Ellul: the Importance of Collective Repentance

            June 2013    
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The Ideological Brakes of Collective Repentance

By Batya Kirshenbaum Osterbach

I assume I'm not the only one who squirms every time the month of Elul comes around. At this Time of Teshuva (Repentance) that precedes Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur, there are probably many of us who are forced to say, "Have I really mended my ways since last Elul? Will I succeed any more in the coming year than I did in the one that's ending?" And given our previous track record, many of us may ask, "What's the point of going through the motions of Teshuva, when my track record is so unpromising?"

One of the answers to this question can be found in the commentary of the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, (1194-1270) on Parshat Ki-Tavo, which is always read at this time of the year.

In this Parsha, the Torah brings a list of immoral deeds that are usually perpetrated far from the public eye (Deuteronomy 27, 15-26). Moses commands the Levites to name each of these deeds and declare that its perpetrators will be cursed. The last admonition on the list is "Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them" (Arur asher lo yakim et divrei Ha-Tora ha-zot la-asot otam).

What, exactly, is the nature of this last transgression? Rashi sees in these words a general admonition to accept the entire Torah. The Ramban, after quoting Rashi's explanation, gives this admonition a more pointed interpretation.

    "In my opinion this 'acceptance' requires that one avow the commandments in his heart and consider them as the truth, believe that he who observes them will be requited with the best of rewards and he who transgresses them will be punished, and if someone denies any of them, or considers it annulled forever he will be cursed. However, if one transgressed any commandment . because of his desire, or . because of laziness, he is not included within this ban, for Scripture did not say 'who does not perform the words of this Law' but it states that 'confirmeth' not the words of this Law to do them . Thus the verse [before us] is the ban on those who rebel [against the authority of the Torah] and who deny [its validity]."
    (Chavel translation; brackets in the original)

The Ramban's explanation leads us to a deeper understanding of the power and necessity of collective Teshuva. Just as in the weeks before Passover the feverish activity of each individual of cleaning the Chametz (unleavened bread) out of their individual homes becomes in essence a collective experience, so too does the individual soul-searching that is required of us in the Jewish month of Elul become a collective experience. This Collective Teshuva ensures that individual weaknesses and flaws continue to be perceived by society as weaknesses and flaws that each individual must strive to overcome. The outcome of this perception is critically important. For ultimately, Collective Teshuva ensures that individual weaknesses do not become the norm, the standard accepted behavior, of society. Even more, it ensures that human frailty, the very human tendency to stray from the right path into a moral downslide, with all its destructive potential, does not become the Ideological Standard.

As we spend hours in prayer on Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur in synagogues all over the world, we are all mutually responsible for each other as individuals and as a People: Each Jew is responsible for the other (Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La-Zeh). Each Jew's assets and drawbacks are part of the collective fabric of society and are an integral part of the face of Klal Yisrael -The People of Israel.

When each of us stands in prayer on Yom Kippur and verbally takes responsibility for and asks forgiveness for the list of sins enumerated in the Machzor, (the Jewish Prayer Book for the High Holydays), we are saying that even though we may have committed these sins, we recognize them as sins. We do not try to justify our misdeeds. We recognize that though at times some of G-d's commandments, the Mitzvot, may be extremely challenging, we must do our best to fulfill them. We must do our best to fulfill them because they were commanded by G-d, who is not only our Creator, but also our King.

We must do our best to fulfill them because the very recognition of our obligation to fulfill the Mitzvot is our eternal testimony that G-d is The King.


from the June 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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