Why Did Nineveh’s Teshuvah Not Last? By Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Binyamin Jachter (’17)


The Teshuvah of Nineveh seems so sincere!Yet, in Sefer Nachum, he and Hashem express their powerful disapproval of the people. He even refers to Nineveh as “Ir HaDamim,” “the city of blood” (Nachum 3:1). He foretells the great punishment Hashem will visit upon the city as a result of its wickedness. The great wrath of Hashem is expressed with unparalleled intensity as well (Nachum 1:2-3, translation from www.mechonmamre.org): “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God, the LORD avengeth and is full of wrath; the LORD taketh vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserveth wrath for His enemies. The LORD is long suffering, and great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty; the LORD, in the whirlwind and in the storm is His way, and the clouds are the dust of His feet.” Anyone who is even minimally acquainted with the history of Assyria is familiar with the extreme evil of that nation. The story described in history books about ancient Assyria undoubtedly matches that which is presented in Sefer Nachum. The following video offers a compelling depiction of ancient Assyrian wickedness: History Channel Documentary - Assyrian Empire - The Ancient Assyrian Civilization, archived at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L57PMVVdsSI&t=493s. Mahari Kra (Yonah 4:11) expresses the point succinctly: “When the people of Ninveh returned to their original evil ways Nachum came and prophesied evil about them .” The question we are left to ponder is why Nineveh’s Teshuvah did not last. Perhaps in discovering the long term failure of Nineveh we can discover how our spiritual growth can be sustainable in the long term. Approach Number One - The Paroh Syndrome My Torah Academy of Bergen County students argue that Nineveh followed the repeated poor behavior of Paroh during the ten Makkot (Ten Plagues). During the suffering of the Makkot Paroh begged Moshe Rabbeinu to pray to Hashem on his behalf. However, as soon as each Makkah ended, Paroh reverted to his previous poor behavior (see, for example, Shemot 9:28 and 34). The people of Nineveh repeated the same behavior. Under threat of destruction they zealously performed Teshuvah. When the threat no longer loomed they reverted to their original bad behavior. Perhaps this is why the Midrash identifies the king of Nineveh with Paroh. In addition, this suggestion might account for the possibility that Yonah remained near Nineveh until his death (as evidenced by the fact that Yonah is buried near Nineveh, present day Mosul, Iraq) as a reminder to its people not to revert to their original behavior.

Approach Number Two - Reish Lakish in the Yerushalmi

Rabi Yochanan (Talmud Yerushalmi Taanit 2:1) argues that even the Teshuvah performed by Nineveh was insincere. It is interesting that Rabi Yochanan similarly casts aspersions on the sincerity on Reish Lakish’s Teshuvah (Bava Metzia 84a). Rabi Yochanan infers from Yonah 3:8 that Nineveh restored only the theft “in their hands” (i.e. known). However, the theft that was concealed was not returned. Thus, it is hardly surprising to discover Nineveh’s poor behavior reemerged by the time of Nachum. My TABC students were skeptical about this approach. They argued that Hashem would not have forgiven Nineveh had they not properly repented at least for the sin of theft. Perhaps this problem is the reason why the Talmud Bavli does not cite Rabi Yochanan’s opinion. Some TABC students, though, defended Rabi Yochanan arguing that Hashem was willing to accept a beginning of Teshuvah. Indeed, Chazal teach that Hashem proposes: “Open for Me an opening as narrow as the eye of the needle and I will open for you gates as wide as the entrances of palaces” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:2). Of course, this is a most welcome theme to sound on Yom Kippur. Hashem does not expect us to become Tzadikim immediately. Baby steps suffice at first, as long as they are the beginning of a longer journey heading in the proper spiritual direction.

Approach Number Three - Shmuel in the Bavli

As we have already seen, the people of Nineveh would go to the extreme and topple a giant tower if it was built even with one stolen brick (Radak to Yonah 3:10 citing Taanit 16a) in order to restore the brick to the original owner. Shmuel cites this extreme behavior as a major failing of

Nineveh’s Teshuvah (note as before that Halacha is far more moderate and permits monetary compensation, see Gittin 55a). Shmuel’s explanation seems to be compelling. It fits with the straightforward reading of Yonah Perek 3 which seems to clearly indicate that the people of Nineveh were quite sincere in their repentance. It also sheds light on Nineveh’s reversion to its original wicked behavior. Such extreme righteousness is simply not sustainable. It is for this reason Chazal adopted a more lenient approach regarding restoring stolen items. Chazal explain their actions as Takanat HaShavim, a rule tailored to help those who wish to repent. This can be understood both as motivating the act of repentance and also making the Teshuvah a sustainable one. The fact that the Bavli (Taanit 16a) cites the approach of Shmuel and that the Radak (Yonah 3:10) cites the approach of Shmuel highlights the compelling nature of Shmuel’s approach. By contrast, none of the major commentaries cite the approach of Reish Lakish. As we wrote in our chapter discussing the king of Nineveh ordering animals to fast, the people of Nineveh lacked a Rebbe or tradition to guide them in proper spiritual and ethical behavior. Thus, their Teshuvah was well meaning but misdirected due to their lack of proper spiritual and ethical guidance from a proper spiritual authority. We noted by contrast that the sailors successful embracing of Hashem was a result of the somewhat prolonged interaction they had with Yonah, as argued by Torah Academy of Bergen County student Asher Powers ‘19. An important lesson for us to glean on Yom Kippur is the need for a spiritual guide. Interestingly, during intense fast days for rain, the Mishnah (Taanit 2:1) records that the heads and elders of the community are intensely involved leading and guiding the fasting and Teshuvah process. Iinterestingly, in their prayers the elders refer to the Teshuvah and fasting of Nineveh as a model for their community. Approach Number Four - The Powerful Impact of Cultural Legacies In chapter 6 of the celebrated work “Outliers”, author Malcolm Gladwell highlights cultural legacies. He opens with disturbing descriptions of how longstanding cultural patterns and beliefs influenced violent conflicts among generations of families in Kentucky during the nineteenth century. The compelling research findings concerning long-term and deeply held values led Gladwell to the conclusion that cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them. The Torah is clearly in harmony with Gladwell’s perspective on cultural legacies. For example, the Torah (Devarim 23:4-5) forbids us to marry a Moabite or Ammonite due to their failure to offer us food as we passed near their land. One could ask why later generations are given a consequence for the mistake of an earlier generation. One may answer that the Moabites and Ammonites are descendants of Lot and his wife who made their home in Sedom. The failure of Ammon and Moav to act decently and offer food to the Jews traveling through the area demonstrates that they are the cultural heirs to the evil legacy of Sedom and Lot’s wife. Sedom’s primary sin was their refusal to show kindness to outsiders (Yechezkeil 16:49) and Lot’s wife was thoroughly infected with this sick attitude (Rashi to Bereishit 19:26 s.v. VaTehi, citing Bereishit Rabbah 50:4). For this reason we cannot marry Moabites and Ammonites, a people whose cultural legacy is revulsion of acts of kindness towards strangers. Torah Academy of Bergen County students suggest that the reason Nineveh readily reverted to their original path of sin is because the Assyrian culture was permeated with cruelty. This cultural legacy is difficult to overcome and indeed the people of Nineveh succumbed to its immense power. Conclusion It is important to carefully examine Nineveh’s failed Teshuvah. Discovering the reasons for Nineveh’s lack of success helps, especially as we reach the zenith of Yom Kippur, chart a proper plan of spiritual growth that is both effective in the short run and sustainable in the long term. We must also take care to identify the cultural legacies that permeate our lives and take steps to combat those that do not jive with the life we wish to live while strengthening those that keep us on the right path.

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