Teshuva, the art of repentance, is far from easy. Not only is it difficult to confront oneself with one’s own shortcomings, it is even more difficult to actually internalize the need to repent and transform this into action. How many of us are really capable of reaching this lofty goal?
Our sages, well aware of these difficulties, looked for ways to help us pave the road to repentance. One of the many suggestions is expressed in a midrash, referring to the Haftara of Shabbath Shuva, the Shabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
In this Haftara, taken from the book of Hoshea we read: “Turn, Israel, to the Lord your God, because you have stumbled over your transgressions. Take with you words and return to God…” (14:4) On this, Yalkut Shimoni, a midrashic commentary, states: “Take with you words, like the words through which you seduced God at Sinai when you declared, ‘We shall do and we shall hear.'”
“We shall do and we shall hear” is from a verse in Shemoth; the children of Israel stood at Sinai and promised to commit themselves to the Mitzvoth, stating that they were prepared to make this promise even without knowing the actual contents of the covenant of mitzvoth. The words: “through which you seduced God” are, however, most surprising. To seduce God is a rather strange expression and sounds somehow unethical and contrary to religious values.
We are even more surprised when we read that this matter refers to Israel’s failure to live up to its commitment from the very beginning. Straight after the words, “We shall do and we shall hear,” the Torah informs us that the children of Israel became victims of one of the most severe transgressions in Jewish history, the creation and worship of the Golden Calf. Said differently, the words, “We shall do and we shall hear,” were in retrospect, somehow premature and revealed a kind of dishonesty. After all, immediately after the promise was made, it became clear that it was never fully intended.
While one could argue that this is perhaps an incorrect inference, since Israel was most likely full of good intentions at the time it made this commitment (but failed afterwards). However it is clear that this is not the way the earlier mentioned midrash understands this statement. Seduction is after all a pre-conceived attempt to make an impression that is not entirely true or ethical.
What, then, could be the intention of the Haftara? Why suggest that one use words of seduction at the time of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and say words which are not entirely truthful?
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, z.l., one of the most outstanding thinkers in modern Jewish history resolves this problem by analyzing the nature of a promise. A promise, states Rabbi Dessler, is by definition an untruth. After all, at the time of the promise, the commitment is nothing but a word. There is no reality to the statement, since the promise does not relate to the present but to the future. The moment a promise is made it is still unfulfilled and as such not (yet) true. In this sense, it carries the dimension of a deception, especially since it is very possible that the promise will never be fulfilled. Still it is of great moral value as it induces man with the will to make the promise come true. This is its ethical power. While it may never come to fruition and, as such, develop into a lie, it holds the potential to turn into a most successful human achievement. (Michtav Mi’Eliahu, Book 4, Section Teshuva)
Progress in human history was made largely because people committed themselves with promises that they subsequently actualized. With a play on words we could repeat the famous saying: “We promise much so as to avoid giving little.” (Vauvenargues, Reflections and Maxims, p. 436)
We now may start to understand the above quoted midrash. The only way Israel was able commit itself to live by the demands of the Torah was by making a promise: “We shall do and we shall hear.” At the actual time of the commitment it already held the likelihood of a deception – and so it was (at least partially) that only a moment afterwards the Jews turned to the worship of the Golden Calf! This, however, does not mean that the commitment should not have been made. As such, it carried the seeds of a successful undertaking even when at the time of its utterance it was not fully intended. Still it could have worked and no doubt in later times it did.
God, consequently, asks the Jews and all of mankind at times of reflection, such as on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, to use words of seduction. Even though these words will not always come true, they still are the way to succeed. Without a promise, little will change, while with a promise there is hope for a successful end result. Still it can not be doubted that a promise carries the seeds of deception and seduction, in that it makes a false impression of assured sincerity.
Hoshea’s suggestion to “take with you words (of seduction) and turn to God” is, therefore, of great value. Even when we are not fully committed to teshuva at the time of the High Holidays we should at least utter those words of teshuva, since they may turn out to be words which at a later stage make us want to live up to our words and actually repent. They may not be completely honest at the time of utterance but they may yet turn out to be. If not for this potential deception and seduction, no promise would ever be made and no spiritual achievement could be realized. It is for this reason that God suggests to seduce Him, just like our forefathers did at Sinai and pronounce the words, “We shall do and we shall hear,” at the time of the High Holidays. (1)
(1) The ba’alei mussar, the great teachers of Jewish ethics, suggest that one should not keep such promises private, but make them in the company of one’s spouse, children or friends so as to secure their fulfillment. Nobody will run the risk of embarrassment before of one’s fellowmen!!