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Parashat VaEtchanan: The Roots of Repentance by Yaakov Bieler

August 1, 2012 by  
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VaEtchanan and the theme of repentance

The essay on Parashat Devarim, 5765,[1] discussed the rule of Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 428:4, i.e.,”…Tisha B’Av always precedes Parashat VaEtchanan”, with respect to the association between the day of commemorating the destructions of the Temples and VaEtchanan. Among the hypotheses considered was the perspective of R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, ZaTzaL, who suggested that the section in VaEtchanan dealing with repentance is the reason why this Parasha is read on the morning of the public fast day itself. Shulchan Aruch appears to extend the connections and suggests that not only is the reading on the day of Tisha B’Av  (Devarim 4:25-40) to be drawn from VaEtchanan, thereby connoting that one should spend the fast day engaged in thoughts and acts of repentance, but because this entire Parasha is read on the Shabbat following the fast day, the theme of repentance continues well beyond Tisha B’Av, perhaps even ushering in the mindset of the month of Elul, the month succeeding Av, during which we are expected to prepare for the “Yamim Nora’im” (the Days of Awe).

Typical Biblical verbs representing the repentance process

A close reading of two of the verses in VaEtchanan that specifically describe the Teshuva which HaShem Predicts the Children of Israel will experience during their exile, results in a perspective on repentance which is significantly out of the ordinary.

Devarim 4:29-31

“U’Bikashtem MiSham Et HaShem Elokecha” (But if from there you will seek out the Lord your God), “U’Matzata” (you shall find [Him]), if you seek Him with all your heart and all your soul.

When you are in distress and all of these things have come upon you in the end of days, “VeShavta” (and you return) to the Lord your God, “VeShamata” (and listen) to His Voice.

For the Lord your God is a Merciful God; He will not Forsake you nor Destroy you, nor Forget the Covenant with your fathers that He Swore to them.

Devarim 4:30 contains the verbs that are most commonly associated with repentance,[2] i.e., “returning”[3] and “listening/understanding/obeying”. The imagery suggested by these words entails a transgressor having for some reason become estranged from God and the Path of Tora and Mitzvot, and by resolving to abstain from further sin and recommitting to obeying the Divine Law, the sinner “returns to the Path/lifestyle and therefore, by extension, to the Path-Setter Himself.”

The precursors for Teshuva in VaEtchanan

However the verbs in 4:29, “seeking” and “finding”, suggest a different set of modalities with respect to the process of repenting for past sins. Instead of imagining an individual who has lost his/her way and is desirous of rejoining his/her fellow travelers by re-adhering to God’s Path, the individual who is “seeking”, has apparently set out on some type of quest out of a sense that s/he is lacking something important and valuable. Because the terminology of “seeking” and “finding” serve as the steps leading up to “returning” and “listening”, prerequisites as it were, it could prove valuable to attempt to ascertain what factors might catalyze such a search, so that more of us could sincerely and earnestly engage in a significant Teshuva experience.

Is becoming religious for the first time appropriately described as a “return”?

Another intriguing dimension of the process of repentance when described in terms of “seeking” as opposed to “returning” is the nature of the penitent’s past. If we assume that the individual was once observant, and then ceased to practice his/her religion,[4] only to then again revert back to a religious lifestyle, the terminology of “return” seems to be appropriate; however, with respect to someone who never before engaged in religious observance,[5] it is difficult to describe his/her Teshuva as a “return”—the decision to become observant for such an individual would seem to be more of a personal “find/discovery” following some sort of “search”. But why would someone experience a “sense of loss” for something that s/he never originally possessed?

A very specific context for the type of Teshuva described in VaEtchanan

According to Ta’am VaDa’at,[6] basing himself on the situation that VaEtchanan itself describes as the context for the “seeking” type of repentance,[7] this form of “Teshuva” comes about specifically and exclusively as the result of being subjected to extreme persecution in the Diaspora.[8] Paradoxically, according to this commentator, it is only when the Jewish people are in the greatest danger that the ultimate survivors of such situations come to perceive the miraculous Divine Interventions that prevent the oppressors from completely annihilating us.

…Behold when HaShem “Hides His Face”[9] from His People, it is incumbent upon us to reflect and to recognize the greatness of His Love for us with respect to the inability of those who hate us to completely destroy us and do to us what they really intend.[10] And all of this is the result of the great Mercy of HaShem upon us, similar to the manner in which a father is compassionate to his child. And behold this is a faithful testimony to the eternity of the Jewish people, in accordance with the Promise of HaShem to our forefathers,[11] and that His Personal Supervision has never departed from us.

This is what the Tora is explaining to us here, that even after HaShem has Scattered Israel among the nations and they remain few in number, if we consider carefully, we will be able to “seek out” the Hand of God and His Might with respect to the manner in which He Interacts with Israel. (It will be readily apparent that) His Compassion for us has never weakened. And even when the majority of people will pray and supplicate for their very lives, and it appears to them as if we have been abandoned and forsaken by HaShem, may He be Blessed, and they say … “There is no god in our midst”,[12] the individual who searches and seeks HaShem with all of his heart and all of his soul will find Him in the midst of all of the trouble and difficulties that have passed over us. And as we explained, in this itself we should recognize the greatness of His Deeds and His Mercy on our behalves.

A prophetic referent for Ta’am VaDa’at’s interpretation

Ta’am VaDa’at’s approach would appear to be confirmed by the extreme parallelism between the terminology in Parashat VaEtchanan and the words of Yirmiyahu, the prophet of the destruction of the First Temple and the subsequent Babylonian exile.

Yirmiyahu 29:10-13

For so Says the Lord: After 70 years pass in Bavel I will Take heed of you, and Perform My good Word towards you, in Causing you to return to this place.

For I Know the thoughts that I Think of you, Says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not thoughts of evil, to Give you a future and a hope.

Then shall you call upon Me, and you shall go and pray to Me and I will Hearken to you.

“U’Bikashtem Oti U’Matzatem Ki Tidreshuni BeChol Levavchem” (And you shall seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.)

And I will Allow Myself to be found by you, Says the Lord, and I will Restore you from your captivity, and I will Gather you from all the nations, and from all the places into which I have Driven you, Says the Lord. And I will Bring you back to the place from which I Caused you to be driven away.

While it is possible that people “called” to HaShem throughout their years of exile, it is only at the conclusion of this difficult period that they can look back upon what has transpired and marvel that there is still a remnant of Israel at all leading to their “seeking and finding” HaShem.

A Rabbinic source that supports Ta’am VaDa’at’s understanding of VaEtchanan

Ta’am VaDa’at’s approach to the potential positive effects of even the direst aspects of Jewish history upon an individual’s belief is reminiscent of the following disconcerting Midrash:

VaYikra Rabba 27:11

Said R. Levi: Woe unto the evildoers who preoccupy themselves with plotting against Israel, and each one claims, “My approach is superior to yours.”

Esav said, “Kayin was foolish for having killed his brother while his father (Adam) was still alive. Didn’t he realize that his father could have more children? I will not act similarly, but rather (Beraishit 27:41) ‘…Let the days of mourning for my father (Yitzchak) arrives, and I will kill Yaakov my brother.”

Pharoah said, “Eisav was foolish…Didn’t he realize that his brother could have children during his father’s lifetime? I will not do similarly, but rather as soon as the mothers have given birth, I will strangle the newborns, as it is written, (Shemot 1:16) ‘And he said: When you assist the Jewish women giving birth and you see them on the birthing stools, if it is a boy, and you will kill him, and if it is a girl, and you will let her live’; (Ibid. 1:22) ‘…Every boy that is born you will throw him into the river, and every girl you will let live.’”

Haman said: Pharoah was a fool when he said, ‘…Every boy that is born you will throw him into the river…’ Didn’t he realize that the girls would eventually marry and have numerous children? I will not do this but rather, (Esther 3:13) ‘…to destroy, to kill, to obliterate all of the Jews, from the young to the old, children and women on a single day…’”

Said R. Levi: Even Gog and Magog will in the future say, “All of those coming before us were fools who plotted against Israel without realizing that they have a Patron in Heaven. We will not follow their example, but rather We will first attack their Patron, and only afterwards them”, which is what is written, (Tehillim 2:2) “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their bonds asunder and cast away their cords from us.’”

R. Levi therefore contends that as long as it is possible for Jews to seek out and find God in the midst of devastation and destruction, they will believe that they cannot be defeated, no matter how formidable and dangerous the threat. However, should they no longer possess the conviction that they can “find” their “Patron in Heaven”, the Jews become completely vulnerable to their oppressors’ evil designs.

But won’t the number of those seeking God in such circumstances be the vast minority?

Nevertheless, intuitively and even empirically, it would seem that for however many individuals conclude that the “Hand of God” is responsible for the survival of even a small percentage of the Jewish people after years of horror, thereby assuring the eternal presence of the Chosen People in the world at large, there are inevitably going to be a significant number of other Jews who will question why God Allowed such evil and persecution to happen in the first place. How could any shortcomings, religious and/or moral, numerous or few, account for the ferocity and savagery that has been unleashed against the Jewish people throughout its history? Not every Jew who survives will conclude that history has conclusively demonstrated that God’s Greatness is unquestionable, leading them to proceed to seek out HaShem with renewed intensity and devotion; there will be many who will lose faith and even pursue apostasy. The extreme dichotomy between these two poles of increased vs. decreased Faith in HaShem’s Caring for His People upon surviving extreme persecution and oppression is reflected in the following Talmudic passage drawing attention to such questioning on the parts of great spiritual personalities, rather than more average Jews:

Yoma 69b

R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why were they called the “Anshei Keneset HaGedola” (Men of the Great Assembly)?

Because they restored the crown of the Divine Attributes to its ancient completeness.

For Moshe had come and said, (Devarim 10:17) “The a) Great God, the b) Mighty and the c) Awesome.”

Then Yirmiyahu came and said, “Aliens are destroying His Temple. Where are then His Awesome deeds?” Therefore he omitted “Awesome. (Yirmiyahu 32:17-18) “Ah Lord, God, behold You have Made the Heaven and the Earth by Your Great Power and outstretched Arm, and there is nothing too hard for You. You Show loyal Love to thousands, and repay the iniquity of the fathers to their children who come after them. Oh a) Great and b) Mighty Lord, the Lord of Hosts is His Name, a) Great in counsel and b) Mighty in performance.

Daniel came and said, “Aliens are enslaving his sons. Where are his Mighty Deeds?” Therefore he omitted the word “Mighty”. (Daniel 9:4) “And I prayed to the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, ‘Oh Lord, the a) Great and c) Awesome God, Who Keeps His Covenant and Extends His Kindness to those who keep His Commandments.”

But they (the M.o.t.G.A.) came and said, “On the contrary! Therein lie His b) Mighty Deeds that He Suppresses His Wrath, that He Extends patience to the wicked (allowing them the opportunity to change their ways.) Therein lie His c) Awesome Powers, for but for the Fear of Him, how could one single nation persist among the many nations?”

Applying the verse in VaEtchanan to a much broader context

R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, ZaTzaL, in a seminal essay describing the epistemology of the religious experience entitled “U’Bikashtem MiSham”,[13] assumes a much broader view than that espoused by Ta’am VaDa’at. He explains at great length how the “seeking” and “finding” described in Parashat VaEtchanan is representative of a particular phenomenon with respect to all human beings, and not just those victimized by persecution. Rather than viewing Devarim 4:29 from the perspective of its Parasha, the Rav points to the verse’s inclusion in the “Nussach Sepharad”[14] version of the Selichot prayers’ paragraph beginning “Zechor Lanu Brit Avot KaAsher Amarta” (Remember on our behalf the Covenant with the Forefathers as You Said).[15]

1) …Have mercy on us and do not Destroy us, as it is written, (Devarim 4:31) “For a Merciful God is HaShem, your God; He will not Surrender you or Destroy you, and He will not Forget the Covenant with your Forefathers, which He Swore to them.”

2) Circumcise our hearts to love Your Name, as it is written, (Devarim 30:6)  “He will Circumcise, the Lord your God, your hearts and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul for the sake of your life.”

3)  Make Yourself Known to us when we seek You, as it is written, (Devarim 4:29) “But if from there you will seek out the Lord your God, you shall find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and all your soul.”

4) Bring us to Your Holy Mountain and Cause us to rejoice in the House of Your Prayer (the Temple) as it is written, (Yeshayahu 56:7), “And I will Bring them to My Holy Mountain and I will Cause them to rejoice in My House of Prayer, their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on My Altar, for My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples.”

Although the verses cited could be used to lend additional support to Ta’am VaDa’at’s emphasis upon how such emotions will be felt only after the Jews have been exiled and made to suffer all sorts of indignities and persecutions—the first verse comes from the same section in VaEtchanan as the third verse which is the subject of this essay, and  the second verse appears in Parashat Nitzavim where repentance as a result of banishment from Israel and suffering is also discussed—the Rav places Devarim 4:29 in a different context.

On the nights of the recitation of Selichot, the Congregation of Israel, the “beloved”,[16] yearns for Her Lover and implores Him that her seeking should not prove unsuccessful, and the Lover would Make Himself Known to her, at the moment when she goes out to meet Him. A whispered supplication breaks out and rises up as the morning light that appears at the edge of the Eastern sky:[17] Make Yourself Known to us when we seek You, as it is written, (Devarim 4:29) “But if from there you will seek out the Lord your God, you shall find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and all your soul.” Master of the Universe, Behold we are searching and seeking You with our entire beings. We are longing for You with all of the emotions of our hearts. We are running after You. You Attract us with an awesome and mighty force that no one can resist. Behold we hear Your Footsteps. You are so, so close to us. Please Make Yourself Known to us, now, tonight, the night of Selichot that is enveloped in secrets and mystery, the night of great mercy and abundant kindness. Please, Make Yourself Known to us while we are seeking You.[18]

It could be maintained that since Selichot are associated with both the days preceding and including the Yomim Noraim (the Days of Awe) as well as public fast days, the state of mind of the Jews on these occasions of the Jewish year approximates, at least emotionally, the desperate context described in Devarim 4, i.e., that everyone is either terribly frightened because of the impending days of judgment, or that they are calling to mind and vicariously reliving the calamities that led up to the destructions of the Temples and exile from Israel.  But R. Soloveitchik does not regard seeking God’s Presence as confined to times of danger and calamity. He argues that all human quests for knowledge and understanding are manifestations of our answering God’s Call and searching for His Presence.

God is revealed to man by virtue of his strivings and curiosity. Why does man not know peace? Why does he seek out that which he will never find? This is none other than God Drawing the individual to Himself. Man is tired and worn out, unsatisfied by his life and by what he has achieved during the course of his life. Nevertheless the futility of his search does not stop him from continuing to seek out that which he will never find. This “thing” will never give him rest, engenders pain, draws him with a mighty force. What is the nature of this quest? This is nothing other than the seeking out of God. What is the mysterious “thing” which escapes man time after time? The complete joining with HaShem…[19]

While times of trouble as described in Devarim 4 may inspire particularly frantic searching for God and attempting to understand the Master Plan that informs all of Creation, in the spirit of “there are no atheists in foxholes”, the Rav argues that a difference in intensity does not necessarily constitute a difference in kind. The term “MiSham” (from there), i.e., the catalyst of the Divine Quest, may connote different things for different people—persecution, a mathematical problem, an exquisite sunset, the elusive meaning of a text, a presently incurable disease, etc.—but in the end, the search stems from some lack of understanding growing out of the human condition, and has always shared the same object of concern, God Himself.


It would seem according to R. Soloveitchik, that every intellectual, spiritual, artistic quest can by understood as man seeking out God, looking for understanding and fulfillment. Teshuva then becomes making sense of the world, the history of civilization and ourselves.


[2] According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Etymology (ed. T.F. Hoad, Oxford U. Press, Oxford, 1986, p. 399), “repent” is derived from the Old French “repentir”, and means “to feel sorry for”. While Charata (regret) is one of the steps of the repentance process outlined by RaMBaM in Mishna Tora, Hilchot Teshuva 2:2,

And what is repentance? It is that the sinner:

(1) abandons his/her sin and removes it from his/her thoughts;

(2) and s/he commits in his/her heart that s/he will not commit this sin again…;

(3) and s/he regrets that s/he transgressed…;

(4) and s/he must confess with his/her lips and to say these things that s/he has decided in his/her heart,

it is insufficient in its own right to be considered repentance. It is possible that the sense of “repentir” is to feel sorry for one’s actions to the point where one sets right whatever evil has been committed, and promises not to sin in the future, but at least from the perspective of this dictionary, those steps are not specifically and unequivocally included within the connotation of this particular word.

[3] “Teshuva” (repentance) is derived from the root “ShaV” (return).

[4] E.g., Reish Lakish’s return to observance under the influence of R. Yochanan, as recounted in Bava Metzia 84a; R. Meir’s attempts to bring Elisha ben Avuya back into the fold described in Chagiga 15a.

[5] E.g., converts such as Ruth; the Halachic category of Tinok SheNishba (a child who was captured by non-Jews/brought up by non-Jews/an individual who was never afforded a Jewish education or Jewish family environment) as discussed in Shabbat 68b; Ba’alei Teshuva who had never previously been observant, such as R. Akiva in Ketubot 62b.

[6] HaRav Moshe Shternbach, Admon, Yerushalayim, p. 45.

[7] Devarim 4:27 “And the Lord shall Scatter you among the nations, and you shall be left few in number among the nations, where the Lord shall Lead you.”

[8] While Ta’am VaDa’at emphasizes a positive religious lesson that can be learned from the Jews’ difficulties in exile, the need to try to explain why such things are happening to them is what Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (Zakhor—Jewish History and Jewish Memory, U. of Washington Press, Seattle, 1982, p. 59-60) believes is a major catalyst to the development of Jewish historiography. Keying on the significance of the Spanish expulsion, this historian writes:

…We find a highly articulated consciousness among the generations following the expulsion from Spain that something unprecedented had taken place, not just an abrupt end had come to a great and venerable Jewry, but something beyond that. Precisely because this expulsion was not the first, but in a vital sense, the last, it was felt to have altered the face of Jewry and of history itself…That historical crisis should stimulate historical writing comes as no surprise…

I would contend that attributing spiritual implications to the events of Jewish history, particularly dire incidents and trends, is also a form of historiography, and it is possible that we have to “hit bottom” before we are aroused to try to identify patterns and trends.

[9] See e.g., Devarim 31:18; 32:20; Yeshayahu 64:6; Tehillim 30:8.

[10] Such recognition is thought to have been behind the somewhat anti-Semitic couplet, “How odd of God to Choose the Jews,” usually attributed to Hillaire Belloc, but in fact written by William Nor-man Ewer (1885–1976).

[11] e.g., Beraishit 12:2; 17:7-8; 22:18; 26:4; 28:4.

[12] The precedent for such a sentiment can be found in Shemot 17:7.

[13] Ish HaHalacha—Galui VeNistar, HaHistadrut HaTziyonit HaOlamit, HaMachlaka KeChinuch U’LeTarbut Torani’im BaGola, Yerushalayim, 1979, pp. 115-236; And From There You Shall Seek—U’Bikashtem MiSham, trans. Naomi Goldbloom, Ktav, Jersey City, 2008, 230 pp.

[14] In the “Nussach Ashkenaz” formulation of Selichot, Devarim 4:29 does not appear.

[15] This paragraph immediately precedes the responsive “Shema Koleinu” section of Selichot, common to “Nussachei Ashkenaz” and “Sepharad”.

[16] This is a reference to the metaphor in Shir HaShirim, where lover and beloved constantly are seeking each other out, whose interpretation, as implied by R. Akiva in Yadayim 3:5, is the description of the love affair between God and Israel.

[17] As is universally done on Erev Rosh HaShana, some have the custom to recite all of the Selichot each day just before morning.

[18] “U’Bikashtem MiSham”, p. 135.

[19] Ibid. p. 131.

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