Returning to God / תשובה
These concepts, associated with this day, assume that we have been on that path in the past and that we have strayed. That we seek to now return to it.
They assume that we know it / recognize it can name it and find it, and, of course, that we want to go there -- and none of those things are ever self-evident.
They beg the question -- how do we know what is good -- before ever we can proceed to instrumental questions of whether we are motivated to meet its requirements and how to do so if we care to.
And, it turns out, that question is not at all obvious or easy.
Still, as a Jew I should want to tell you that it is easy -- that good is defined by the Torah that was given to Moses at Sinai, and that, as he was careful to tell us
“it is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heaven… or beyond the sea… it is very close to you” (Deut. 30)
It is easy. Accessible.
But it turns out that that is not so -- which is why we are enjoined to study the Torah every day, and teach it faithfully to our children -- so that the dilemma of identifying the good is indeed “very close to us,” tripping off the tongue, etched in our retrievable memory, not stored in some long term storage -- or as Moses says in finishing that sentence --
“it is very close to you -- it is in your heart and on your tongue -- so that you may do it!” With full immersion training it should become intuitive / come naturally.
B] But what if we have not been properly schooled? What if it does not come naturally? Maybe in the way we interact with others, maybe in our personal behaviors, maybe in our attempts to exemplify Torah we are in fact perverting the very Torah we study, when we study, and have drifted away from God’s path. How are we to know? And what of those problems that do not have their obvious solution in a verse of the Torah -- what then?
No, study of Torah may be a palliative, but it is no guarantee that God’s path will be obvious to us and easy to maintain. That is why we need teshuvah -- we may well have strayed and keenly need to return to what is good -- and that, again, highlights the problem. However do we find that good to return to?
When Abraham stood before God on a bluff overlooking Sdom, it was long before Sinai, but even if the Torah had already been given, what verse addresses the situation that God had put before him? Will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked? The problem every commander has of collateral damage.
And yet, Abraham thought he knew where “good” lay.
It must take an awful lot of chutzpah to turn to God and say, as Abraham did,
“Will the judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18)
What did he think? That God had not considered the options? That He was acting impetuously, without good reason? Did he think, God forbid, that he, Abraham, knew better than God where “good” was to be found?
I imagine that God could have turned to him, as he did later to Job, and answered,
“Who is this of dark counsel, who speaks words without knowledge?... Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak, if you have understanding?...
Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea?... Have you surveyed the expanses of the earth? If you know of these -- do tell… Surely you know, for… the number of your years is many.
Let him who castigates God speak up… Would you impugn my judgment, accusing Me of wrongdoing, thinking yourself right?” (Job 38 &40)
But that is not how God reacts to Abraham. For all of this was a setup, a test. God’s intention, all along, was to do precisely as Abraham devised of his own reasoning and resources.
And God has telegraphed that this is a just a test for Abraham and a learning moment, one that He fully expects Abraham to pass, for he says about it to the angels, “Why am I hiding my plans from Abraham? -- I know him. I know that he will teach his children to act justly.”
And what was Abraham’s chutzpah if not a knee-jerk reaction that arose unbidden from his passion for justice and his inability to see injustice. If he had thought about it at all he would certainly have had second thoughts about challenging God.
So how did he know so automatically and absolutely what justice required?
It doesn’t say. It was just in his nature. Abraham just knew. Somehow it had been baked into his character. Perhaps we have Terach and Milkah to thank.
C] There is an old midrashic saying that we are supposed to act as God acted. Solomon Schechter, the great early sage of the Conservative Movement gave that a high-fallutin’ Latin name -- Imitatio Dei -- the imitation of the divine.
The midrash goes on to laud God’s clothing of Adam and Eve, so we should clothe the destitute, God’s visiting the sick, as He did Abraham after he was circumcised (a story you may not remember from the Torah’s text -- but the rabbis knew how to find it) -- so we, too should visit the sick. As God visited a mourner to comfort him, appearing to Isaac to assure him shortly after Abraham’s death, so we should make it to that shiva that we’re less than ideally motivated to attend, and as God buried Moses, so we should attend to the needs of the deceased.
You recall on RH that I spoke of God’s take on the superior value of human feelings over cold truth, and that we are urged there too, to model ourselves after God.
But those midrashim are sermonic niceties. Not everything God is reputed to do in the Torah are we asked to emulate. Not smiting the sinner in our wrath.
How then do we decide in which attributes we should emulate God and where, as in another verse in Isaiah -- “My ways are not your ways and My thoughts not your thoughts” says the Lord? (55)
Like Abraham before Sdom. We know in our hearts what we are to do -- if our hearts remain pure and our thoughts uncorrupted.
D] Many philosophers claim that at the heart of all ethics is the basic golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31) -- or if you prefer, love thy neighbor as thyself (Lev. 19).
In growing up we all have only our own emotions by which to judge the world, and the direction of our parents, then our peers by which to sift those emotions.
Relying on our emotions could yield selfishness -- and often does -- but a more refined soul, a more thoughtful one or one better tutored will arrive at the Golden Rule -- that others are as I am and to treat them as I would like to be treated must be what they too would like best -- and why not do that, so they might do the same for me?
An enlightened parent might suggest that taking another child’s toy is insensitive -- and if a child is at heart sensitive themselves they might attain that insight.
But most parents and most religions take the safer, shorter route of a cop on the beat. Of the carrot and the stick.
Eat all your dinner and you’ll have earned a snack. Misbehave and I’ll send you to your room or allow you less television.
Shorter, because it gets relatively quick results. Safer, because it is more closely in a parent’s control.
Reward and punishment.
והיה אם שמוע תשמעו...
If you obey my laws… but if you do not obey them…
Dennis Prager, the CA Orthodox Jewish talk-show host, has argued that because God is an eternally watchful eye, belief in His disapproval is more powerful than any internalized ethic.
I like to tell the story of the coachman…
Prager would claim that pushed by a crowd that was rioting and looting, one could easily decide to go with the flow, if only restrained by one’s inner discipline -- but if you were constrained by your belief in God, that would serve as a more powerful deterrent.
And I am less sure of that. And of its value.
Does this not treat God instrumentally?
Does this not ultimately place God in the role of glorified cop? Are we not morally free agents? Does it not speak better of us that we choose to behave ethically / even that we choose to believe in God and do that which He represents to us, than that we act morally out of our fear of a speed trap that might rest just around the corner?
Precisely why is it that one returns a wallet or a wad of cash where there exists no earthly chance of being found out?
Or respects a red light even at 3 am on an empty road. Is it, in fact, as the Chasidic Rebbe of the story proposed, because God is watching and we will be found out, or is it, rather, that we are honest of character, law-abiding by choice, and this is as we believe it should be.
Do we need “who shall live and who shall die” to act correctly. To do teshuvah and find our way back to the right path?
Adam Smith, he of the “invisible hand,” before he wrote “The Wealth of Nations” wrote a first book called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. On its first page he establishes his sense of humankind. He writes:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."
"To feel much for others and little for ourselves... to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent, affections constitutes the perfection of human nature, and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety." (Part 1, Section 1, Paragraph 5)
Whence that innate sense of “grace and propriety.”?
E] I used to deride a branch of the modern philosophy of ethics known as Virtue Ethics, that argues that humankind attains the good by inculcating virtue -- so that when left on one’s own before a moral dilemma, that virtue can express itself in moral action.
I pooh poohed it because of the question with which I began -- how do you know what is good? A virtue can only be a virtue if it points toward good deeds -- but without first determining what deeds are good, how can one possibly define virtue?
But I am more and more inclined to accept this analysis of good and of teshuvah. We are bidden by our religion to be godly -- קדושים -- to be holy. And that is as it should be. It is cosmically correct.
But we can be holy only insofar as we are inclined to be godly, and we can be inclined to be good only insofar as we have previously inculcated into ourselves, our children, our community, the values and virtues that will shine in the hard times that will surely face us.
That training surely begins as we begin, as children determining what it means to be human, to have family, friends, loyalty, honor, sensitivity, concern. It continues in social back and forth as we discover how to be neighbors, partners, fellow travelers.
And the odd thing is that it never ends. That we are at every moment rehearsing what it is to be a human among humans, to embody virtue, to act and react honorably, justly, kindly, unselfishly, virtuously.
And that makes every moment, even this moment, a moment of teshuvah -- of returning. Returning to what? -- Returning to that way of self and of interaction which we understand to be good, which we have been on, with some success and some failure, since forever, that way which we associate with our notion of a just God, so that like Abraham we can say that our God is one with whom we share holiness and virtue, who does not support injustice.
But we don’t so much need the old image of God’s judging us and our teshuvah, as the image of His confirming us in our judgments as we continually turn in teshuvah toward our shared sense of goodness.