Parashat Bereishit

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

For many people the season of repentance ended with the Neilah service on Yom Kippur. For others the gates of repentance remained open through Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Hol Ha-Moed Sukkot. This emphasis on Hoshanah Rabbah as the final day of the season of repentance can be found in numerous medieval sources and is illustrated in the following statement from the Zohar:

“On the seventh day of the Festival, Judgement is concluded in the world and decrees go forth from the King’s palace.” (Zohar, Tsav 3:31b, trans. D. Matt)

I would like to extend the theme of repentance to include Parashat Bereishit. Rabbi Yaakov Meidan of Yeshivat Har Etzion pointed out that in this week’s parashah we read not only about the first sin committed by humanity, but also about the first missed opportunity to perform teshuvah, repentance.

But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:9-13, NSRV)

When confronted with their wrongdoing, both Adam and Eve were unable to take responsibility for their own actions. Blame the woman! Blame the snake! Blame anyone but me. Rabbi Meidan called attention to a similar incident that involved King Saul. Samuel commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites and everything that belonged to them but we read that

“Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.”
(I Samuel 15:9)

After finding out what transpired, Samuel said to Saul (verses 14-15):

“‘What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of cattle that I hear?’ Saul said, ‘They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the cattle, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed.'”

Rabbi Meidan pointed out that as in the case of Adam and Eve, in this instance Saul refuses to accept any responsibility for his actions. Blame the people, not me. How are we to understand this inability to accept personal responsibility? In both of these formative moments the main protagonists pass the buck and accuse someone else of wrongdoing.

An important theme of the Yamim Noraim is God’s compassion. Human beings are able to fail, to do wrong, but they still have the opportunity to repent. In a world based upon strict and immediate justice there is no room for repentance, only judgement and punishment. Rabbi Meidan finds a compelling explanation of this point in Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s The Path of the Just (trans. Yaakov Feldman, p. 40)

“According to the strict letter of the law, the sinner should be punished immediately, without any delay at all, upon the performance of a sin, and the punishment itself should be meted out with great anger, as we would expect in the case of one who rebels against the word of the Creator. There would be no way of undoing this sin as, in truth, how can one rectify what has been ruined by the committing of a sin?…But in truth the Divine attribute of compassion obviates these points. It is what gives time to the sinner and disallows for his being immediately done away with upon sinning, or for the punishment to lead to utter destruction. As a great kindness, it allows for repentance for the sinner so that the uprooting of the will to do is equivalent to uprooting the act itself.”

According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the very possibility of repentance is evidence of God’s compassion in the world. Let us therefore pray that God keeps the gates of repentance open a little bit longer and pray for the strength to face up to our failings, looking at our own guilt and not that of others.

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.