Naso: How Much T’shuvah is Enough?

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

Well, this is supposed to be the week of parshat Naso, but it feels
more like Noah and the flood! I’ve heard that it’s been one of the
rainiest springtimes ever in New England- well, maybe the time you’re
not outside playing golf or getting a tan you can be inside studying
Torah.

Back to our parsha, Naso, which is mostly about the duties of the
Mishkan, and all the gifts to the Mishkan brought by that the princes
of the tribes. There is also the famous “priestly blessing,” the test
of the bitter waters, rules for people who take special holy vows, and
a few criminal laws, including a rule about restitution:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man
or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith
with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess
the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal
amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.
. .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 5:5-7)

Although this passage is fairly straightforward, it’s worth noting
that the rabbis compare this to another verse, in Vayikra chapter 5,
which leads them to conclude that what’s really going on here is a
case where somebody did something wrong to somebody else, then lied
about it, and then decides to confess later. Such a person has to make
restitution, plus one-fifth of the value of the restitution, and bring
an offering to God in the Mishkan.

First, let’s note that according to this interpretation of the rabbis
(cf. Rashi on this paragraph), this law is really a marvelous example
of Judaism’s openness to t’shuvah, or “returning,” but usually
translated as “repentance.” The lying thief gets a second chance, even
after committing perjury! Perhaps the Torah realizes that it’s simply
human nature to deny our wrongdoing when caught- perjury is a serious
crime, but it can’t be punished so severely that people have no
motivation to confess later.

Thus, by giving the perpetrator of wrong a second chance to confess,
the Torah seems to be implying that even a lying thief (or whatever he
did) might reflect on his deeds and eventually may wish to make things
right. In fact, one could say that the real thrust of this commandment
is not so much to the repentant miscreant, but to the one harmed, who
is being told to accept the confession and restitution (plus
one-fifth) as sufficient. (I’ve often thought that it’s emotionally
and spiritually more difficult to accept another’s t’shuvah than do
one’s own, but that’s another discussion.)

Taking things a bit further, let’s remember that sometimes the Torah
teaches us an extreme case in order to illustrate more ordinary
ethics. I think this is such a time: if a thief or other criminal gets
a second chance to confess without a substantially greater penalty,
how much more so should we all extend to each other that “second
chance” to do t’shuvah without the fear that confession will bring
greater anger and blame.

In other words- sometimes it’s hard to confess one’s misdeeds,
especially to those we love, but people of conscience (i.e., most
people) will often want eventually to repair relationships and effect
reconciliation. Maybe the “one-fifth” which is added could be
understood as the greater effort needed to do t’shuvah once one has
denied or lied about the initial problem, but even so, one-fifth
greater effort is not prohibitive.

It is axiomatic in Judaism that the Torah is a “Torat Hesed,” a Torah
of loving-kindness; in this case, the hesed comes when people soften
towards each other, make reconciliation where they must, and
forgiveness when they ought. Barriers to reconciliation are just as
much a problem for the wronged party as for the one who must
apologize; removing those barriers creates the community of
loving-kindness which the Torah envisions as our goal and destiny.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, you can find a summary and further commentary in the
first link, and the text of the Torah portion and haftarah in the
second.

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/naso_index.htm

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/naso.shtml

ALSO, here’s something fun: the United Jewish Communities puts together
a booklet of inspirational thoughts from rabbis across the Jewish
world. This past spring, several of my weekly drashot were adapted for
use in this compendium, which you can download in PDF format at the
top of the page:

http://www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=180644

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