Parshat Haazinu – Shabbat Shuvah
(Hosea 4:2-10; Joel 2:15-27; Micah 7:18-20)
September 30, 2006
The season of repentance is not without its own unique problems. Sin does not relinquish its captives easily and consequently, the abandonment of sin is an arduous process. The prophet Hosea recognized this painful truth in his call to return to God: \”Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen (kashalta) because of your sin.\” (4:2)
One component of this verse recognizes the adverse affect that sins have on their subjects. Rashi understands the affects of sin as a matter of cause and effect: \”Stumbling blocks will come upon you as a result of your sins.\” In other words, if a person sins, the result will be that the person\’s life will become more difficult as a punishment for the sins. On a similar note, Rabbi Joseph Kara (12th century France) marks a similar interpretation based on the context of the verse in the prophecy of Hosea: \”for you have stumbled before your enemies because you have no strength to stand before them since your sins have caused you to stumble.
Rabbi David Kimche sees the sins themselves as the stumbling block: \”Because you have stumbled in your sins, [you need to return to God]. When you see that you have stumbled in your sins, you must therefore return to God, for there is no one else to raise you from these stumbling blocks other than return to God.
This interpretation offers the beginning of a remedy. The sinner can find not only refuge from sin in a return to God but also a source of strength as a bulwark against sin. The following debate in the Talmud examines how this might work, utilizing a creative interpretation of our verse: Said Reish Lakish: So great is repentance that it changes the status of willfully committed sins into that of sins which were accidentally committed, as it is written: \’Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God for you have stumbled because of your sins.\’ – behold, your willful sins are called \”stumbling blocks\” (miksholim from the verb kashal). [The Talmud challenges this opinion offering an even more radical formulation:] Can it really be the case [that willful sins can be changed into accidental sins]? Didn\’t Reish Lakish say [something even more radical]: So great is repentance that willful sins will be converted into merits, as it is written: \’when a wicked person turns away from his wickedness and does what is just and right, it is he who will live by virtue of these things.\’ (Ezekiel 33:19) [The Talmud resolves this contradiction in the words of Reish Lakish:] There is no contradiction! In the case where sins are turned into merits, we are talking about when repentance is done out of love for God, while the case where willful sins are converted into accidental sins refers to repentance out of fear of punishment. (Yoma 86b)
Reish Lakish asserts that God offers us an inducement for doing teshuva. Teshuva has the potential for downgrading the seriousness of the sins that we have performed in God\’s eyes. It even offers the possibility for turning a sinner into a person of virtue. Everything depends on taking the first step in our return to God, whether out of fear or out of love, the change will be monumentally for the good.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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