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On Teshuva (Repentence)

25 Elul 5757

Our choice, Moshe tells us today at the end of Parshat Nitzavim, is between life and death, between the blessing and the curse. Teshuv el Adonai Elohekha — return to the Lord your God — and Hashem will give us abundant food and wealth and children. And if we turn away? Brimstone, salt, burnt earth and death. Again and again, the parsha urges us to return to God and hearken to God’s voice.

Two weeks from now, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we will stare into the face of death, spiritually if not physically. Our challenge, Moshe tells us today, is to choose life and find a way to live more fully. We call this process teshuva — usually translated as “repentance,” but literally meaning “returning.” We hope the result of this process will be atonement, which literally means exactly what it says: becoming at-one with God and the world.

How do we do that?

The Yom Kippur liturgy and traditions have a lot to say on this question. Through the liturgy, we confess and seek forgiveness for offenses against God. But Jewish tradition is clear that prayer can’t atone for offenses against other people. To do that, we have to go to our friends and family, our neighbors and co-workers, tell them how we have wronged them and ask forgiveness.

These traditions deal with atonement in its usual sense: offenders trying to make up for their offenses. But I believe atonement, at-one-ment, sweeps more broadly. It’s not just offenders who need to at-one. Victims do, too.

Lessons about this second kind of at-one-ment come from a Biblical source we don’t normally associate with Yom Kippur: the Book of Job, one of the Torah’s most troubling victim stories.

We learn in the book’s opening verses that Job is “blameless and upright,” that he “fears God and shuns evil.” We also learn that he’s the richest man around, blessed not only with fabulous wealth but also with 10 children. Surely, here is a shining example of someone who has hearkened to God’s voice, who has followed Moshe’s exhortation to “choose life,” and who has been rewarded for his choice.

But not for long. Satan challenges God to a wager: Put Job to the test. Make him suffer. Then we’ll see how pious he is. I bet he’ll curse you to your face.

OK, God replies. Make him suffer.

And Satan does, destroying all of Job’s wealth, killing all his children and finally inflicting agonizing illness on Job himself. Job responds at first with steadfast faith. But eventually he explodes in anger. He spews out page after page of furious complaint. Why are you torturing me? he demands of God. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’d rather you kill me.

When Job finishes ranting and falls silent — apparently on the verge of suicide — God replies as a voice from a whirlwind. It’s not a comforting voice.

Did you make this universe? God demands of Job. Do you command the day to break and the winds to blow? Do you understand the workings of the world?

And Job responds: “I spoke without understanding, of things beyond me. … I had heard you with my ears, but now I see you with my eyes. Therefore, nehamti al `afar v’efer.”

Now, those last words have inspired some startlingly disparate translations, arising from the ambiguous Hebrew root nhm. According to the Revised Standard Version, Job says, “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” The New JPS translation says: “Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.” The poet Stephen Mitchell strikes a very different tone: “Therefore I will be quiet,” Job says, “comforted that I am dust.”

Repent. Recant and relent. Comforted. All of these choices are puzzling and disturbing, as is the entire story of Job. Why does God impose suffering on an upright and blameless man? When that man demands an explanation for the injustice, why does God answer in a bullying voice? And why, in the end, should this innocent man repent, recant or, for that matter, find comfort?

I won’t even try to answer the first two questions. But I will take a stab at the third. My answer has to do with choosing life and with at-onement.

I believe that the Job of the good old days, the days before God began tormenting him with his own personal parade of plagues, is not at one with his fellows or with God. I’m not questioning that Job is “blameless and upright,” that he “fears God and shuns evil.” I’m not claiming that Job is guilty and deserves punishment. I’m saying that despite his blameless and upright conduct — or perhaps through it — Job sets himself apart from his family, his neighbors and his God. Only after he suffers misery upon undeserved misery, only after his friends harangue him that he must be harboring some secret sin, only after he challenges God, spends all his words and nearly all his life force, stares death in the face — only then does Job become at-one.

We can see that Job is a man divided from his surroundings from the very beginning of the book. Job has ten children. We never learn their names, which is an indication of how little intimacy he has with them. His children regularly get together for feasts. Job does not join them.

When God boasts about Job’s uprightness, Satan retorts that his perfect conduct is no great surprise, since God has put a “fence” around Job and his household (Job 1:10). God’s “fence” does protect Job. But while it fences out harm, it also fences Job in. Instead of feasting with his family, Job stays away, worrying that they might become infected by sin, sending word for them to sanctify themselves. Instead of engaging with his neighbors, he tells us that he “decided their course and presided over them,” living “like a king among his troops” (Job 29:25). God’s “fence” preserves Job as fruit is preserved: plucked from the vine, boiled and sealed in a jar to halt its natural growth and decay. Job has not chosen life.

Near the end of his long tirade against God’s injustice, Job begins to boast about how well he used to treat poor people and his servants. He never allowed poor people to pass by without help, he says, because “I cannot bear God’s threat” (Job 31:23). Explaining why he always attended to servants’ complaints, Job asks: “Did not One God form us both in the womb?” (Job 31:14-15)

These explanations give rise to two insights about the old, fenced-in Job. First, his acts of kindness were rooted not in love or compassion but in fear of punishment. Second, his recognition that One God created both him and the lowliest beggar turns out to be just a factual observation — that God is the source of all life. It doesn’t show any empathy or feeling of at-oneness with those who are less fortunate. Even in his misery, Job still scoffs at people who live in the streets, calling them “scoundrels” and “nobodies” “whose fathers,” he sneers, “I would have disdained to put among my sheep dogs” (Job 30:1, 8). Job gives tzedaqa [charity], he’s a pillar of the community — but he’s not a mensch.

* * *

As Job’s story illustrates, even those with the most flawless records of piety and charity may need at-one-ment. In asking what Yom Kippur teaches us about how to atone, I want to take a look at another story from the Torah: the Book of Jonah. Read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service, as the long, long day of prayer winds down, this book tells the famous story of how Jonah got into and out of the belly of a whale. It also tells us a great deal about atonement.

God orders Jonah to go to the notoriously wicked city of Nineveh, a bitter enemy of the Israelites, and prophesy the city’s imminent doom. Jonah instead runs away and boards a ship for Tarshish. So God sends a huge storm that threatens to sink the ship. The sailors, with a heart-wrenching appeal for God’s mercy, toss Jonah overboard and the storm dies down.

Then God sends a giant fish to swallow Jonah. Inside its belly, the taciturn Jonah bursts into prayer. He vividly describes his near-death experience and promises to do as God tells him. The fish belches him out onto the shore, and God renews the order to go to Nineveh. This time Jonah obeys, proclaiming that the city will be destroyed in 40 days. The king of Nineveh orders universal fasting and penitence. And God, in an appearance of that crucial root nhm from the end of the Book of Job (translated in Job as “repent,” “recant” or “comforted”), decides not to punish Nineveh.

Jonah is furious and cries out to God. “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live” (Jonah 4:2-3). To which God replies with three words: “Hetiv hara lakh – Doest thou well to be angry?” Jonah does not answer; instead, he sets up camp outside Nineveh and waits, angrily, to see whether the city will get the punishment he thinks it deserves.

While Jonah sits, God causes a gourd plant to grow up over his head, giving him shade and making him very happy. The next morning, God sends a worm to kill the plant. The sun beats down on Jonah; again he begs for death. Again God challenges him: “Hativ hara lakh?” This time Jonah answers that he is angry enough to die. God responds: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!” (Jonah 4:10-11)

The Book of Jonah ends there, with God’s question to Jonah hanging. I’d like to begin an examination of the book not with that question but with a related theme, that of talking (or failing to talk) to God.

This issue recurs frequently in the Torah. For human characters, refusing to talk to God is never a good move.

Cain is the first: When God sees him, crestfallen because God has spurned his sacrifice while accepting his brother Abel’s, God challenges Cain to air his grievance. Sin is at your door, God warns; but you can conquer it. Cain does not take God up on the invitation. Instead he kills Abel and is sent into permanent exile, the opposite of at-one-ment.

Later in Genesis, Abraham — normally ready to argue with God — falls silent when God orders him to kill his beloved son, Isaac. After narrowly averting the intended sacrifice, God also falls silent, never again speaking to Abraham. Some people say that by silently obeying, Abraham passed God’s test. I would counter that there can be more than one way to take a test, and that while Abraham’s silent obedience earned a passing grade, challenging God’s heinous order might have won him an A. Certainly Abraham’s post-Aqeda life (his wife dead, one son banished, the other son badly damaged) doesn’t bespeak much at-one-ment.

Jonah’s record on talking to God is mixed. At the beginning of the story he completely ducks his assignment without a word of argument or explanation. In stark contrast to the God who withdraws from Cain and Abraham, however, the Lord tracks Jonah down and, by putting his life in jeopardy, forces a confrontation.

Inside the fish, Jonah appears to recognize the deadly consequences of his self-imposed exile. He seems to seek at-one-ment. But the reconciliation is short-lived — and for a startling reason. Although Jonah succeeds in getting Nineveh to atone, he doesn’t recognize that he, himself, needs to become at-one with the enemy city. He wants God to follow through on the threat to wipe out Nineveh. But, presumably because the people of Nineveh asked forgiveness, God has repented and recanted, changed God’s mind — again, the root nhm.

Now Jonah does talk to God, and his complaint sounds like an inverted version of Job’s. Job criticizes God for punishing the innocent; Jonah criticizes for not punishing the guilty. Like Job, Jonah finds God’s injustice too much to bear and prays for death. God responds with that three-word question: “Hetiv hara lakh – Doest thou well to be angry?” Instead of challenging Jonah’s legal or moral right to be angry, God asks whether his anger is good for him or a good thing to do. Anger follows its own logic, which has nothing to do with the contours of rights; it is up to the angry person to decide whether to fuel it or squelch it, harness it or let it go.

In any case, whatever meaning Jonah hears in God’s question, he does not answer.

So God engineers the gourd incident, again in an effort to provoke conversation. Again Jonah says he’d be better off dead. Again, God challenges: “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” This time, Jonah answers: “I do well to be angry, even unto death” (Jonah 4:9). He will hold onto his fury, even if it kills him. And now God explicitly invokes compassion, contrasting the worthiness of a day-old gourd plant with that of Nineveh and its 120,000 innocent inhabitants. The book doesn’t tell us whether or how Jonah responds.

* * *

If the cycle of talking-to-God-about-punishment stories culminates in the Book of Job, what lessons does that book offer for atonement? One lesson hearkens back to the Yom Kippur injunction to become at-one with other people before seeking to become at-one with God. Our central prayer, the Shema, proclaims that God is One. That means not only that God is singular but also that God is all. If we cut ourselves off from God’s other children, we cut ourselves off from God. Job needs to learn, first through the humiliation of his suffering and then through the overpowering spectacle of seeing God, that he is one with the scoundrels and nobodies he scorns, even with the wicked he wishes God would punish.

Yet in a way, Job’s arrogance saves his life. His wife urges him to “curse God and die.” Instead, he has the temerity to call God to account.

Job does not, as Satan predicted, curse God to God’s face. Rather, he rails against the absent God, the one who is unseen, unheard, unfelt except through misery. When God destroys the fence around Job, breaks the seal on the jar of preserves and lets the rot set in, perhaps God is clumsily trying to force Job out of the jar and back into the real world of life and death. And when Job finally “sees” God in the whirlwind, he does not curse. “I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I did not know,” he acknowledges (Job 42:3). Job recants and relents and is comforted — nihum. He is at-one with God and the universe in all its beauty and terror, creation and destruction.

Then God restores Job’s wealth twice over. His brothers and sisters and former friends come to his home, share a meal and comfort him for the misery God heaped on him. That’s a sharp contrast to his previous, fenced-in life, when his children feasted without him. Job has ten more children. This time, unlike before, we hear about his life with them: about his pride in his daughters, the sensuous names he gives them, the inheritance he bestows on them along with their brothers. Clearly, Job enjoys spending time with his children and grandchildren. He has learned that life inside the fence is an illusion. At any moment, a whirlwind can come along and rip apart the fence and everything it protected. Better to live outside, without protection, in the sun and rain and wind, soaking up joy and pain, at one with all God’s world.

Job, his illusions shattered along with his former life, has no choice but to live outside the fence. Neither, the Book of Job suggests, do the rest of us. Live from the whirlwind, Job gives us an eyewitness report: We are dust and ashes. Our only choice is whether to hang onto our illusions or to change our minds (nhm): to see that comfort and suffering, wicked and righteous, God and Satan are all One. If we can see that and still manage, as Job did, to speak the truth about injustice, perhaps we can become at-one.

Like the Book of Job, the Yom Kippur liturgy is a seemingly endless flood of words. We spend all day talking at God, not pausing even to eat or drink. At the end, we have emptied ourselves; there are no prayers left but the voice of the shofar. Then, finally, we can hope that we, like Job, will be ready not just to hear with our ears but to see with our eyes and to repent, change our minds and be comforted.

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