Parshat Shoftim is the first Parsha that we read in the month of Elul; the Parsha initiates a special season within the Jewish calendar year spanning the months of Elul and Tishrei which includes the days of Judgment and Repentance.
“Judges and officers shall you appoint for yourselves in all your cities…” (Deut. 16:18)
Because there are no coincidences in spiritual matters the commentators interpret the commandment to appoint judges as a trumpet call to arms issued to all of us.
At the very beginning of the Days of Awe we are summoned to take ourselves in hand and appoint internal judges and officers over our characters and behavior and prepare ourselves to face judgment. We are urged to do this in order to avoid having to face God’s judgment. By weighing and judging our characters and actions on our own, repenting any wrongdoing and instituting the changes that are needed to correct our faults we can avoid the harsh scrutiny of the heavenly Court. God always prefers to leave matters to human initiative and only people who fail to judge themselves are submitted to the jurisdiction of the Divine Court.
TESHUVA ON DEMAND
But coming to grips with the “days of teshuva” can be problematic. It is one thing to command people to execute actions on demand, but it is quite another matter to ask people to experience feelings on demand. God designed us with the requisite circuitry to be able to direct ourselves to perform actions that are at variance with our feelings. Such self-control has its limits but the ability to discipline ourselves regardless of how we feel is definitely part of the human repertoire. But God did not supply us with the requisite switch to turn our feelings off or on. To experience a feeling on demand is difficult indeed.
Maimonides devotes the entire first chapter of his Hilchot Deot, the Laws of Character Development to the topic of changing one’s character and developing the ability to experience certain feelings; the basic strategy presented there is based on behavior control. Through the execution of a controlled course of behavior that goes against the grain it is possible to affect character change over the course of time. For example, a tendency to stinginess can be overcome by deliberately behaving in the manner of a spendthrift over a period of time.
The point is clear: human beings simply do not have the spiritual equipment to effect immediate changes in their attitudes, feelings or characters. Understanding that you are on the wrong track does not in itself suffice to put you back on the right one. Maimonides knew this a thousand years ago; psychiatrists have finally arrived at the same conclusion only recently. Knowledge does not alter character, feelings do. This phenomenon of human nature creates a very special problem when it comes to repentance.
A MATTER OF THE HEART
For repentance must come from the heart. True repentance requires the recognition and acknowledgement of character faults and the resolution to correct them in one’s heart. As Maimonides explains:
What is teshuva? The sinner has to stop doing the sin, he must put it out of his mind and resolve in his heart never to go back to doing it again… to the extent that The One who Knows the Secrets of the Heart (i.e. God) can testify that he will never return to this sin again. (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:2)
As such, repentance does not seem to be a phenomenon that can be squeezed into a particular time slot or season. It is a process that requires constant focus and attention; it can only be attained gradually, over a long period of time, whose duration is bound to vary from person to person.
How can God order all Jews to begin to repent on command at the start of the month of Elul and complete the process by Yom Kippur in light of the fact that He failed to supply us with the necessary equipment to carry out instantaneous character changes?
To acquire the tools we shall require to approach this problem, let us begin by examining the historic origins of these 40 days of teshuva that begin with Rosh Chodesh Elul and end with Yom Kippur.
THE STORY OF THE 40 DAYS
The story begins with the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses came down from the mountain on the 17th day of Tammuz and upon seeing the idol the Jewish people had built in his absence, broke the Tablets he had received after learning the Torah with God for forty days and nights. After destroying the calf and dealing with its worshippers, he went back up to heaven on the 21st Tammuz for a second 40 day period during which he pleaded with God to reverse His decision to alter His relationship with the Jewish people and sought full rehabilitation. These 40 days terminated at the end of the Jewish month of Av [10 days of Tammuz + 30 days of Av]. At that time God told Moses to hew out a second set of Tablets.
Moses ascended the mountain and went up to heaven for the third and final time on Rosh Chodesh Elul and after spending a third set of forty days in heaven descended again on Yom Kippur with the second set of Tablets. It was on Yom Kippur that the process of reinstatement reached its culmination. These 40 days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur became enshrined forever in the Jewish calendar as days of Mercy (Tur Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim, 581).
But something doesn’t quite add up. Reconciliation follows repentance; it does not precede it. These final 40 days that Moses spent communing with God over the second set of Tablets were preceded by the repentance of the Jewish people described in Parshat Ki Tisa. It was their prior repentance that made these days of reconciliation and reinstatement possible. How were these final forty days, which occurred after the judgment and repentance process was complete, transformed by Jewish tradition and turned into days of repentance and judgment?
The key to solving this riddle is to figure out what God and Moses were doing during this final 40-day period. After all, Moses had already learned the Torah during the first 40 days. Presumably he was fully prepared to transmit it. Had there been no sin of the Golden Calf, there would have been no need of these final 40 days. What was God teaching Moses that he didn’t already know?
THE TORAH DESCENDS
Biblical commentators explain that Israel was no longer able to receive the Torah on the lofty level of the first Tablets. The first tablets were gone irrevocably; the second Tablets did not replace them. If the Jewish people were still to receive the Torah in spite of the sin of the Golden Calf and their resultant lower spiritual level, the Torah itself had to descend to a lower spiritual level so that a spiritually weakened Jewish people could still manage to get a grip on it. God had to rework all the information Moses had amassed during the first 40 days and transmit it to Moses once again in a form that the Jewish people could retain on their lower spiritual level.
Rabbi Elazar said: “If the first Tablets would not have broken, the Torah one learned could never have been forgotten.” Rabbi Acha bar Yakov said: “No foreign nation or culture would ever have gained dominance over Israel; the word meaning “engraved” in Hebrew is chorus, spelled identically to the word cherus meaning “freedom.” (Talmud, Eruvin 54a)
Nevertheless, the first Tablets are not entirely gone:
“And I shall inscribe on the tablets the words that were on the first Tablets that you smashed, and you shall place them in the Ark” (Deut. 10:2). Rabbi Yosef taught: “This verse teaches us that the broken pieces of the first Tablets were also placed in the Ark along with the second Tablets. From here we learn that the Torah scholar who forgot his learning because of sickness is still to be treated with the respect due to a scholar.” (Talmud, Menachos, 99a)
Although we lost the ability to learn the Torah on the level of the first Tablets through our sins, God continues to treat us with the respect due to scholars who learn on this higher level. We are compared to Torah scholars who forgot their learning due to illness. Despite the fact that we can only master the Torah on the lower level of the second Tablets, the spiritual level associated with the first Tablets remains an integral part of our being. The broken pieces of these Tablets are also placed in the Ark. They are still an integral part of the Covenant.
The 40 days of mercy were needed to come up with a solution to the knotty problem of transmitting the Torah to the Jewish people on a lower level and still leaving them with the potential to eventually recover the lofty level they lost with the shattering of the First Tablets. The second Tablets offer a way of connecting with God in a manner that initiates a process that eventually leads the Jewish people back to full spiritual recovery.
FEELINGS ON DEMAND
We have the answer to the quandary of the teshuva season. There is no way to summon feelings of teshuva on demand but there is no need to do so.
The days of mercy convey the following message: if we grab a hold of ourselves now, even if we cannot do teshuva on the highest level, God will discover a way to put all the shattered pieces of our lost potential in to the Ark of our souls along with whatever spiritual level we manage to salvage. The shattered potential remains a part of our beings and God sets us on a path that leads back to full spiritual recovery. This message of hope is there to inspire us to initiate the process of teshuva.
All of us would jump at the chance to recover our lost potential; most of us have abandoned hope of ever being able to accomplish this. We look back at the lost years, at the wasted opportunities, and we are devastated by a feeling of irretrievable loss. It’s too late to be the person I could have been. I no longer have the energy and idealism of youth; the best I can do is simply to hang on to the person I have become without attempting the heroic feat of climbing back to what I once could have been. The great psychological barrier that stands in the way of teshuva is the inability to recover the part of ourselves that was lost. We are left with empty regret in place of true repentance.
The message of the month of Elul can inspire anyone to teshuva. It offers to restore the lost years and the wasted opportunities and allow us the respect due to the person we once could have been. Who wouldn’t grab such an offer if he had the chance?
And yet there is one more obstacle on the road: once again the problem of the lack of ability to generate feelings intrudes. This is where the appointment of “judges and officers” comes in.
The second major obstacle to teshuva, and indeed to the spiritual life in general is the fact that we tend to associate closeness to God with the level of religious inspiration that we can bring ourselves to feel. After all, the Torah commands us to love God and to fear God; we are expressly instructed to express our attachment to Him in terms of emotions.
But what if we cannot summon such feelings? For as stated above, we are incapable of generating feelings. The person who hates his mother simply hates her and there is little that he can do about it no matter how much guilt he feels. None of us hates God, but many of us feel totally indifferent towards Him. With the best will in the world none of us is capable of transforming feelings of hatred or indifference into feelings of love and affection. For this reason, the person who doesn’t feel any love of God often abandons hope of ever being able to experience true spirituality or repentance.
This emotional dilemma effectively locks many Jews into a Catch 22 vicious cycle. Because we have all sinned, and our inequities have created a barrier between God, and ourselves, we do not experience the love or the fear of God in our hearts with the intensity that we desire. But, because we cannot feel this love or fear, we cannot perceive ourselves as being connected to Him. Because we feel indifferent, we become indifferent. We feel that we are being hypocritical or at least artificial when we set out on a course of teshuva with a total lack of feeling. Failure to achieve emotional contact through repentance makes us feel even more alienated from God; we have no apparent means of reversing this hopeless spiral. Is there no way out?
A SIMPLE METAPHOR
A simple metaphor drawn from every day life points to the way out of this vicious cycle.
Divorce is common in our society. Statistics show that over 50% of marriages end in divorce. People live together happily for years, even raise children together, and wake up one day to discover that the luster of romance has somehow disappeared from their lives. They are no longer in love, and indeed are positively bored by their spouse. As nature abhors a vacuum, generally speaking it does not take long to fall in love with someone new; divorce is the result. Objectively speaking the new person is often not more attractive or gifted than the old; in fact, the reverse is often the case. But that is not the point. The feeling of being in love is revived by the novelty of the new relationship and the taste of joy is a part of life once again.
Let us look at the parallel phenomenon in terms of career. Just as many people fall out of love, it is far from uncommon to be bored by one’s work after a few years, and to lose your enthusiasm for your chosen career. There are some brave souls who switch careers at this point, but their numbers are far smaller than the numbers who decide to switch spouses.
When you think about it the difference amounts to this: we tend to perceive our livelihood as a necessity of life; as such, we are extremely reluctant to gamble with it and attempt to succeed at making a living in an alternative career. When boredom sets in, instead of switching careers, we decide to make the best of it. As we feel unable to risk giving up our security by switching careers, we become creative at finding small satisfactions in the careers we already have and discover ways to make our situation bearable. Very often the crisis passes, and our interest in our careers revives after a relatively brief rocky period.
JUDGMENT VS. FEELING
This metaphor demonstrates that the factor that governs our most important decisions is judgment, not feeling. When our judgment informs us that we would be wise to remain with the life that we have, most of us manage to develop the feelings that make this life pleasant and bearable. So it is with regard to our relationship with God.
Rabbi Yosi Haglili taught: “The righteous are judged by the Yetzer Tov (i.e. their good inclination), the wicked are judged by the Yetzer Hara (i.e. their evil inclination)… Those in between are judged by both.” (Talmud, Brachot 61b)
The relationship between teshuva and the establishment of judges and officers lies in this concept. The initial move towards God cannot originate in feelings but must be based on a judgment of necessity. If my relationship with God is a necessity of my life, if my security rides on it in the same manner as it rides on my job, then I will appoint the Yetzer Tov, the good inclination, to be my judge. Having done so, the feelings of love and fear of God that are absent will eventually follow, until they culminate in a genuine relationship. We human beings know how to make necessity work.
If I regard my relationship with God as a type of spiritual romance instead of a matter of necessity, then I will appoint the Yetzer Hara, the bad inclination, as my judge. The Yetzer Hara demands emotional involvement and excitement. He will rapidly take the steps that will ensure that my feelings of attachment to God begin to fade. Like the model of the worn out marriage, my relationship with God will ultimately end in divorce.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. We appreciate the necessity of some sort of relationship with God, but we also expect such a relationship to have some romance and are disappointed that it doesn’t. We are the in-betweeners, who appoint two judges over our behavior, the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer Hara. We are not indifferent to our relationship with God, which is an important part of our lives, but neither are we fully committed to its pursuit. We are wishy-washy. Each of the two judges we have appointed over ourselves carefully guards his turf, neither allowing the other to encroach on his territory.
TWO CONTRARY VOICES
Our existential situation as in-betweeners subjects us to the insistent call of two different voices that hammer away at us. The Yetzer Tov, one of our appointed judges, speaks to us with his voice – the voice of spirituality. The locus of spirituality in the human being is the mind, not the heart. Spirituality does not communicate its message in the language of feelings and sensations; it does not send a rush of adrenalin through the blood or release endorphins in the brain. The soul expresses itself in words, concepts and ideas. The Yetzer Tov can only express itself in the language of the heart if it manages to drive the Yetzer Hara out of there and becomes our sole judge. In the case of us in-betweeners this never happens.
The voice of the Yetzer Hara is the voice of sensation and feeling. The locus of the Yetzer Hara in the human being is the heart; it knows how to stimulate us with the rush of adrenalin and endorphins that breed excitement. As long as the Yetzer Tov retains a foothold in our consciousness, the mind and the heart will continue to send us contrary messages, each in its own language. If the Yetzer Hara ever manages to become our sole judge, the voice of reason will cease its opposition and reason itself will broadcast the wishes of the heart. In the case of us in-betweeners this will also never happen.
The difference in the quality of these voices causes much difficulty and confusion. We live in a materialistic world, and we tend to invest a greater degree of trust in our feelings than in our thoughts. We tend to think of thoughts as being artificial and feelings as being reflective of our true selves. This predisposes us to give greater weight to the voice of the Yetzer Hara than to the voice of the Yetzer Tov. We need to experience some religious feeling in order not to dismiss our thoughts concerning the need to attach ourselves to God as irrelevant on the grounds that they do not truly reflect the real “me”.
The name of the month of Elul comprises an acrostic in Hebrew – ani ledodi vedodi li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The romance between God and Israel is the very backbone of this month. Knowing our human need for the “feeling” experience, in these days of mercy, God follows the practice he initiated with the giving of the second set of Tablets and brings the Torah down to our level. He brings the language of the soul down to the level of feeling so that we can find it palatable.
All we have to do is to take the first little step. We must appoint the proper judge to guide our affairs, the proper officer to keep us in line. We must confirm the appointment of the Yetzer Tov as our judge even if we are unable to make him the sole judge. God will do the rest.