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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashana: No one is too bad, and no one is too good
You will take it to heart among all the nations where G’d has dispersed you, and you will return to HASHEM your G’d. The main focus of our prayers on the Day of Judgment is our request for G’d to restore His kingdom on earth. It would be petty to make personal requests on Rosh Hashana. The Shunammite woman said to Elisha that he should pray not just for her but for the whole nation. If a person repents then G’d is prepared to forgive the sinner. There are four main components to the process of repentance. No one is too far away or has sinned too much that the Gates of Repentance are closed. No one is too bad, and no one is too good, to have the ability and need to repent.
This week’s Torah portion is read every year before Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment. It is very appropriate that this portion deals with the mitzvah of doing teshuva (to repent). As it says: (Devarim 30:1-2) “And it will be when all these come upon you, the blessing and the curse … and you will take it to heart among all the nations where G’d has dispersed you, and you will return to HASHEM your G’d, and you will listen to His voice … “
Restore G’d’s kingdom
If we analyze the prayers of Rosh Hashana we may be surprised that on this Day of Judgment the focus of our prayers does not deal with repenting for our mistakes and asking for forgiveness. Neither do our prayers deal with personal requests. The few requests that we do make, we ask on behalf of the community rather than for the individual. The main focus of our prayers on this special day is our request for G’d to restore His kingdom on earth that will only take place with the coming of Mashiach. At that time the honour of the Jewish people will be restored, the righteous will rejoice, and the universal kingship of G’d will be accepted by all nations.
The essence of the judgment on Rosh Hashana is G’d’s decision how to deal with every individual and every community worldwide for the coming year. The exaltedness of this opportunity is so great that it would be petty to make personal requests. It is to be compared to if someone has a private audience with the President of the United States and instead of using the opportunity to present a request on behalf of the whole population, just presents his own personal issue. In addition, G’d’s judgment is influenced by the requests we make to Him. As we say daily, with the words of King David: (Psalms 145:16) “You open Your hand and satisfy the wish of every living thing.” The Midrash Rabba (Shemos 25:3) comments that this verse does not say that G’d satisfies everyone with food; rather, it says that everyone will be satisfied with whatever they wish. G’d’s blessings depend on our perceptions and priorities. On this day, we have an opportunity to request that the whole world will reach its purpose, with all of humanity living in peaceful co-existence, and accepting G’d’s supreme sovereignty. That will automatically take care of any need of every individual. This is why it would be inappropriate to make personal requests on this special day.
Elisha and the Shunammite woman
This insight helps us further to understand a famous story from Tanach with an amazing explanation from the Zohar. In the Book of Kings II (4:8-14) it is related that the Prophet Elisha used to come to the Town of Shunem where he was hosted by a certain couple. At some point the hostess (known only as the Shunammite woman) suggested to her husband that they should make a special room and furnish it for this saintly guest who was visiting them on a regular basis. On one of his visits, the Prophet told his assistant, Geichasi, to call the lady of the house. Elisha told Geichasi to tell her that in appreciation for all their effort to make him feel welcome in their house, he wished to reciprocate in some way. He suggested that maybe he could do a favour for her by speaking to the king on her behalf. The hostess declined saying, “I sit in the midst of my people.” The Prophet continued to inquire through his assistant as to what he could do for her. To this Geichasi advised that the couple had no children and the husband was getting old. The Zohar explains that this took place on Rosh Hashanah and what Elisha was offering was to intervene on her behalf before G’d, the King of kings. It seems unbelievable that a childless woman would decline such a generous offer from the greatest prophet at the time, the spiritual leader of that generation. We would expect people to line up for such a great opportunity and here she declined. Maybe the answer is that on this Day of Judgment this pious woman felt that it was inappropriate for her to make any personal request. When she said to the Prophet that “I am in the midst of my people” she meant that he should pray not just for her but for the whole nation. In the end the Prophet blessed her and promised her that she would have a son, and the prophecy was fulfilled the following year.
Ten Days of Repentance
From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur we have the Ten Days of Repentance, a unique opportunity that G’d in His great mercy has provided us. We can gain a better understanding of the uniqueness of repentance from a homiletical exchange in the Jerusalem Talmud (Makkos 2:6). It says: “Wisdom was asked, what should be the punishment of the sinner? Wisdom answered: ‘Let evil pursue the sinners.’ Prophecy was asked, what should happen to the sinner? Prophecy answered: ‘The person who sinned should die’. The Torah was asked, what should be the punishment of the sinner? The Torah answered: ‘Let the sinner bring an offering and be forgiven’. Finally, G’d was asked, what should be the punishment of the sinner. G’d said, ‘Let the sinner repent and he will be forgiven.” From a human perspective, a person who sins has to be punished. Common wisdom would dictate that the sinner has to feel the consequence of his transgression. The judgment of a sinner, when seen with a prophetic vision, would require the death penalty for any person who disobeys G’d’s commandments. This person who is provided with life by the grace of G’d and his every movement is made possible by G’d; he goes and abuses these great gifts and transgresses what G’d told him to do? By the standards of strict judgment, this person deserves to lose his lease on life. In the Torah we find that for certain sins a person can achieve forgiveness by bringing an offering. This would take care of people’s sins to some extent at the time of the Temple. What happens during our exile when there is no Temple and no offering can be brought? Says G’d, if a person repents then G’d is prepared to forget about punishment and to forgive the sinner.
From the perspective of wisdom, prophecy and Torah, there must be some consequence if a person sins. No human judge would have the authority to annul the punishment for a transgression. Only G’d Himself, in His great mercy, could do so. Although we have the opportunity to repent all year round, during the Ten Days of Repentance there is a special Divine assistance for those who utilize these days to repent. Even if the judgment on Rosh Hashana was not favourable, the Talmud (Yuma 85b) teaches that through repentance one can change the judgment and achieve forgiveness on the day of Yom Kippur (literally the Day of Forgiveness). So what are we supposed to do to repent? Our sages teach us that there are four main components to the process of repentance: (1) Stop doing the transgression; (2) Regret having done the transgression; (3) Verbally confess the transgression; and (4) Take upon oneself never to repeat the transgression. The Talmud (ibid), also quoted in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 606:1) says however that no forgiveness is available for transgressions that involve other people unless one obtains forgiveness from the one that was harmed or wronged. Only once a person has settled the account with his fellow human being is G’d ready to forgive these kinds of transgressions, just as transgressions between individuals and G’d. Of course it would be wise to repent before Rosh Hashana and come as a repentant person on the Day of Judgment. The custom of blowing shofar in the Ashkenazi community, and saying special Selichos prayers in the Sephardi community, throughout the month of Elul, remind us that we are approaching the Day of Judgment and we should prepare ourselves appropriately.
Gates of Repentance not closed
It this week’s Torah portion it says further (ibid 30:11): “For this commandment that I command you today is not beyond you, and it is not distant. It is not in the heaven … and it is not across the sea. It is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart to perform it.” The Ramban explains that these verses are referring to the commandment of doing teshuva that is mentioned in the portion just before. The Torah teaches us that wherever we are holding regarding our relationship with G’d and His commandments, no one is too far away or has sinned too much that the Gates of Repentance are closed. The Sforno adds that we do not need prophets who know what is happening in the heavens. Nor do we need to travel to distant countries to visit great sages in order to repent. It is a personal obligation that every single individual can accomplish on their own. It is in our mouths to express the confession. It is in our heart to regret what we have done wrong. And it is our performance of ceasing the wrongdoing, combined with the undertaking of doing the right thing in the future that will bring about G’d’s forgiveness.
None too bad, none too good
This Torah portion speaks to every Jew. The Talmud (Eruvin 19a) teaches us that even those who do not live a life of Torah observance constantly perform many good deeds and thereby fulfil a host of commandments. On the other hand, King Solomon says (Koheles 7:20) there is no righteous person on earth who does only good and does not sin. No one is too bad, and no one is too good, to have the ability and need to repent. G’d provides every individual with their challenges and tests in life. We all have our successes and failures. Our sages teach that all we need to do is to make a sincere commitment that we want to get closer to G’d. We are not expected to rectify all our wrongdoings in a short few days. But we are expected to take the first steps in that direction. Sometimes, with just one little deed one can change one’s situation for life. Unfortunately, there are couples who do not have the strength to follow the rules of family purity, with monthly immersion in the mikvah. They do not realize the severity of the transgression and do not see the consequences of it. However, many of these couples have reached a stage in life where just one immersion in the mikvah would free them from this transgression for the rest of their lives. This is just one example how one minor deed can change one’s situation for life. May we all have the strength to move closer to G’d through sincere repentance, and together with the whole Jewish nation and all humanity, be inscribed for a year with all the Divine blessings. And may we merit this year to reach the purpose of creation with the coming of Moshiach. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network