“To Err is Human; To Forgive, Divine” by Rabbi Josh Kahn


The title, a quote from Alexander Pope, captures an interesting observation made by Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, Chief Rabbi of the Old City in Yerushalayim. In Parashat Nitzavim the Torah tells us, “VeShav Hashem Elokecha Et Shevutecha VeRichamecha VeShav VeKibetzcha MiKol HaAmim Asher HeFitzecha Hashem Elokcha Shamah,” “And Hashem, your God, will free you, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from amongst all the people among whom he has scattered you.” (Devarim 30:3) These words of promise, along with the next three Pesukim, are viewed by the early commentaries as the comfort Hashem provides for us after having admonished us with the unnerving words of the Tochachah in Parashat Ki Tavo last week.

Rav Nebenzahl points out a basic and encouraging difference between the words of the Tochachah and the comfort offered by Hashem. The Tochachah is conditional. If we stray from the ways of Hashem, its terrible curses will befall us. However, Hashem’s sympathy is promised unconditionally here in Parashat Nitzavim. By using this contrast between the potential darkness that may befall Bnei Yisrael and the definitive love and embrace that we are given, Rav Nebenzahl understands an interesting aspect of prayer.

The Gemara in Berachot (27b) tells us that Tefilat Arvit, or Ma’ariv, is optional (see Tosafot and other Rishonim ad loc. for a definition of what optional means in this context), unlike Shacharit and Mincha which are mandatory. Why is the nature of these Tefillot different? Metaphorically, Shacharit and Mincha signify the need to pray when times are good by taking place during the day when everything is light and the hand of Hashem is clear. In contrast, Arvit is prayed at night when everything is dark and Hashem’s involvement is not perceived. Building on the contrast of the Tochachah and Parashat Nitzavim, Rav Nebenzahl suggests that Shacharit and Mincha are mandatory since Hashem promises us the good times. However, dark times are not a guarantee and will come only if we cause them. Ma’ariv, the prayer signifying such times, is therefore optional.

The promise Hashem makes to embrace us even after we are punished also provides us with an insight into a powerful idea related to Teshuvah. Rav Levi Yitzchak MiBerditchev, one of the early Chassidic Rebbes, wonders how we can say the Berachah of “King who forgives our sins…” on Yom Kippur. After all, if Hashem does not accept our Teshuvah, the Berachah will be a Berachah LeVatalah (a blessing said in vain). How can we so confidently assume that Hashem will accept our Teshuvah? Rav Levi Yitzchak answers using a parable: A wise child is hungry for an apple but can’t seem to get his hands on one. He goes to his parents and recites the Berachah of Borei Peri HaEitz. His loving parents, not wanting to see their child recite a Berachah LeVatalah, quickly grab an apple for him to eat. Similarly, our recitation of the Berachah is to ensure that Hashem, as our loving parent, will make sure to accept our Teshuvah. Halachically, it is not acceptable for one to recite a Berachah that forces someone to give him/her the food. However, in the case of Teshuvah, since Hashem has promised us that he will embrace our Teshuvah and provide us with good times, we can say this Berachah with confidence, knowing it will not be a Berachah LeVatalah.

Parents’ unconditional acceptance of their child’s repentance is illustrated by an amazing story found in Touched by a Story by Rav Yechiel Spero (p. 77). There was once a young man, Steve, travelling on a train to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was rush hour and every seat was taken, with some people standing in the aisles. Harry, a fifty-year-old businessman, was sitting in a seat desperately trying to relax after a busy day but unable to take his eyes off Steve who looked distraught as he stood in the aisle. After a few stops, a seat next to Harry opened up. He tapped Steve, asking him if he wanted to sit down. Initially, Steve resisted, but after standing for another five minutes he sat down. Harry introduced himself and tried to engage Steve in small talk. After a minute of one-way conversation with Steve, Harry asked what was bothering him. Steve replied that he did not want to talk about it, and Harry went back to trying to relax. After a few minutes Steve turned to Harry and asked if he was still willing to listen. Steve proceeded to share his life story, describing how in high school he had created a successful invention which made him millions of dollars. Swooped away by his sudden riches, Steve’s lifestyle changed dramatically, against his parents’ wishes. His new lifestyle caused incredible strife until Steve graduated high school and moved out of his parents’ house and into a penthouse apartment in Manhattan with a girlfriend. Over the next couple of years Steve stopped talking to his parents. Then everything went wrong. Steve made a few investments that failed, lost his fortune, and his girlfriend moved out. As Steve’s life continued on this downward spiral, he was evicted from his apartment and was subsequently unable to find a job. Left with a few hundred dollars, Steve was desperate and distraught. Having nowhere else to turn, Steve bought some paper, a pencil, an envelope, and a stamp, and wrote to his parents. He described what had happened to him and expressed his regret for all of the sorrow he caused. Steve told his parents that he desperately wanted to come back to them but understood that the pain and anguish he had caused them may be unforgiveable and that he would respect their wishes if they did not wish to see him again. He ended the letter with an offer: the following Monday, he would take a 5:00 pm train to Harrisburg. Should they be willing to take him back into their house, they should wait at the train station with a white flag. If he sees the flag, he will know to come off. On the other hand, if there is no white flag, he will assume that they cannot forgive him and he won’t get off.

Sitting on the 5:00 pm train, Steve finished telling Harry how nervous he was. The Harrisburg stop was now just a couple of minutes away. Steve buried his head in his lap and told Harry that he couldn’t watch because he was too scared that there would be no flag there. As the train began pulling into the Harrisburg station the moment of truth came. Harry, staring out the window, tapped Steve on the shoulder and told him to look up. Steve slowly picked up his head and looked out the window. He saw an enormous tree covered in white. Steve’s parents were welcoming him home with open arms. This is the same promise that Hashem, our parent, makes to accept our Teshuvah.

It is human nature to make mistakes, but doing something wrong and the subsequent consequences are conditional. With Teshuvah, may we all see forgiveness and the positive times Hashem has promised.

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