Having just traversed the Days of Awe – the time set for introspection and repentance – we often look towards Sifrei Mussar or other Jewish works to give us direction, insight and strength to confront one of the biggest challenges one can face: ourselves.
One of those places of inspiration can surprisingly be found within the laws of the עיר הנדחת (the wayward city) – a city where the majority of its inhabitants have turned to idolatry. Their punishment is death by the sword; the city is destroyed and their property burned in the city square. And though חז״ל tell us about this type of city לא היה ולא עתידה להיות (it never was nor will be), still we learn its laws and try to gain insights for ourselves, להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה (Sanhedrin 71a)
There is a fascinating disagreement between the Rambam and the Raavad regarding this wayward city.
The Rambam writes (Avodat Kochavim 4:6):
What is the judgment rendered against the עיר הנדחת when all the criteria for that judgment have been met? The supreme Sanhedrin sends [emissaries] who investigate and probe until they have established clear proof that the entire city – or the majority of its inhabitants – have turned to the worship of false gods. Afterwards, they send two Torah sages to warn them and to motivate them to repentance. If they repent, it is good.
The commentaries on the Rambam understand from his words “If they repent, it is good” that if the inhabitants were to repent, even after they have been duly judged for their actions, it would remove their punishment – a notion which has no precedent anywhere else in Halacha (Makkot 13b). Why is this so?
The Raavad, in his gloss on the Rambam, points to this difficulty:
It is well that repentance would help them, but I have not found that repentance should be of value after a warning (התראה) and after the act was committed.
The Raavad asks: how can the repentance of the inhabitants absolve the city from their judgment? Repentance does not absolve oneself from the death penalty and once the Beit Din has come to a conclusion, they must carry it out.
To answer this difficulty the Ralbag (על התורה) gives an amazing insight to this seemingly bizarre ruling of the Rambam. In truth, the Rambam is communicating a deep and profound idea about the concept of repentance. The Ralbag explains that in the Rambam’s view, true repentance is an act that qualitatively changes the essence of the person, to the extent that one becomes a different person. תשובה is a transformative process – not just of cleansing one’s sins, but of becoming new, different, and ultimately better.
According to this, says the Ralbag, the wayward city, whose inhabitants have taken upon themselves to repent, has undergone a complete change in identity. The Torah says: “You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city” (Devarim 13:16) i.e. That city that has not repented, but now that they have done teshuva, the גזר דין (decree of punishment) that was previously issued, was not said on this “new town.” It is as if it was decreed upon a different city altogether! And while this novel idea applies exclusively in regards to the laws of עיר הנדחת, it is nonetheless a true principle about the concept of teshuva.*
This is the power of sincere תשובה; it’s not just a path of repentance but of change. A change so vast that it transforms our עצם, our very selves. It redefines our goals, our motivations, and our core of self – to one which desires to lead a richer and more fulfilled life. Then we can come before G-d, declare our new identity, and rededicate ourselves to His will.
Along with the understanding of the immense power of change, should come the feeling of supreme confidence in our ability to change. We can never let the past define our future, for we have the power of the present. We possess the capability to effect our very essence, to break the bonds of our assumed stationary existence and begin again with more vigor.
Our Rabbis refer to תשובה as a gift from G-d. Logically, how can one erase past infractions? How can one effectively “bend time and space” to correct that which has already been done? To change that which was intended as a sin to be considered as if he did a mitzva – זדונות נעשות כזכויות (Yoma 86b)? But this is the gift which G-d gave us: to mend what was broken and recreate that which was presumed dead. And it is a gift to be cherished.
This is fully in consonance with the Rambam’s words elsewhere in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Teshuva 7:4-7):
The Ba’al Teshuva must not imagine that, in consequence of the iniquities and sins which he had committed, he is far below the degree of the Righteous; this is not so; rather he is as beloved and as accepted to the Creator as if he had never sinned; indeed his reward will be greater still; for he has tasted sin, and yet has abandoned it, and subdued his evil inclination…The same man who, only the day before, was despised, condemned, and rejected by G-d, is now beloved, accepted, a kin and a favorite [to G-d]…How great is repentance! The same man who, the day before, was separated from the Lord, G-d of Israel…is today cleaving unto the Shechinah…
Yesterday hated, condemned and forgotten. But today? Today he is beloved, today he is cherished, and today he is greater than the wholly Righteous. This is the power of change!
So, with the month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the back mirror, with the desire to retain the changes we have made, we should inculcate this heartening message to give us new vigor, energy and belief in ourselves and our potential.
Shanah Tovah and may we all have a sweet renewed year. Amen.
*See שו״ת נודע ביהודה קמא או״ח לה; however see the חיד״א in ספר עין זוכר ערך מלקות אות כ׳ who argues