Beyond Perfect Repentance

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Eliezer Finkelman

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we beg God to forgive our sins, we expend considerable effort thinking about how to do teshuvah (repent). Our rabbis and teachers refer us to Chapter One of the Laws of Repentance, in which Maimonides outlines a roadmap for fulfilling all the elements of repentance, one shared by many moralists in different traditions. The sinner expresses remorse for his previous act and shame for having committed that act, apologizes to those he has hurt, makes restitution where possible, and makes a serious commitment not to repeat the evil act in the future. So it seems that perfect repentance means deliberately fulfilling each element of the process of repentance.

In the effort to fulfill the elements of repentance, apology presents a challenge. After all, many public apologies amount to pseudo-apologies: “If anyone was offended by what I said or did, I am sorry that they took offense. I meant no harm.” We always wonder about the true significance of the public apology; perhaps the speaker only regrets getting caught.

Commitment for the future presents yet another challenge. I can say I have made a commitment, but how will I behave next time? To achieve “complete repentance,” Maimonides explains, one must face the same opportunity to sin, and this time not yield (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1). Rabbi Judah gives the vivid example of illicit sex: the same woman, just as willing; the same man, just as able; but this time he refrains, and so demonstrates “complete repentance” (Yoma 86b).

So it seems that even someone who issues a full apology, checking off every box of Rambam’s elements of repentance, always has a whiff of self-interest. He knows he is apologizing, and he hopes to be forgiven by God on Yom Kippur, by his victims, or by the public. Someone who overcomes those challenges, who manages a real apology, and who makes a true commitment for the future, has accomplished this “complete repentance.”

And yet, in light of the above observations regarding the possible self-interest inherent to repentance, we may surmise that there exists a level of repentance beyond even this kind of complete repentance. Forwarding precisely this thesis, my teacher Professor Jerome (Yehudah) Gellman distinguished between the naive and sentimental penitent in a short article, “Teshuvah and Authenticity” (Tradition 20:3, Fall 1982, 249-253). Someone who genuinely reforms, not because she knows the formula for apology or the way to get forgiveness (sentimental repentance), but because she has genuinely changed (naive repentance), does a real kind of repentance, without even aiming at repentance. Gellman considers this unplanned repentance to be the highest level, precisely because one thereby sidesteps the possibility of inauthenticity.

But this notion is not only rooted in our surmise or the innovation of Professor Gellman. Judah already exemplifies this model of naive repentance in the book of Genesis. Let us begin by reviewing the back story. 

Judah and his full brothers grow up with justified resentment. They cannot accept the way their father Jacob treats their mother Leah, and the way he treats them. Only Joseph and Benjamin, the sons of Rachel, seem to count as sons; the others count as something less.

Of course, Jacob has reasons for his favoritism. He and his wives have a messy back story. Jacob’s uncle Laban substituted Leah, and then extorted more work in exchange for the intended bride, in effect selling Rachel twice. A casual reader would probably determine that Jacob reluctantly comes to accept Leah as his wife. The same casual reader might decide that the servants Bilhah and Zilpah count as mere concubines.

But if we read the text carefully, we see otherwise: Jacob goes even further in disenfranchising Leah. Leah refers to Jacob as her husband (“ishi” = “my man”) when she names two of her sons: Reuben, “now my husband will love me” (Gen. 39:22), and Levi, “now my husband will accompany me” (Gen. 39:34). While the narrator never mentions Leah by name as a wife of Jacob, at Gen 32:22, the narrator’s report implicitly counts Leah as a wife of Jacob: “And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.” Laban also refers to Leah as Jacob’s wife in 31.50.

Instead, in an enigmatic verse, the narrator tells us that Joseph “was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives” (Gen. 37:2). Bilhah, the servant of Rachel, and Zilpah, the servant of Leah, given by their mistresses to Jacob, here – and nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible – are described as the wives of Jacob. Leah and her sons do not appear in the verse at all. Does Joseph act like a boy with the sons of Leah? The text scrupulously avoids telling us. Does Leah count as Jacob’s wife? The text remains silent, suggesting that Jacob himself is unconvinced.

The sons of Leah, lorded over by their privileged half-brother, their father’s obvious favorite, nearly kill him. Perhaps he treats them as no more worthy of respect than the sons of the servants. As an only-slightly less horrifying alternative to murdering him, they throw Joseph into a pit. Perhaps they feel motivated for their murderous anger because Joseph (like the narrator) treats the sons of Leah as equivalent to, or less than, the sons of the servants.  

Consistent with his treatment of their mother, Jacob pointedly avoids calling any of Leah’s children his sons. He saves the word “son” for Benjamin, the only remaining child of Rachel. Later, during a famine in Canaan, when Jacob must allow his sons to go to Egypt to purchase food, he resists letting them take Benjamin (a son of Rachel) with them. Speaking to Reuven, a son of Leah, Jacob says: “My son shall not go down with you. For his brother is dead, and he alone remains, and if an accident should befall him on the way that you are going, it would bring my gray head in sorrow to the grave” (Gen. 42:38). Benjamin counts as “my son”; Joseph, presumably dead, was “his brother.” Speaking to a son of Leah, Jacob makes it clear that the son of Rachel “alone” is his son. If Benjamin would die, that would leave Jacob “bereft,” or perhaps, “childless” (43:13). The sons of Leah, it seems, do not count at all.

Consistent with this theme, in Genesis 46:8, the narrator gives us a list of the descendants of Jacob who go down to Egypt. The verse opens, “These are the names of the children of Israel who were coming to Egypt.” The list begins with the children of Leah, but her name does not appear until a summary after the last of them: “These are the children of Leah whom she bore to Jacob in Padan Aram” (46:15). A few verses later, after listing the children of Zilpah, the text pointedly reads: “The children of Rachel, the wife of Jacob, are Joseph and Benjamin” (46:16).

The biblical narrator, then, refrains from describing Leah as a wife of Jacob. The narrator refers to Rachel as “the wife of Jacob,” but Leah just as “Leah.” As Robert Alter reminds us that, when reading stereotypical language, such as in lists, we need to pay careful attention to small variations.[1] The ancients, used to such formal lists, expected such close reading, a skill that might not come so easily to moderns, who more commonly expect writers to spell out their meanings. The narrator has carefully not given Leah a title; only Rachel appears as Jacob’s wife in this list.

Finally, when asking to be buried in the family cemetery, Jacob continues to pointedly refuse to describe Leah as his wife: “There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebecca his wife; and there I buried Leah” (Gen. 49:31). It feels like the rhetorical equivalent of syncopation in music: The phrase for the first two matriarchs ends with an emphatic “his wife,” and then the phrase for Leah ends with an emphatic… nothing. To the end, Jacob refuses to describe Leah as his wife.  

Once we appreciate that the narrator never describes Leah as Jacob’s wife, and that Jacob describes Rachel, and only Rachel, as his wife, then we can surmise that this slighting of Leah contributes to her sons’ jealous decision to imprison Joseph in a pit, and their subsequent decision to sell him into slavery in Egypt. It was about more than Joseph’s dreams; it was about their very status as children. They would let their brother suffer imprisonment, and their father bereavement, in the hope that their father would recognize them as full sons should he have no alternative.

With this background in mind, we can appreciate the depth of the transformation Judah has undergone when he confronts the Egyptian officer (whom he does not recognize as Joseph), to beg for the release of Benjamin.

Without any fanfare or protest, Judah recalls that his father described Rachel as his only wife, and her two sons as his real sons. Judah quotes his father as having said, “You know that my wife bore me two sons” (44:27). Judah recognizes that Joseph and Benjamin count as the only real sons of the only real wife. Judah, as a son of another woman, like his full brothers, qualifies as a kind of second-class son. But no complaint is implied; Judah simply accepts this status. Now Judah accepts his subservient status without protest, and even, to protect his father from experiencing the imprisonment of the favorite son, Judah offers that he himself should be imprisoned. 

Joseph has maneuvered Judah into the same situation that he faced years ago: now once again he can rid himself of the favored brother, let the son of the only acknowledged wife languish in prison, while Judah can return to his father without the rival. Yet this time Judah does not repeat the ugly deed. Instead, he protects his half-brother, the favored son, and his father, even at the cost of his own freedom.

Not only is this an instance of a perfect apology and complete repentance, but it is perhaps the archetypal example of naive repentance. Judah has no idea that he is confessing or apologizing. He is simply stating what he has now come to accept. He will not succumb to the same temptation, because he has genuinely changed. He is no longer the son who would throw his uppity half-brother into a pit, and perhaps sell him into slavery. He is now the second-class son who would sacrifice himself to save the favored son. We cannot know whether Judah believes that he deserves the status as second-class son, or whether he merely accepts that his father considers him a second-class son. In either case, he no longer fights against his second-class status.

Though Jacob never accepts Leah as his wife, Leah lies in the ancestral cemetery beside Jacob, and Jewish history does not end with Jacob. We, the children of Israel, descend from Leah. Many of us, Kohanim and Leviim, descend from Leah’s son Levi. Many others consider ourselves descendants of Leah’s son Judah; or we descend from converts; or we ourselves have converted to Judaism, to Judah-ism, the faith of Leah’s son Judah. Leah longed for the words “my wife”; Judah eventually accepted that his half-brothers would always be, in his father’s eyes, the sons of “my wife.” We are the children of naive, complete repentance. Whether during the High Holy Days or all year round, it is our essence, and, hopefully, our destiny.

[1] “There are also narrative conventions that are unique to the Bible, the two most prominent involving repetition, with significant variation in the repetition on the microscopic level of words and phrases and on the macroscopic level of plot.” Robert Alter, “A Life of Learning: Wandering Among Fields.” ACLS Occasional Paper #70, American Council of Learned Societies, New York, 2013.


Louis (Eliezer) Finkelman teaches literature and composition at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, and shares responsibilities as co-rabbi of Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park. He earned a Ph.D. in Comparative LIterature at City University of New York, and rabbinic ordination at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.