Photo Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

I recently thought of, and then happened to come across a quote of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (known in my circles as the Rav), zt”l, spoke often of dialectical tension, how the Jewish worldview often requires each of us (not just the first-rate intelligences) to hold exactly such opposing ideas in mind. 

One example comes up this time of year, when we again embark on teshuvah, repentance. Especially in the version Rabbenu Yonah of Gerona put forth in his Sha’arei Teshuvah, proper repentance has two sides, which might seem in tension or contradiction. We must see the negative in ourselves, find, admit, and confront our many failings; yet at the same time, we must and do believe Hashem has promised to rehabilitate us, to welcome us back to a cleansed and purified relationship. Neither step can be allowed to reduce our investment in the other. 


Sin At Multiple Levels 

We start with hakkarat ha-chet, admitting we have done wrong. Sometimes, we sinned without realizing it. Still, the Torah sees a need for kapparah, atonement, even in such seemingly minimal transgressions. For the more serious categories of sin, the Torah prescribed the vehicle of atonement, a chatat sacrifice. But Rabbenu Yonah thinks the example makes the broader point that unwitting sin must be addressed before we can restore our status with Hashem (Ramban seems to disagree in his Commentary on the Torah, but we can leave that for another time). 

Negligent sins cannot even count as unwitting. For Rabbenu Yonah, we must prepare for and address our ordinary weaknesses. For example, since we all forget material we do not review, failure to review makes any forgetting of our Torah knowledge willful, not unwitting. 

And so on up the ladder of iniquity, our sins becoming increasingly worse the more we intended to commit them for nefarious reasons. 

The point of this accounting, he stresses as should we, is to help us know how to address our situations. To treat drunk driving which led to a fatality as a simple case of speeding or running a red light is to not yet have reached proper hakkarat ha-chet, which prevents or interferes with proper regret and with full atonement and absolution. Rabbenu Yonah wants us to realize the process requires us to know our sins in full, to unflinchingly face where we’ve gone wrong.  

It Produces Restoration 

None of that should lead us to despair of the other side of the coin, the atonement which comes from true repentance. At its highest level, atonement restores or even improves the relationship with Hashem.   

Nor is it all or nothing. The Jerusalem Talmud says an olah, a burnt offering, atones for the failure to fulfill a mitzvataseh, a positive obligation. Since the Talmud elsewhere said repentance alone atones such a failure, Rabbenu Yonah thinks Yerushalmi means the olah adds to the ritzui, to the extent which the relationship is restored. There’s atonement and there’s atonement.  

Similarly, many sins cannot be instantly atoned. Plain prohibitions are not atoned until repentance combines with Yom Kippur, and more serious sins (punishable by death or karet) need the added element of yissurim, suffering.  

Yet for each teshuvah has some effect, and Rabbenu Yonah suggests we can replace yissurim with acts of kindness. The effort and inconvenience we invest in putting ourselves out for others, for example, can substitute for the pain or suffering usual atonement would have imposed. The goal is not pain for its own sake, but for what it does for us, much or all of which we accomplish with certain kinds of good deeds.  

Even chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem’s Name, which the Gemara says is not fully atoned until the sinner suffers and stays true to his/her repentance until death, can be addressed by acts of kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem’s Name, among which Rabbenu Yonah includes bringing others to Hashem’s proper worship. 

No Repeat Vidui 

As a final example of the positive side of our efforts, he required us to believe in atonement strongly enough to preclude repeat repentance. In any case where we successfully put aside a sin—repent of it and stay away from it– Rabbenu Yonah held (Rambam disagreed) we should not repeat vidui, our articulation of that sin, ever again.  

It’s two sides, each to be engaged fully. Repentance is arduous (in contrast to Rambam’s four steps, Rabbenu Yonah has twenty, many of which emphasize the emotional distress he obligates us to bring to our search for a way back to Hashem). But the outcome, in reach of each of us, is cleansing, renewal, and restoration.   

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Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is a teacher, lecturer, and author of both fiction and non-fiction. His murder mystery, “Murderer in the Mikdash,” depicts a Third Temple society, and his most recent book, “As If We Were There,” shows how the Pesach experience should be a daily factor in our lives. R. Rothstein teaches for the Webyeshiva and guest-lectures out of Riverdale, N.Y.