had shifted to whether or not the Almighty would make his presence felt in the Jewish camp, or whether he would merely send an angel.  Moshe Rabbeinu pleads, time and again, for Divine closeness, to know God.  It is no accident that in this context that God reveals his thirteen names to Moshe, the ultimate reflection of intimacy and knowledge of the Divine.   For Ramban[15], the fact that Moshe learned God’s thirteen ‘names’ during these final forty days if of particular significance in so far as he understands the entirety of the Torah to be comprised of Divine names, further establishing the connection between the final forty days and an acceptance of the entire Torah. 

Moshe Rabbeinu, during this final phase, receives the entirety of the Torah in the context of unprecedented Divine intimacy and love.  It is indeed a return unto God, and his Torah out of a love of Him, Teshuvah Me’Ahavah par excellance.  In accordance with Reish Lakish’s view, it is only at this point, following Teshuvah Me’Ahavah, that the first set of Luchot no longer reflect sin, but, astonishingly, Zedonot Na’asot Lo KiZechuyot, they become an embodiment and reflection of the unbreakable bond between the Almighty and His people.  Indeed, Luchot VeShivrei Luchot Munachot Ba’aron.

In our collective observance of these final forty days, we aspire not to the intermediate days of Teshuvah MiYirah, of simply looking to avoid the calamity of death and destruction, but the far more ambitious aspiration of Teshuvah Me’Ahavah.  We are not satisfied by averting a catastrophe alone, but we strive to re-energize and revitalize our entire relationship with Him, through a full embrace of His Torah[16], and not merely by narrowly repenting on those elements in which we may have been in breach. 

Undoubtedly, Chazal also knew what the Ramban pointed out, that the specific mitzvah being referenced in this celebrated passage in Nitzavim was the Mitzvah of Teshuvah.  One cannot, in all candor, read the Pesukim in any other fashion, without a near complete disregard for Peshat

And yet, in a deeper sense, Chazal could not have been more accurate in their application of these Pesukim to the entirety of the Torah, and the specific process of learning Torah at that.  After all, Chazal well understood that the paradigmatic Teshuvah were the final forty days, when Moshe accepted, on behalf of the Jewish people, the entirety of the Torah anew, with a commitment not merely to never repeating the sin of the Golden Calf[17], but, with far greater ambition, a sense of an overwhelming and intensive love of God, a desire for closeness with him, and an instinctive, reflexive commitment not only to rectifying specific sins which were committed, but to embracing the entire corpus of the revealed Divine will, the Torah itself.  As Rambam noted[18], the direct outgrowth of fully developed love for Him is an immediate acceptance of all of His commands, “UViZeman SheYe’ehov Adam Et Hashem Ahavah HaRe’uyah MiYad Ya’aseh Kol HaMitzvot Me’Ahavah.”

Indeed, Ramban[19] himself, if read carefully, seems to have understood precisely this point, as he noted, even in interpreting the Mitzvah in question as Teshuvah, “VaYashuvu BeLibam El Hashem, VaYekablu Aleihem HaYom HaTorah La’Asotah LeDorot,”that they will return in their hearts unto Hashem, and accept upon themselves, on this day, the Torah, to fulfill it in perpetuity.”  Teshuvah Me’Ahavah, a return to Hashem, motivated by a love of Him, is nothing less than a Kabbalat HaTorah, an embrace, now and forever, of His revealed word.

[1] Devarim 30:11-14.

[2] Bava Metziah, 59a.

[3] Temurah 16a.

[4] Eiruvin 55a.  There is a slight nuance between Rava’s presentation (ad loc.), “Lo Timtza BeMi SheMagbiyah Da’ato Aleha KaShamayim”, connoting arrogance in the process of Torah learning, and R. Yochanan’s, “Rabi Yochanan Omeir: Lo BaShamayim Hi-Lo Timtza BeGasei Ru’ach”, connoting an arrogant personality more generally.  My presentation reflects Rambam’s ruling (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:8) in accordance with the latter’s view.

[5] Commentary to Devarim 30:11

[6] Of course, this dual character of Teshuvah is more commonly associated with Rambam (see the introduction to Hilchot Teshuvah, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 73, Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1-3, 7-8), and has been the subject of wide ranging discussion regarding the precise role of Vidui and Teshuvah in the general Mitzvah, beyond the scope of this essay.

[7] Rosh HaShanah 26a.

[8] Bava Batra 14b, “Luchot Ve’Shivrei Luchot Munachot Ba’Aron.”

[9] Rosh HaShanah, ibid, “Choteh Bal Yakriv Ka’amrinan”.  Fascinatingly, Rabbenu Tam (Tosafot Bava Batra 14a) interpreted that line to be referring to elements which are aimed at the Telos of Kapparah, expiation.

[10] See Tosafot to Bava Batra 14a, s.v. SheBahen Amudim Omdin.

[11] Yoma 86b.

[12] Devarim 9:18-19.

[13] See Rambam’s celebrated formulation, Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:1.

[14] See Shemot Chapters 33 and 34.  Repeatedly, throughout this section, the Almighty notes his withdrawal from the Jewish people, expressing itself in Moshe being forced to remove the Ohel Mo’eid from the camp as well, so that those who wished to ‘seek God’, would actually have to leave the camp.

[15] See his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, as well as the Gemara in Berachot 21a, which refers to the process of studying Torah as a form of calling in God’s name, Ki Sheim Hashem Ekra.  This passage weighted heavily, and perhaps decisively, in Ramban’s ruling that Birchot Ha-Torah were of Torah origin, Hasagot HaRamban LeSefer HaMitzvot, 17.

[16] The relationship between Ahavat HaShem and Talmud Torah is established by the Sifri commenting to Devarim 6:5-6, and cited by Rambam in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 3.  It is equally the entire basis of Rambam’s discussion in Chapter 10 of Hilchot Teshuvah.  In brief, Rambam describes what biologists would term a positive feedback loop, in which study of Torah generates love of God, which in turn, generates the desire to study more Torah, as a means of gaining closer access.

[17] It should be noted that repudiation of idolatry is, in a certain sense, tantamount to accepting the entire Torah as well.  See Chullin 5a, “Kol HaKofer Ba’Avodah Zarah Modeh BeChol HaTorah Kulah.”

[18] Hilchot Teshuvah 10:2.

[19] Commentary to Devarim, 30:14.

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