Painting byMaurycy Gottlieb (1878)


At the beginning of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts several incidents that transpired during the People of Israel’s forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, including the tragic sin of the spies.  He recalls Israel’s refusal to proceed to Eretz Yisrael upon hearing the spies' report of the Canaanites' military power, and God's harsh decree that the parent generation would perish in the wilderness.  In response to God's decree, many among the people decided to nevertheless attempt to go up and capture the Land: "You replied to me and said: ‘We have sinned to the Lord.  We will go up now and fight, just as the Lord our God commanded us.'  And you girded yourselves with war gear…" (1:41). The Israelites attempted to reverse the decree by reversing the sin: if they betrayed the Almighty by mistrusting Him and refusing to wage war against the Canaanites, they now courageously took up arms and headed towards the hills of Canaan.  God, however, warned them against undertaking this campaign. But the people ignored the divine warning, and were indeed defeated by the Amorites in southern Canaan.

Rabbi David Silverberg ( notes that many writers have addressed the question of why the process of teshuva, repentance, was suddenly ineffective in this instance.  At first glance, it appears that the people did exactly what the situation demanded.  After having been admonished and sentenced by the Heavenly tribunal, they identified the source of their wrongdoing and sought to rectify their error.  They were now willing to conquer the Land of Israel.  Why was their teshuva not accepted?

One answer might be that their brazen insistence on proceeding to fight the Canaanites revealed that, in truth, they had not corrected the basic flaw of the sin of the spies.  They had sinned by perceiving the intended battle in Canaan as an ordinary military conflict, where the outcome would be determined based on manpower and ammunition.  Their fear of defeat, in spite of God's promise to capture the Land for them, revealed that they questioned God's ability.  Rather than acknowledging the Almighty's indispensable role in this campaign, they saw themselves as the sole participants in the upcoming war, and thus naturally concluded that it was doomed to failure.  Now, after hearing God's decree, they commit the same offense, only in the converse.  God tells them not to fight, to continue traveling through the wilderness; yet they insist on their independent ability to successfully dispossess the peoples of Canaan.  Once again, they fail to recognize God as the ultimate force determining their fate, and decide that they can capture the Land even when He explicitly orders against waging battle.

Rabbi Silverberg cites an alternate explanation as to why the people's teshuva was ineffective. This interpretation, given by Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg in his haKetav ve-haKabbala, touches upon a fundamental principle concerning the nature of teshuva in general.  Rav Mecklenberg points to the fact that the people never turned to God directly, but rather addressed Moses.  It was to the latter that they spoke when they declared, "We have sinned to the Lord."  Significantly, they never addressed God Himself.  This "confession," which the people declared only to Moses, signified a lack of sincerity and humble submission, and indicates that they thought they could brush themselves clean of guilt simply by stating the words, "We have sinned to the Lord."

Rav Soloveitchik and others have developed a similar concept based on a careful reading of the Maimonides’s description of the mitzva of teshuva.  In Sefer haMitzvot (asei 73), Rambam writes, "He commanded us to confess the iniquities and sins that we committed before the Almighty."  Likewise, in his introduction to Yad, Hilkhot Teshuva, Rambam describes the mitzva of repentance as follows: "that a sinner must return from his sin before God and confess."  The Rambam clearly focuses on the importance of performing teshuva "before God," indicating that the teshuva obligation requires addressing the Almighty directly and confessing guilt.  This element is an indispensable component of the teshuva experience, as it requires a genuine feeling of humiliation and inadequacy.  Beyond the cognizant awareness of wrongdoing, the mitzva of teshuva demands that one believe that God is nigh; He watches our actions and cares how we act. This awareness makes one feel ashamed by his misconduct; and, thus, requires that the individual stand directly before God, as it were, and admit to Him his failing.

Teshuva (repentance) is about developing a closer, more intimate, relationship with our Creator. This is the goal of High Holiday prayer service, and it is our task to be sensitive to its calling. 

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University.



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Aryeh A. Frimer

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer graduated from Brooklyn College in 1969, and at the same time received his Rabbinical Ordination from the late Rabbi Yehudah Gershuni. While a graduate student in organic ...

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