Beyond Forgiveness: The Power of Repentance
Our Gemara on amud beis raises various proofs to Rabbi Meir’s position that legal conditions for them to be binding must have both the positive and negative clause enumerated. Thus, one must state, “If you do X, then I will grant Y.” The Gemara raises a question from the verse where God instructs Cain (Bereishis 4:7):
הֲל֤וֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ שְׂאֵ֔ת וְאִם֙ לֹ֣א תֵיטִ֔יב לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשׇׁל־בּֽוֹ׃
Surely, if you do right, there is uplifting (or forbearance). But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.
Here we see God detailing both the positive and negative clauses, which supports Rabbi Meir’s position. Rav Solovetchick (Reshimas Shiurim ibid) asks, how is this a support to Rabbi Meir and proof against his opposition? This is not a legal action that requires conditions; rather, it is God letting Cain know about the facts of life, so to speak. Rav Solovetchick answers that we must say the verse is referring to a legal condition that validates or invalidates the action of sin. Thus, the message to Cain is, “Though you may have sinned, if you repent, then the sin will be revoked. But if you do not repent, then it will be enacted and remain valid.”
Rav Soloveitchik connects this to the position of Reish Lakish in Yoma (86b) that repentance has the power to turn intentional sin into accidental sin, and repentance from sincere love can even turn past sins into mitzvos! How is such a metaphysical feat possible when the sin is an action that was, in fact, done? If we say that the action of sin itself was contingent upon God’s clause to Cain (and, after all, God alone gets to decide what is sin and what the terms are), then repentance can uproot and invalidate the sinful action in its entirety.
The Rav goes on to relate this to another ancient dispute, regarding if a Cohen who committed negligent manslaughter is invalidated from “duchaning,” performing the priestly blessings. According to Rambam (Tefila 15:31), even repentance cannot undo this spiritual stain, while according to Hagahos Maimoni (ibid 1), repentance can restore his status. Hagahos Maimoni holds of the above retroactive removal of sin in a straightforward manner; therefore, the penitent Cohen is now restored. However, the Rav argues that according to the Rambam, we cannot say he rejects this idea. Rather, we must say that the invalidation of the Cohen is not due to the existence of sin per se, and instead being the proximate cause of death turns it into a pesul haguf, a physical invalidation, much as a physical blemish which invalidates a Cohen regardless of his piety and religious standing.
Ultimately, this revolutionary idea of Rav Soloveitchik opens up a new understanding of how repentance works. It is not merely forgiveness, but rather the activation of a “backdoor clause,” where the original sin was conditional upon NOT repenting. Thus, repentance truly erases sin.
Proto-Torah Observance by the Ancients
Our Gemara on Amud Beis rules that conversion to Judaism requires a Bais Din of three Jewish judges. Conversion without this criterion is not valid.
The Gemara (Sotah 12b) tells us that when the daughter of Pharaoh went to the Nile to bathe, she also wanted to cleanse herself of her family’s idolatrous practices. We can either understand this to be how she merited to be the adoptive mother of Moshe, or she intuited that a holy destiny awaited her, and she sought to purify herself prior. Interestingly, Rashi (ibid) is not satisfied with this narrative and adds, “She immersed herself with the intention of conversion.”
The Sefer Daf al Daf brings down a question on this Rashi. How could she have performed a conversion on herself without a Bais Din? He quotes the Turei Even (Megillah 13a) who answers that conversion only requires a Beis Din to bring a Noachide into the Jewish nation. Since at that time, prior to the giving of the Torah and the covenant, even Jews were Noachides, no Bais Din was required.
However, this answer still begs the question as to what Rashi was trying to add. If it was purification she sought, the Gemara already stated that. If it was conversion, albeit not a Noachide to Jewish conversion, but a “Noachide son of Noah” to “Noachide son of Abraham conversion,” what significance does this add beyond the Gemara? I believe that Rashi wants us to know that Pharaoh’s daughter’s actions constituted something spiritually equivalent to conversion in every sense of the word. She either intuited via Ruach HaKodesh that immersion activated something beyond mere purification, or it was an ancient spiritual tradition stemming back to Adam, shared by many nations at that time, that immersion accomplished spiritual cleansing and possibly an act of conversion. (There is a theologically valid idea that Noach and the Patriarchs each had a separate “Torah” that they observed, distinct from the Torah of Moshe, see Sefer Hikkarim 1:4.)
If we accept this idea, that there was a Torah of sorts, transmitted from Adam or other early prophets such as Shem and Ever, we can resolve an age-old question on the Rambam. The Rambam famously asserts in the Moreh (III:46) that the rituals of animal sacrifice were a concession to the Jewish dependence and familiarity with worship via concrete actions, which were vestigial from idolatrous practices. The Rambam asks, imagine a person being told he can be religious without any observances that he is used to, such as Shabbos, fast days, or Tefilin. It would be utterly disorienting and unsustainable. So Hashem legislated a form of worship and devotion via means that were already familiar to the Jews, similar to the principle of the Torah speaking in common vernacular and idiom (Berachos 31b), so too the Torah used sociological and psychological touchstones to allow for a more seamless transition to monotheistic worship.
The Ramban (Vayikra 1:9) is horrified by such a position and finds it theologically absurd. The sacrificial rituals have deep mystical secrets and effects and must not be dismissed as mere leftovers from an idolatrous past. Furthermore, the Ramban asks what in yeshiva we would call a “Bomb Kashe” on the Rambam. What about the sacrifices brought by Cain, Hevel, Noach, and Avraham? Is it tenable to say at such an early time in history that they too were contaminated by idolatry?
How could the Rambam, with his towering intellect, have missed such an obvious question? He must have had a different way of understanding these early sacrifices. If we apply the above idea which emerges from Rashi in Sotah, we can explain the Rambam’s line of thought as follows. There was a universal human religious instinct to offer sacrifices, analogous to the human religious instinct to purify oneself by bathing. At that point in history, it was not particularly Jewish. Therefore, for the Rambam, it was not a problem or repulsive that Adam and Noach and the Patriarchs utilized sacrifices because they were expressing a religious instinct and worshiping God, much like one might invent their own prayers or rituals to serve God in their own way. However, his argument still was that it was not a particularly Jewish feature, nor more significant than any man-made expression of devotion to God. If Cain decided to light a lamp in devotion to God, or Noach decided to make a rain dance (ironically!), that too would have been equally valid insofar as their devotion was sincere and enacted, but not more religiously powerful than anything else they might have done. Sacrifices only became specifically holy when mandated by the Torah. Thus, the Rambam’s argument was that the only reason why it was mandated in such a particular physical way was that there was a pre-existing custom and religious impulse in that direction. True in the beginning, it was not idolatrous. Still, shortly enough, in the times of Enoch, it became idolatrous (see Rambam Laws of Idolatry 1:1). Thus God did not require or specifically need sacrifices as a mode of expression in ancient times prior to the giving of the Torah, and the Rambam can still argue that the Torah chose this mode of religious expression to ease the transition from concrete idolatrous worship of physical Gods to the monotheistic worship of an invisible, abstract God.
(There are, no doubt, other explanations for the Rambam’s position. The Rambam in his introduction to the Moreh explicitly states that there are secrets to the Torah that he cannot divulge, and he will deliberately place contradictions within the text to hint at ideas that must be understood by wise inference only for those who are ready, and not by being stated outright. This is likely one of those examples.)
Great People and Great Errors
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph quotes the injunction from Devarim (23:16):
לֹא־תַסְגִּ֥יר עֶ֖בֶד אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֑יו אֲשֶׁר־יִנָּצֵ֥ל אֵלֶ֖יךָ מֵעִ֥ם אֲדֹנָֽיו׃
“You shall not turn over to the master a slave who seeks refuge with you from that master.”
Although our Gemara darshens this verse differently, halakhically speaking, this verse is interpreted as a prohibition against returning a Canaanite slave who ran away to Israel from his master, Jew or Gentile, who resides outside the land of Israel. Since he now is in a higher level of holiness and Torah observance, we allow him to stay in situ and live as a free man (Gittin 45a).
Tzror Hamor (Avraham Yaakov Seva, 1440-1508, a Sephardic mystic, and first printed in 1523) makes a surprising assertion and criticism of Avraham, based on this injunction. He states (Bereishis 16:1) that the suffering of various exiles and persecutions under the Ishmaelite clan came as a result of a series of sins committed by Avraham and Sarah. When Avraham questioned God about how he would be a great nation if he had no children, this led to taking Hagar as a concubine. That lack of faith in God was sin number one. Sin number two was handing Hagar over to Sarah, despite her oppression of Hagar, as this was a violation of לֹא־תַסְגִּ֥יר עֶ֖בֶד אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֑יו “You shall not turn over to the master a slave who seeks refuge with you from that master.” And from all this, stemmed the tragedy and millennia-long enmity of the sons of Yishmael to the sons of Yitschak.
Before we get into the challenges of how Tzror Hamor found the temerity to criticize Avraham, we need to contend with a basic contradiction. The verse later (Bereishis 21:12) has God instructing Avraham to LISTEN to what Sarah says, and her intention is to drive Yishmael out. So what was wrong with listening to Sarah the first time and allowing Sarah to oppress Hagar (ibid 16:6)? We must say that at that time, Avraham was not yet commanded as such, and so he should NOT have made the choices he made. Later, once the fate was sealed, it became God’s will as well, although this was already down the road toward tragedy. This is not as theologically strange as it may seem, see Tosafos Yevamos 62a “Dichsiv,” where Tosafos asserts that it is quite possible for Aharon and Miriam to view Moshe’s behavior as incorrect, even when Hashem “agreed” with him, because Hashem guides a person along his predilections and tendencies. That is to say, Aharon and Miriam thought, for what Moshe was up to at that time, this was God’s will, but if Moshe was on a different level, God would have expected more. See Psychology of the Daf Megillah 21 and Yevamos 62.
We do not usually find commentaries faulting revered Biblical figures beyond whatever is mentioned in Midrash or Gemara, with some notable exceptions. This is a genre of Jewish literature that requires its own separate study. For example, Ramban (Bereishis 12:10) asserts that Avraham sinned by lying regarding Sarah being his sister instead of his wife, out of fear for his life, because he put her in danger of being violated. Ramban says this sin was one of the causes of the enslavement in Egypt. (Ramban also faults Sarah and Avraham for treating Hagar cruelly, similar to Tzror Hamor, see Ramban ibid 16:6, and Radak ibid.) How we understand that the Ramban took it upon himself to add on a criticism of Avraham Avinu is so difficult to process that Rav Moshe Z”TL (Darash Moshe ibid, also see vol II, p. 10, and Kol Ram by Rav A. Fishelis vol II, p. 22) says that it must not be authentic and it is a mitzvah to erase from the Ramban. Yet, if we grant that Ramban did write this, as we see Tzror Hamor also allows himself this latitude, we might argue that any time the middah knegged middah – measure for measure corresponding consequence -, is so self-evident from the Biblical narrative, it becomes as if it was explicitly stated, and therefore authoritative.
However, I believe if Rav Moshe rejected the text of Ramban who was several hundred years prior to Tzror Hamor, then he probably would have rejected Tzror Hamor as well, and I suppose Radak too. Yet, the fact that three different authorities (Ramban, Radak and Tzror Hamor) seemed to have independently granted themselves license to criticize the Biblical figures statistically slant the evidence in favor of the idea that they simply meant what was stated, and perhaps had the rationale suggested above. (Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch Bereishis 12:2 actually quotes the Ramban as an object lesson that the Torah wants us to see the struggles and errors of even the great people.)
Ultimately, if we accept Tzror Hamor’s criticism of Avraham’s behavior at least as an object lesson and not factual about Avraham (in deference to Rav Moshe), the message for us is that when it comes to certain domestic stress and disputes, it is hard for anyone to think straight. Once a person is in a zone lacking in shalom bayis, bad things happen.