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Torah Studies: Re'eh

Torah Studies: Re'eh

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The following Sicha illustrates in a striking way an important truth about the nature of Chassidic thought. Chassidut is not simply one amongst many of the branches of Jewish thinking. It is not separate from or merely supplementary to the “revealed” facet of Torah—halachic or legal reasoning. Instead, it lies at the heart of the other branches of Torah, shedding light on them all. In this way, pursuing an apparently minor halachic problem, we may travel deeper and deeper until we arrive, unexpectedly, and yet inevitably, at a fundamental Chassidic truth. In this case the problem concerns the law of a city led into idolatry—one of the subjects of the Sidra of Re’eh. One difficulty that confronts us immediately is the way in which even innocent people seem to be involved in the collective guilt and punishment of the city. The other is that Rambam rules that if the city repents of its sin, this collective guilt is averted. And yet there is a principle in Judaism that repentance cannot save a man from human judgment, only from Divine retribution. Rambam’s ruling is the only exception to this principle. What grounds did he have for making it? In working towards an answer we find ourselves led ultimately to an inward truth about the Jewish soul, its unity and its spiritual power.

1. The Idolatrous City

The Sidra of Re’eh contains the laws which were to apply in the Holy Land to a city tainted with idolatry:

“If you shall hear in one of your cities, which the L-rd your G‑d has given you to abide there, saying: Certain men, worthless persons, are gone out from among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods which you have not known.’ Then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently, and behold, if it be truth and the thing certain…. You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword. And you shall gather all its spoil into the midst of its broad place and shall burn the city and all its spoil with fire unto the L-rd your G‑d, and it shall be a heap forever; it shall not be built again.’’1

This Sidra is always read on the Shabbat when we bless the coming month of Elul, or on the New Moon itself.

Elul, the month of Divine mercy and forgiveness, is dominated by the idea of teshuvah,2 “returning” to G‑d and away from sin. Thus we find in Re’eh an unprecedented statement of the power and scope of teshuvah.

As a general rule, the act of repenting and “returning” to G‑d affects only Divine justice, not the rulings of a human court. The principle is stated in the Talmud:3 “Those who were liable to karet (death by the hand of heaven)… if they repent, the Heavenly Tribunal pardons them. But those who have become liable to death by the sentence of a (human) court… even if they should repent, the Earthly Tribunal can not pardon them.” The same applies to lesser punishments: Repentance does not affect the sentence of a human court. The reason is that teshuvah isa change of heart4and so it lies outside the consideration of human judges who can deal only with visible, objective fact.5

Nonetheless, in the ruling of Rambam,6 the punishments to which a city led into idolatry is liable—the smiting of its inhabitants, the burning of its spoil—are averted if the people repent of their collective sin. This is a unique instance of repentance affecting the ruling of a human court.

Rambam’s ruling has been explained by one of his commentators, the Kesef Mishneh, in this way: To become liable for the death sentence an individual must be warned that the act he is about to commit is a capital offense. But in the case of an idolatrous city, the warning about its conduct is collective, addressed to the people as a whole. Therefore the normal requirement of individual caution is not present, and therefore, repentance averts the punishment.

However this explanation seems to miss the central point. What prevents repentance from affecting a human court’s verdicts has nothing to do with warning, but with the fact that men cannot see into men’s hearts to know whether an expression of repentance is sincere or not. Why should this principle not apply in the present case, the idolatrous city? Why should repentance be effective in just this instance? Besides, Rambam’s point is that in this case the people concerned were liable to punishment, and only afterwards won their pardon by repentance.

2. Collective and Individual Responsibility

The Rogotchover Rav7 explains Rambam’s statement in a different way. According to him, Rambam does not maintain that repentance brings universal pardon; but that it changes collective guilt into individual guilt. The law of an idolatrous city involves collective liability. Even the innocent members of idol-serving families, even the property of the righteous men who live in the town, come under its penalties.8 But if the inhabitants repent of their deeds, they become judged as individuals. No one who is personally innocent suffers. But the idol-worshippers are punished, and repentance does not alter their sentence.

But, again, this leaves the central difficulty unsolved. Repentance is something that happens after the act. It follows therefore that between the act and the repentance there is a period when the collective liability of the inhabitants is in force. How can a redirection of the heart, something that no human judge can assess, have the retroactive effect of mitigating a liability or softening a verdict?

3. The Destruction of Sodom

What is the Scriptural basis for Rambam’s ruling? The Rogotchover Rav suggests that it lies in the destruction of Sodom, the city which had been led into idolatry. Before sending His punishment G‑d says, “I will go down now and see if they have done according to the cry of it.”9 This cannot mean straightforwardly that an omniscient G‑d needed to establish what He had heard by hearsay. Instead it has been taken to mean that G‑d would see whether they had repented, and, in the reading of the Targum,10 “If they have repented I will not punish them.”

This is certainly an instance of an idolatrous city given the chance to gain pardon by repentance. But one fact which prevents it from being the precedent on which Rambam bases his views is that it happened before Sinai, before the Giving of the Torah. And there is a general principle that “we do not derive laws on the basis of events before the Giving of the Torah.”11 Also, Sodom was punished by the Heavenly Tribunal.

4. A Group and a Community

There is one further difficulty in understanding the position of an idolatrous city.

There is more than one kind of death sentence in Jewish law, and there is a rule that if a man is liable to death in two different ways for two separate crimes, he is condemned to the more severe or painful of the two.12

But in the case of the idolatrous city, they are liable to the collective sentence of a relatively painless death; whereas each as an individual idolater would be liable to a more severe punishment (stoning). Yet the more lenient one prevails.13

The problem can be put more forcefully. Until the majority of the town worships idols, the collective sin does not apply. Each idolater is guilty only of his personal wrongdoing, and hence liable to a severe death sentence. But when that last person who turns a minority into a majority commits the sin, he brings the whole town into the category of an idolatrous city, and hence to a more lenient punishment. How can this one extra act of the sinner have the effect of softening the liability which already applied to the others?

We are forced to conclude that this point—where the majority of the town becomes idol-worshippers—creates a whole new entity, a collectivity, a community of sin. It ceases to be, legally, a group comprised of individuals, and becomes instead one unity. So it is not that their individual liability is lessened at this point, but that it ceases to apply, and a new situation is created, where all are judged as one.

This is why the punishment for an idolatrous city is so extensive, applying even to innocent members of idol-worshipping families (unless they fled to another city), and to the property of the righteous minority. For although individually they may be blameless, they are nonetheless a part of the whole, the community which is judged as if it were a single entity.

And this is why Rambam is able to take as his precedent the case of Sodom, even though it occurred before Sinai. For what he wishes to derive is not a legal point but a conceptual one, namely, the difference between a group of individuals and a community. Even though this distinction has legal consequences, it is not in itself a point of law, and it may therefore be learned from events which preceded Sinai.14

Finally, we can see how repentance—on the interpretation of the Rogotchover Rav—has the power to annul collective responsibility and leave only individual guilt to be punished. For teshuvah has indeed no power to affect the sentence of a human court. But we are not concerned here with a matter of law but of fact, namely, do the idolaters form a unity or are they to be treated as separate individuals? And this—which is not a question of how the law is to be applied but of which law is to be applied—can be affected by repentance. Repentance does not alter the punishment so much as change the facts of the case.

5. The Unity of the Jewish Soul

Yet we have not yet solved our problem, only shifted its emphasis. Human judges can deal only with what they know, not with the feelings of other men’s hearts. If repentance alters the facts of the case how can judges establish what are the facts, how can they distinguish real from insincere teshuvah?

We need to go deeper and understand the inner meaning of the principle that a human court can not pardon on the grounds that a guilty person has repented.

The inner reason is, that what is handed over to human jurisdiction are actions whose wrongness is independent of the heart. Therefore, subsequent remorse cannot set them right. But the wrong done by an idolatrous city is different. It is essentially related to the inner feelings of the idolaters; and so, it is something that a change of heart can effect.

The explanation is this:

The Jewish people are capable of a special kind of unity, an essential oneness, because their souls have their source in G‑d who is the ultimate Unity. And even though this is a spiritual unity, it creates in addition a physical unity: “Who is like Your people Israel, one nation on the earth? It is this unity which finds its expression in the law of an idolatrous city where the oneness of the community creates a collective liability so strong as to implicate even the property of the city. But this seems strange. Idolatry is the very opposite of G‑d’s will and unity. It wraps the soul in darkness and division. How, then, can it manifest such a oneness?

But there is no paradox. It is precisely because the Jewish soul is a part of G‑d that its freewill has no limits; that a Jew can move so far from his true nature as to serve idols and deny his faith.15 Even in this gravest of transgressions the special character of his soul and its power of oneness is manifest.

In all other wrongs that a Jew may commit and be judged by a court of fellow-Jews, there are two distinct harms that he must remedy: The wrong he has inflicted on his soul, and the damage he has caused to the world. Repentance sets right the first; punishment, the second. The two are separate and the one cannot alter the need for the other.

But the whole nature of the idolatrous town is its collective involvement which implicates even innocent inhabitants, even inanimate property. This unity is a spiritual unity; the wrong is a spiritual wrong; and the remedy is a spiritual one—repentance. Punishment is a remedy for harm done to the world. But the “world” of the idolatrous town—neighbors, cattle, property—is entirely assimilated to the oneness of the souls of its inhabitants. It has become totally subordinate to the spirituality, even in transgression. And this is why here and only here, in a township that has ceased to be a group of individuals and become a community, that repentance even heals with regard to the jurisdiction of man.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. IX pp. 106-114)

Footnotes
2.
Cf. e.g., Tur, Orach Chayim, ch. 581.
3.
Makkot, 13b.
4.
Tanya, Part I, ch. 29.
5.
Cf. Noda Biyehudah, Orach Chayim, Mahadura Kama, ch. 35.
6.
Hilchot Akum, 4:6.
7.
Tzofnat Paaneach, Vayera, p. 74.
8.
Rambam, Ibid., 4:6-7.
10.
Onkelos, ad loc.
11.
Jerusalem Talmud, Moed Katan, 3:5. (Quoted in Tosefot, Moed Katan, 20a.)
12.
Sanhedrin, 81b; Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin, 14:4.
13.
Sanhedrin, 111b; Rambam, Hilchot Akum, 4:1-2.
14.
Cf. Encyclopaedia Talmudit, on the concept “Ein Lemedin Mikodem Mattan Torah.”
15.
Cf. Likkutei Torah, Emor, 38b, Tanya, Part I, end of ch. 18. Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah, beg. ch. 5.
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Dr Rajiv Shori August 14, 2015

Very inspirational and empathic Reply

George Glen Gardner, US August 24, 2011

Re'eh Very good, and very timely, for me personally.

I would like to see more on one's responsibility to resist collective decisions. There are many things that I oppose, but cannot stop.

Should I feel any particular concern for people doing these legal evils? Reply

Ariel Jakobovits Mountain View, CA, USA August 12, 2009

why repentance works for idolatry Nice article but it misses the point.

At the heart of idolatry is a force as strong as a Jew's faith in G-d, a dedicated belief that faith in the idol will bring life, abundance and salvation.

Repentance from idolatry necessarily involves giving up one's idol. Giving up one's idol is not a matter of the heart, it is a matter of visible objective fact, and therefore can influence human judgement.

This gets at the root of the offense of idolatry: it transfers belief that Jews require be towards an infinite G-d into a physical object, therefore it is uniquely possible for repentance involving idolatry to be visible.

Regarding community, the wealth of idolatrous cities is pervaded by sin - often the wealth itself is the idol. Righteous citizens of an idolatrous city are sinful because they benefit even indirectly from the wealth produced by idolatry. The wealth of a nation is cleansed by repentance from idolatry because the future of that wealth is relegated to G-d's will. Reply

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