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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Deuteronomy/Dvarim - Ekev
To Bribe G-d

Posted 2007 - Contributed by Asher ben Shimon
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In this week's Torah portion, Ekev, Moshe tells the Jewish people about the relationship between them and G-d. When it comes to judgment, he tells them, Hashem will not `show favor (i.e. overlook sins) or take bribery'.

Overlooking a sin means that a sin will not be "counted" even though G-d considers it bad. Bribery is casing a judge to issue a dishonest verdict. Calling something bad, "good".

Rashi comments that when it says that Hashem will not overlook our sins, it speaks only about a situation where the Jewish people do not follow in Hashem's ways. This explanation is necessary in order not to contradict the priestly blessing: "May Hashem show you favor". For a loving father it is only natural to overlook the smaller mistakes of his child. Therefore, in general Hashem overlooks our sins (when not done with the intention to remove the yoke of heaven.)

Harder to understand is Moshe's statement that G-d doesn't take bribes. Why would anyone think that Hashem, the true judge, would be tempted to take bribes? Besides, we know that He keeps all the Mitzvot, and one of them is not to take bribery!

Interestingly enough, we find in Mishlei that Hashem takes bribes from the wicked. The midrash explains: "What is the bribery He takes from the wicked? -Their repentance and good deeds in this world. Hashem said to the Jewish people: "My children, do teshuva while the gates of repentance are still open! In this world I take bribes but in the world to come, when I judge you, I won't."

One may think that doing many good deeds or writing out a big check to charity would have an effect in the heavenly court. The Torah tells us here that this is not so. To quote the sages: "If one were to do a thousand good deeds and one sin, this one sin cannot be compensated for by subtracting one or more good deeds. He will be punished for the sin and receive reward for all the good deeds" Moshe is saying that bribing Hashem with good deeds won't work. The only way to bribe Him is with repentance. The reason behind that is very simple. Punishment and reward are based on a person's record. All deeds, good and not good, get recorded in the heavenly books. By feeling regret, wishing that a certain deed was never done, the record gets cleaned. Adding a lot of good deeds on the other hand, gives us merit in the world to come, but do not cancel out our bad deeds.

According to this explanation however, repentance can't be considered a bribe. A bribe is only to CHANGE the verdict unlawfully. Once there is no sin on the record, there is no reason for punishment and therefore no reason for a bribe.

The Talmud states that when one does teshuva out of sincere love for Hashem, his sins turn into merits. The heavenly law is that one gets punished for a sin. By erasing the sin, the law doesn't call for punishment anymore. To consider the former sin a merit however, is CHANGING the law. Thus one might argue that repentance IS considered bribery.

The problem with this theory is though, that the midrash seems to call ALL forms of teshuva bribery, and not only the one that transforms sins into merits.

According to the Torah, Teshuva means to refrain from sinning and to make a firm resolution not ever to do that sin again. As we just mentioned, there are higher forms of teshuva too. Nevertheless even the simplest form of teshuva causes the sin to be forgiven. That, one can argue, is not fair. There should be a difference in the actual forgiving of the sin between someone who does it out of fear of punishment and someone who does it out of love for G-d and a desire to please Him. Since no difference is being made between levels of repentance, it is possible to consider teshuva a form of bribery.

How does teshuva work?
Three things nullify bad decrees. Tefilah (prayer), tzedakah (charity) and teshuva. R'Huna says ..also change of name and good deeds. … Others say also change of place. (Midrash) Based on this midrash the Halacha tells us how one should act after he repented for a sin. "He should always cry out to Hashem … do a lot of charity…stay far away from what he sinned with, and change his name, saying: I am someone else. I am no longer the person who did those sins. He should change all his deeds for the better and exile himself."

In other words; one should repent from the original sin first and then change his identity and ALL his deeds.

Since these two things were mentioned together in the midrash, we must say that they are linked in Halacha (Jewish law) too. This implies that `change of identity' is not accomplished by refraining from doing the sin that is being repented for, but only when one's whole character is improved. This implies not only changing the bad ways but also the good ways. Since better is better then good, even the good ways can, and should, be improved.

There are two ways of looking at repentance.
-From the sin's point of view: Before the repentance there is a sin; after teshuva it gets erased.

-From the sinner's point of view: Before he repents, he is a `sinner'; after teshuva he gets a new identity. The practical difference would be in a case where a sin has lasting results. For example, a child from an illegitimate relationship is a living testimony to the sin. No matter how much remorse the parents feel, the sin will not be completely erased as long as that child is alive. If in such a case the sinner would do a proper teshuva, including an `identity change'; he wouldn't be punished for it. Although the result of the sin is still existence, it won't be considered a sin done by HIM. The one who did the sin no longer exists.

On Rosh Hashana we say in the prayers that Teshuva, Tefilah and Tzedakah can overturn bad decrees. We don't mention the rest of the Halacha there about becoming a new person and changing the previous life style.

Teshuva, Tefilah and Tzedakah all deal with erasing the SIN. The actual repentance erases the blemish on the record. Depending on how sincere the teshuva is, the dirt will be erased more intensely. The prayers and charity are in a way part of the teshuva too. In a human relationships one has to be extra nice after a quarrel, so too we have to show extra involvement in Torah and mitzvah observance after having transgressed G-d's will.

Becoming a new person deals with transforming the SINNER. The Rosh Hashana prayer talks about nullifying a bad decree against a sinner. Once the person has done teshuva in a way that it changed his identity, there is no reason to worry about a bad decree against a sinner who no longer exists.

In order to testify in a rabbinical court, one has to be a `kosher' witness. It is customary to remind the official witnesses (for example: at a wedding ceremony) to do teshuva in their minds. Even if the witness has done certain sins in the past that would disqualify him from this role, the teshuva makes him `Kosher' again.

Although proper teshuva is done by feeling regret for the particular sins that were done, complemented by prayer etc., the mere decision that he will never sin again is enough to render him fit for testimony.

In order for a sin to be erased, a stronger, more intentional teshuva is definitely required. In order to be considered a totally new person, in a way that cleanses a person of his sins and their consequences, more is needed than having a single positive thought. Nevertheless, we can talk here about an identity change on a smaller scale.

It can be compared to an embryo in its earliest stage in the womb. It takes nine months of pregnancy and many years of childhood to grow into an adult.

Doing teshuva from the depth of the heart is an adult teshuva. Deciding in ones mind not to sin ever again for the sake of the wedding ceremony, is teshuva as an embryo in its earliest stage. It is the first step on the road leading back to Hashem. But it has the potential to become an adult teshuva.

Now we can understand why teshuva is not considered bribery in a negative way, even when no attention is paid to the level of intensity. To our eyes, whether we look at the sin or at the sinner, there is a difference in levels of teshuva. Only proper teshuva can erase the sin and change the identity of the person who sinned. Accepting a low form of repentance we consider `unfair'. When teshuva is referred to as a bribe, it is done so in OUR terms. In Hashem's eyes, however, it is not considered bribery. To Him it is clear that the first step contains the potential for the highest form of teshuva. He knows that it is only a matter of time for this potential to be activated. Therefore He is completely justified in accepting everyone's teshuva equally.

This also explains why the midrash says that the bribery consists of repentance and GOOD DEEDS.

We said earlier that good deeds do NOT have the ability to erase sins from the record. Why then does the midrash say that Hashem can be bribed with repentance and good deeds?

According what we just explained, we can understand it though. Only when teshuva is done in a way that it will result in good deeds, and with time a complete personality change, it is considered bribery.

In the laws of teshuva there is another very interesting law. "The Jewish people will only be redeemed because of teshuva. But the Torah promised already that at the end of the exile everyone will repent and they will be redeemed immediately."

May it be right now with the coming of Moshiach.


Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash and from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash

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