“I Will Return” – Why Does G-d Do “Teshuvah”?
These words have a mystical and secret connotation, a meaning that seems almost inexplicable. What is the response from G-d, Who is described as a “G-d of truth, without iniquity; righteous and fair is He”? We may speak of sin and transgression when it comes to man, who was created from the earth and possesses both a good and evil inclination. Yet what does teshuvah have to do with the Creator, Who is the ultimate good? For what “sin” must He do teshuvah?
On the Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur, all Jewish communities read the haftarah (a Biblical passage taken from the Prophets and read in synagogue on Saturday morning after the reading of the Torah) from the book of Hosea: “Return, O Israel” – Shuvah Israel – “to the L-RD your G-d, for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (Hosea 14:2). Incidentally, this is one of the reasons that this particular Shabbat is termed “Shabbat Shuvah.”
Our Sages of blessed memory have provided us with a parable to explain this verse: “ ‘Return, O Israel, to the L-RD your G-d’ – It is like a prince who has fallen ill, and the royal physicians advise him to eat a certain type of food in order to recover. However his fear of eating it is so great that his father must comfort him by saying, ‘This won’t hurt you. Look, I’m eating it myself!’ Thus G-d says to Israel, ‘You are ashamed of doing teshuvah. I will be the first to do teshuvah,’ as it is written: ‘I will return to you, says the L-RD’ [Malachi 3:7]. Now if the One Who never sinned or transgressed (G-d forbid) says: ‘I will return,’ how much more should we do teshuvah and return to G-d!” (Pesikta Rabbati 44).
The words of the Midrash are clear. It is not only Shabbat Shuvah for the Jewish people, but also for G-d. He does, as it were, teshuvah on the same day in order to teach us the importance and greatness of teshuvah.
These words have a mystical and secret connotation, a meaning that seems almost inexplicable. What is the response from G-d, Who is described as a “G-d of truth, without iniquity; righteous and fair is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4)? We may speak of sin and transgression when it comes to man, who was created from the earth and possesses both a good and evil inclination. Yet what does teshuvah have to do with the Creator, Who is the ultimate good? For what “sin” must He do teshuvah?
He Accepts Bribes from the Wicked
We may explain this difficult subject according to the teaching of our Sages in Yalkut Shimoni: “Another explanation: ‘Let my judgment come forth from Your presence’ [Psalms 17:2]. Rabbi Levi said, ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, said to David: “Have you set up a Sanhedrin for no purpose? Let them try you.” David replied, “Master of the universe, You have written in Your Torah, ‘Do not accept a bribe’ [Exodus 23:8]…but You allow Yourself to be bribed, as it is said: ‘He accepts a bribe from the bosom of the wicked’ [Proverbs 17:23]. And what is the bribe? Teshuvah…and good deeds.” ’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘My sons, repent while the gates of teshuvah are still open, for I shall accept bribes offered in this world, but not when I sit in judgment in the World to Come, of which it is said: “He will not favor the offerer of bribes” [Proverbs 6:35]’ ” (Tehillim Remez 670).
This is astounding! King David stood and addressed the Creator of the world, acknowledging his sin and looking for a way to be judged. He did not want to be judged by the Sanhedrin, which would not allow him to offer a bribe, namely teshuvah and good deeds. In fact only the Creator of the world can accept bribes. It is true that in the World to Come, “He will not favor the offerer of bribes,” but in this world even the worst sinner can offer G-d a bribe: Teshuvah and good deeds!
Hashem Looks at the Heart
We can now understand the “sin” (so to speak) of the Creator, namely that He accepts a shochad (bribe). Let us think about this. The verse states, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the L-RD looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). When a person presents himself before the court in order to be judged for a sin that he committed, then even if he affirms that he is sorry and has repented, and even if he rips his garments and covers his head with ashes, he is still liable to punishment according to the law. This is true not only in our days, but also in the times of the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem) when the Sanhedrin (high court) functioned at the pinnacle of its glory. When a person committed a sin by mistake or unintentionally, then even if he subsequently did teshuvah, the Sanhedrin was obligated to punish him, namely with corporal punishment or by obligating him to bring an offering. Although such was the case in the earthly court, G-d in the Heavenly court looks at the heart. When He sees that a person has done genuine teshuvah – teshuvah that was motivated by fear – then his intentional sins will be transformed into inadvertent sins. However if his teshuvah was motivated by love, then his intentional sins will be transformed into merits. Can we logically understand such a thing? Intentional sins – those committed with an attitude of rebellion – will be transformed into merits, into mitzvot! This is because G-d does not seek the death of the wicked, but instead wants the wicked to abandon his ways and live. G-d will patiently wait for this to happen – waiting until a person’s dying day – and when he does teshuvah, G-d will immediately accept it. This is how G-d accepts those who return to Him and repent, those who return to the Torah and good deeds. G-d does this, even if it means that He has to accept a shochad, as we have said.
The Attribute of Justice and the Attribute of Mercy
In his book Ahavat Chesed, the Chafetz Chaim Zatzal explains the profound meaning behind the concept of a shochad. He states:
“The answer is that there are two factors by which G-d controls the world from above: The attribute of justice, and [the attribute] of mercy. Now it is known that man’s rewards and punishments in the World to Come will be determined by the balance of his mitzvot against the sins that he committed, as Chazal have asserted: ‘If the majority of a man’s deeds are righteous, he belongs in the category of tzaddik; if iniquitous, he belongs in the category of rasha.’
“Every intelligent person understands that once G-d takes His seat on the throne of justice during a trial, then even a man whose merits were exceedingly numerous would leave the Heavenly court condemned (unless he had strained with all his might to fulfill all the mitzvot in all their detail). Each of his mitzvot would be subjected to meticulous scrutiny in order to determine whether it conformed to every requirement of the law. Even what is normally hidden from view (the nature of his mental attitude at the time) would also be most carefully examined for the proper love, awe, and joy at its performance, as well as the other factors required in every mitzvah. These are described in Sefer Charedim, and as Scripture states: ‘For G-d shall bring every work into judgment concerning what is hidden….’ He would certainly find many mitzvot whose requirements were not completely fulfilled, and these would be excluded from the count. A person’s sins would therefore outnumber his good deeds and he would, G-d forbid, be designated as a rasha in Heaven.
“However if the Holy One, blessed be He, decided to deal with man in accordance with His attribute of chesed and compassion – although it certainly would make a great difference whether all the dictates of a mitzvah were obeyed or whether some details were overlooked – nevertheless, some redeeming feature would be found for his improper performance, and his merits would not be rejected. It is even conceivable that a person’s sins might outnumber his meritorious acts. Yet if G-d were to exercise the full measure of His compassion, sins would be reduced in number. Assuredly, many of them could be termed unintentional or ascribed to some extenuating circumstance. If these would be deducted from the iniquities, then a person’s merits would outweigh his faults and the name tzaddik would be assigned to him” (Ahavat Chesed, Part II, Chapter 3).
Based on these words, the Chafetz Chaim goes on to explain King David’s intention in saying, “But you allow Yourself to be bribed” – namely that through teshuvah and good deeds, a person can be judged with goodness and compassion, and therefore end up being called a tzaddik. Now even if it is clear that this shochad is not really a bribe, the fact that David designated it as such, and that our Sages also defined it this way, demonstrates that this element is still present.
How to be Acquitted in Judgment
From this we can draw some useful insights regarding the coming days of judgment. In fact we have learned how we can be judged advantageously during the Days of Awe through teshuvah and good deeds. Imagine that we had to appear in court and that the stakes were high. What would we do if someone whispered into our ear and said that by giving the judge a certain amount of money, he would rule in our favor? Would we not reach into our pockets and gladly give this money? After all, the main thing is not to be found guilty. That said, how much more does this apply when we are being judged by the King of kings? Our Sages have whispered into our ears, telling us how to be acquitted in judgment – through teshuvah and good deeds.
“I Will Return” – Why does G-d do Teshuvah?
According to this, we can understand the words of our Sages that we cited at the outset, namely why G-d told the Jewish people: “I will return.” On the face of it, it is difficult to understand why G-d has to do teshuvah. The fact that G-d takes a shochad – from the wicked, no less – is in some way connected to the prohibition, “You shall not accept a shochad [bribe]” (Deuteronomy 16:19) and it is necessary to do teshuvah for this.
The Teshuvah of Manasseh
We see an example of “bribing” G-d in the account of Manasseh. It is said that he transgressed two prohibitions for which the Torah commands us to die rather than commit, namely murder and idolatry. Regarding murder we read, “Manasseh also shed very much innocent blood, until he filled Jerusalem from end to end with it; aside from his sin of causing Judah to sin, to do what was evil in the eyes of the L-RD” (II Kings 21:16). With regards to idolatry, we read that Manasseh “placed the Asherah idol that he had made in the Temple, concerning which the L-RD said to David and his son Solomon, ‘In this Temple and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen from among all the tribes of Israel, I shall place My Name forever’ ” (v.7). Manasseh sunk to the lowest possible level, having brought an idol into the Temple. He also made the people sin as he sat as king, as the leader of the people.
Despite all this, G-d accepted his teshuvah, even though it was not even complete. Thus we read: “But Manasseh led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem astray to do more evil than the nations that the L-RD had destroyed from before the Children of Israel. … So the L-RD brought against them the officers of the king of Assyria’s army, and they captured Manasseh with hunting hooks, brought him in chains, and led him off to Babylonia” (II Chronicles 33:9-11).
In the Midrash, our Sages give a detailed description of how Manasseh did teshuvah: “Rabbi Levi bar Hayyatha said: They made a mule of bronze and seated him on it and kindled a fire beneath it, and he cried out; ‘O idol [so-and-so], O idol [so-and-so], save me!’ When he saw that it was of no avail, he said: ‘I remember that my father used to read before me the verse, “When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you…He will not fail you” [Deuteronomy 4:30-31]. I will call unto Him: If He answers me, it is well; if not, then it is all one, and all gods are the same’ ” (Ruth Rabba 5:6).
This evildoer, who led tens of thousands of Jews into committing the most heinous sins of idolatry, and who spilled the blood of thousands – a man who placed an idol into the very Temple, and who said before everyone, “Do I do this for any other purpose than to provoke my Creator?” (Sanhedrin 103b) – now found himself in distress, his body being placed in a furnace. As he was about to endure an unusual death, he called upon all the idols that he served during his lifetime, trying one after the other, and yet none answered him. Only then did he think about the Creator of the world, and so he prayed and repented – and even then with the thought that “if He answers me, it is well; if not, then it is all one, and all gods are the same.” Can this be considered proper teshuvah?!
Our Sages go on to describe what happened in Heaven following Manasseh’s words:
“At that moment the ministering angels arose and closed all the windows of Heaven and appealed to G-d: ‘Sovereign of the universe, will You accept the repentance of a man who set up an idol in the very Temple?’ He replied, ‘If I do not accept his repentance, then I close the door in the face of all who would repent in the future.’ What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He dug an opening for [Manasseh’s] prayer beneath the Throne of Glory, where the angels could not reach” (Ruth Rabba 5:6).
The angels were trying to prevent Manasseh’s repentance from coming before G-d, closing (so to speak) all the portals and windows through which teshuvah ascends to Heaven. They did not need many reasons to do this – the simple fact that Manasseh had placed “an idol in the Temple” sufficed. This was an idolatrous act of rebellion without equal, and therefore his only goal was to enrage the Creator. Could there be any possible teshuvah for this? Placing an idol in the holiest place, in the house of G-d, was the worst act of rebellion possible, so how could there be teshuvah for it? This is stunning, that a person could lead others to sin and spill innocent blood, and yet teshuvah is possible for him! G-d answered the angels indirectly. In fact their arguments may well have been justified in regards to Manasseh. However other people risked being affected – “If I do not accept his repentance, then I close the door in the face of all who would repent in the future.” Logically speaking, and from almost every other point of view, Manasseh did not deserve to be forgiven. However the Creator was forced, so to speak, to create something new – a hole beneath the Throne of Glory – in order to prevent the angels from blocking his teshuvah. (Note: The Gemara in Sanhedrin recounts how G-d accepted his teshuvah despite the objections of the attribute of justice, which is in line with the statement of the Chafetz Chaim, cited above.)
The results of Manasseh’s teshuvah are recorded in Scripture. Thus every person who wants to do teshuvah, yet feels that it will never be accepted because of his many sins, should reflect upon what happened to Manasseh: “He prayed to [G-d], and He was entreated by him and heard his supplication, and He returned him to Jerusalem, to his kingship. Then Manasseh realized that the L-RD is G-d. … He removed the strange gods and the image from the Temple of the L-RD and all the altars that he had built on the mountain of the Temple of the L-RD and in Jerusalem, discarding them outside the city. He rebuilt the Altar of the L-RD and slaughtered peace-offerings and thanksgiving-offerings on it, and he commanded Judah to worship the L-RD, the G-d of Israel” (II Chronicles 33:13-16).
Manasseh did complete teshuvah. He was not ashamed to admit, before his subjects and people, that he had been wrong. He admitted that the L-RD is the true G-d and that there is none aside from Him. Furthermore, without the hole under the Throne of Glory which the Creator made in His great compassion, Manasseh would not have been able to change his ways through teshuvah.
Love Changes a Person’s Conduct
There has never been a greater shochad than Manasseh’s teshuvah. Despite all his sins, his split-second teshuvah enabled him to “bribe” (so to speak) the Creator. He was acquitted of his sins and could correct his deeds and his ways, for this is how G-d acts in this world: “He accepts a bribe from the bosom of the wicked.” He acts the same way with His children every year, accepting bribes of teshuvah and good deeds from them, and granting them an extra year. It is because of this, so to speak, that He desires to do teshuvah.
From here we learn just how great G-d’s love for us really is, to the point that He is ready to transgress His own laws, to change His ways and accept bribes. As the Midrash that we cited states: “ ‘Return, O Israel, to the L-RD your G-d’ – This is like a prince who has fallen ill, and the royal physicians advise him to eat a certain type of food in order to recover. However his fear of eating it is so great that his father must comfort him by saying, ‘This won’t hurt you. Look, I’m eating it myself!’ Thus G-d says to Israel, ‘You are ashamed of doing teshuvah. I will be the first to do teshuvah,’ as it is written: ‘Thus says the L-RD: I will return.’ Now if the One Who never sinned nor transgressed (G-d forbid), has said: ‘I will return,’ how much more should we do teshuvah and return to G-d.” Just like a father who loves his son and is ready to risk his kingdom, health, and everything else in order to demonstrate that something is not bad for him, likewise G-d is ready to modify the mechanisms that have been established since the creation of the world, to the point of doing teshuvah. As our Sages have said, “Love changes a person’s conduct.” Because of His love for us, G-d treats us above and beyond the strict letter of the law.
The World Was Created for Me
If G-d does so much because of His love for us, to the point of twisting what is right – to the point of straightening what is twisted and even digging a hole under His Throne of Glory so we can do teshuvah – then how much more should we learn to strengthen ourselves and do complete teshuvah! Although the King Himself is making an effort to bring His creatures closer to Him and rectify their distorted ways, do we take these things to heart?
We must deeply reflect upon why G-d has done so much good for us. We have learned from the passage in Sanhedrin, “For this reason was man created alone, to teach you that whosoever…saves a single soul of Israel, Scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world. … Therefore every single person is obliged to say: The world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 37a). The entire world in all its complexity, along with all its secrets and mysteries – everything was created for man, the crown of Creation.
We should not make the mistake of thinking that man is the be all and end all of Creation. Our Sages say that man was also created to serve his Creator, as it is written: “Man is born to toil…. Yet I still do not know whether this toil is in Torah or [secular] conversation. Yet when it is said, ‘This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth’ [Joshua 1:8], I conclude that one was created to toil in Torah” (Sanhedrin 99b). In fact the entire world was created for man, whose role is to toil in Torah. The Sages have also said that if it were not for the Torah, Heaven and earth would not endure (Pesachim 68b). The Gemara (Nedarim 32a) also brings this same point regarding the verse, “If not for My covenant [the Torah], I would not have appointed days and nights, the decrees of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:25).
The Destiny of Man, the Crown of Creation
It is worthwhile to reflect upon this subject. Look around and see what G-d has created. Man is an incredible being, endowed with the ability to see – a sense that even today astounds thousands of scientists – as well as the ability to speak. A person’s hands and feet have ten digits, each containing dozens of nerves that allow him to touch things, to sense hot and cold, wet and dry. It does not stop there, however, for G-d created man with two ears in order to hear his fellow. He also gave him a nose, endowing him with a sense of smell. The goal behind it all is for man to devote himself to the Torah, as it is written: “Man is born to toil” (Job 5:7).
Furthermore, in order that we may sit down and fulfill the mission for which we came into the world, G-d created other people, as the Rambam states in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah: “If it were not for the foolish, the world would lay in ruin.” The Rambam qualifies “the foolish” as being those who abandon the holy Torah during their lifetime, and who work and strive solely for material goals. In fact the world could not last without such people, since it needs doctors, cooks, engineers, etc. Yet the Rambam describes people whose goals are solely material as being “foolish,” for man’s goal in this world is to serve G-d and toil in Torah. Therefore anyone who puts eternal life aside in order to devote himself to this fleeting life is considered as being “foolish.”
Teshuvah Above All
G-d is not content with all the kindnesses that He has lavished upon us until now. Out of His tremendous love for us, He has done even greater good by granting us teshuvah. As Rabbeinu Yona states in the introduction to his book Sha’arei Teshuvah:
“Among the favors that G-d has done for us, His creations, has been to provide us with a way to rise above our destructive acts, to avoid the traps that we set by our acts of defiance, to ward off personal devastation, and to deflect His anger by kindly and justly teaching us how to return to Him, and by alerting us to do this when we sin against Him, for He knows our impulses. Thus it is written, ‘Good and upright is the L-RD, therefore He guides sinners on the way’ [Psalms 25:8].”
The Creator has shown tremendous kindness to man, granting him abilities and talents, family and friends, as well as an infinite number of things. He has granted him Torah and Shabbat, and in His abundant kindness and righteousness, G-d has given him yet another gift: Teshuvah.
The more we reflect upon this gift, the more we realize just how great His love for us is. When a king of flesh and blood orders his subjects to respect him, and yet they sin against him, he will immediately imprison and punish them. The same does not apply to G-d, for He is patient and waits for His children to do teshuvah. Furthermore, G-d is not content with accepting teshuvah after a person sins, for He tells man that he can rectify himself even before he sins!
Has anyone ever heard of such a thing – that a king will command his subjects to do something, and at the same time he says that if they want to disobey his orders and rebel, they can still escape his wrath? Has anyone ever heard of such a king?!
Due to the Creator’s goodness and righteousness, however, He has given us a way to correct ourselves and improve our deeds. Not only that, but He has shown us the path to follow.
In the Gemara, our Sages have said that punishment only comes upon the world on account of the Jewish people (Yebamot 63a). If an earthquake occurs in Turkey or a hurricane strikes the United States, it is on account of the Jewish people – in order to awaken and rouse them from their daily routine. This is because the Creator, in His goodness, does not want to harm us, not even for the sake of leading us to teshuvah. He first tries to awaken us through various signs: A punishment on the peoples around us or a change in the natural order of creation. It is only then, if we still have not repented, that He strikes us, at first with trees and rocks, and then directly (G-d forbid). This is all due to His great kindness.
The Ten Days of Repentance
G-d is not even content with sending us constant messages, for He does us yet another kindness by setting aside specific times by which a person can receive special Divine help for doing teshuvah. This refers to the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (Ten days of Repentance), which according to our Sages is mentioned in the verse: “Seek the L-RD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6).
The Baal HaTanya writes that during this time, G-d is like a king who goes out into the fields (Likutei Torah, Deuteronomy 32:2). One possible way to explain this statement is that a king generally abides in the royal palace, almost never mixing among commoners. Therefore anyone who wants to present a request before the king must first ask for special permission to receive an audience with him. Even if granted an audience with the king, a person must dress properly and undergo rigorous security checks in order to ensure that he poses no threat. Afterwards, he must go before the king’s guards and officials, ministers and servants, passing one hall after the next, until he finally makes it before the king. Even at that point, he is only allowed to speak to the king for a brief instant. Of course, all of this only happens if he has found favor in the eyes of the king’s ministers and servants, since in most cases it will be these ministers who transmit requests to the king. A regular individual will generally not have the privilege of seeing the king in person.
Yet such is not the case when the king goes out into the fields, for then he comes into direct and almost unlimited contact with the common people. Everyone can then approach the king and pour out his heart’s request before him. It is, in effect, a favorable time when the king comes out to his people – when the king goes out into the fields.
The same applies to the Ten Days of Repentance. In fact the gates are closed during the entire year, and when teshuvah wishes to enter, it must take the royal path – it must break the gates and smash the locks. In other words, only teshuvah that is done correctly will be accepted. Such is not the case when “the king is in the fields,” for one who asks will then be answered and his prayer will be accepted. Under such circumstances, there is a direct connection between king and commoner – between G-d and a regular individual.
Hence to not call upon the King when He is present – when He is so close – would constitute an act of rebellion against His kingdom. In His goodness, the Creator lavishes us with great kindness despite our bad behavior. Yet instead of doing good in return and coming closer to Him, we continue to attend to our own affairs as usual.
We must therefore take note of this and wake up. We must love the Creator, Who loves us, and come closer to Him. We must also give Him a shochad, namely teshuvah and good deeds.