Contradictory Verses

At first blush, the answer seems to be a resounding no! Indeed, we read in the portion of Eikev: “For the L‑rd, your G‑d … will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe.”1

What does the verse even mean? How would one “bribe” the Creator anyway? G‑d is an infinite being who, by definition, lacks for nothing. Moreover, is it not blindingly obvious that the only truly Perfect Being would not stoop to lowly bribery? Does this really need to be said?

And if, indeed, G‑d would never accept a bribe, how do we make sense of the verse, “He will take a bribe from a wicked man’s bosom,” 2 which becomes even more troublesome when we read the Midrashic commentary:

What is the bribe that the Holy One Blessed Is He takes from the wicked in this life? Repentance and good deeds. The Holy One Blessed Is He said to Israel: “My children, return while the gates of repentance remain open, because I accept bribes in your earthly life. By contrast, once I sit in judgement when you reach the next life, I do not accept bribes…”

So, yes bribes or no bribes?

Repentance Is Bribery, in a Good Way

Of course, we could answer – as do several commentators3 – that accepting repentance for a sin is not really a bribe.

It is true, as Maimonides explains,4 that no number of good deeds will wipe away a bad one. If a person commits both bad and good deeds, they don’t cancel each other out. Rather, reward will accrue for the good deed, and punishment for the bad ones.

That is true for regular good deeds. Repentance, though, is not just a good deed. By regretting and apologizing for one’s misdeeds, they are cleansed and washed away.

If G‑d were to use the person’s mitzvot in order to overlook his or her aveirot (sins), that would indeed be a form of bribery. But accepting repentance is very different, because through teshuva the aveirot cease to exist – the bad deeds are undone, not merely compensated for by good deeds.

According to this logic, then, G‑d does not take bribes in the form of good deeds, and the reason He accepts repentance is because it isn’t, in fact, a bribe.

If this was supposed to clear things up, it has not. If repentance is not considered a bribe, why does the Midrash call it so? In which way is accepting repentance “taking bribes from a wicked man”? And if repentance is a form of bribery, how can we reconcile that with the verse that G‑d “takes no bribes”? It seems we are right back to where we started!

Getting to the Heart of Bribery

The Rebbe offers a truly stunning insight to resolve this conundrum. What, exactly, is a bribe? If one steals money and then repays it in full, he has not “bribed” the victim, but repaired the breach he caused. Bribery, then, is when the criminal pays a relatively small sum to relevant parties in order to be let off the hook for a much larger amount that he must rightfully surrender.

There is something very special and unique about repentance, that even a modest effort on our part has a far greater impact than it should have by right. The power of teshuva is such, the Rebbe explains, that it can secure forgiveness and erasure of our sins even if merely a token repentance is done.

Repentance is called a “bribe” because we can earn more credit from it than we genuinely deserve. G‑d revealed to us that he is “susceptible” to repentance, and that he finds it quite “irresistible.” Such is G‑d’s proclivity towards repentance that even a less-than-total repentance has the capability to wash away our sins before His eyes.

It would be reasonable to expect that in order for forgiveness to be granted, the repentance should be as enthusiastic and as fulsome as the sin itself. If people are not entirely sincere in their renunciation of the wrongdoing, or are not completely committed to never repeating those acts, why should they be granted full atonement?

G‑d is very much aware of the reality that we say we are sorry, but then go on to repeat the misdeed. We say we regret committing the sin, but how truly sorry are we? If it cannot be said that we are truly a changed person, why should our expression of remorse be taken seriously? Are words alone not cheap?

Yet the mystery of teshuva is that even imperfect repentance is considered repentance – and the sin is treated as if it never happened. As long as the person fulfilled the requirements of teshuva under Jewish law – an admission of guilt, a decision to desist from the sin, and a request for forgiveness – Divine clemency is total.

It is in this sense that repentance is considered a “bribe”: A little bit of repentance gets you a lot of atonement. Imperfect repentance can still get you perfect forgiveness.

But how is this fair? Shouldn’t the atonement be commensurate with the penitence?

Indeed, it would appear that many times repentance is not fully sincere, given how often we return to the very wrongdoing we foreswore. But that is how it seems from a human perspective. To our minds, how can the person truly mean their regret if they repeat the offense the next day?

However, the Almighty Who sees into the depths of our character knows that when we express our remorse it comes from the soul. Despite whatever may happen later, at that moment of regret we truly meant it.

This secret of teshuva reveals a mystery of the soul: for all our missteps and bungling errors, we are at heart pure and holy. Regardless of our mistakes and reversals, our truest self wants to do the right thing. It is when we sin that we are “faking it,” impersonating a sinner for some foolish reason. When we achieve moments of clarity and choose the good path, it is then that we are being true to our real self.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 34, Parshat Eikev II.