The Two Voices: A New Perspective on the Meaning of Teshuvah

A Shiur with mekorot, for Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we invite you to take an hour to join Rabbi Sacks on an intellectual journey to explore the concept and deep meanings of Teshuvah.

Watch the video and download the accompanying mekorot (source) sheet here.

I want to do a bit of intellectual archeology, to dig down beneath the surface of Jewish practise, and search for the roots of the idea of teshuvah in Judaism. During the course of this journey into the history of Judaism, we will stumble on a major disagreement between two of the very greatest Rabbis of the Middle Ages - Maimonides and Nachmanides - about what is the nature of Teshuvah. Secondly we will travel all the way back to Biblical Israel, to the times of Moses and Aaron, and will make another fascinating discovery about the fact that in Judaism there is not one kind of spirituality but there are actually two that are very different from one another. And number three, by the time we step back from that long journey and come back to the present, we will be able to see in retrospect that something extraordinary happened to Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple, something that in a way was not achieved in the whole of the Biblical era.

So we are at the time of the year, when we are thinking about teshuvah, we're thinking about repentance, return to God, expressing remorse for the wrong we did. God never expected us to be perfect, or at least if he did, his expectations were fairly soon disappointed. And therefore God built in to our relationship with him the possibility of making mistakes, which means that when we get it right, you know, we've achieved something highly significant, but when we get it wrong, it's okay. The only thing God asks is: when you make a mistake, acknowledge you made a mistake, learn from it and resolve not to do it again. And that's the basic principle of teshuvah, it’s the basic principle of Judaism, because that's how we see humanity. We are not tainted by original sin, such that we have to sin and it's only by the grace of God that we do good.

But at the same time, given that we have free will not only does that mean sometimes we'll make a mistake, but out of that same freedom, we can recognise the mistake and come back, and we are returning to God - that's the word teshuvah. And what I want to do now, is to do a little bit of intellectual archaeology to dig down beneath the surface of Jewish practice and search for the roots of this idea in Judaism, and this little activity, or let's call it a journey, let's call it a journey into the history of Judaism, and we will discover the following. Number one, we will stumble on a major disagreement between two of the very greatest Rabbis of the middle ages, Maimonides and Nachmanides, extraordinary individuals, some of the most profound thinkers we've ever had, who took diametrically opposed views as to what is the nature of teshuvah.

Secondly, we will then travel all the way back to biblical Israel, to biblical times, to the times of Moses and Aaron and so on, the Israelites in the wilderness. And we again will make a fascinating discovery about the fact that in Judaism, there's not one kind of spirituality, there are actually two that are very different from one another. And number three, by the time we step back from that long journey and come back to the present, we will be able to see in retrospect that something extraordinary happened to Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple, one of the worst tragedies that ever befell our people. But one of the extraordinary things about Jews and Jewish history is that through our faith, not just our faith in God, but God's faith in us, somehow we not merely are able to recover from tragedy, but we take tragedy as the source of some new leap of the imagination, some new achievement of the human spirit. And we will then see that the Rabbis themselves in the generations after the destruction of the Temple, did something really extraordinary, something that in a way, was not achieved in the whole of the biblical era. And we have to start our journey with a question, every Jewish journey begins with a question, and here is the question - where in the Torah, where in the five books of Moses will we find the source of the mitzvah to repent?

Now, this is an open question. Can anyone make a suggestion? Where do we find this? Just work it out. We’ve got five books of the Torah, we have 613 commands. Now for most commands, it's pretty easy to say that's where it is in the Bible. But if we look for the source of the command to repent, when you have sinned, repent, we will find it's very, very difficult indeed. Now, we begin by asking the man who is more logical, more systematic, more lucid than perhaps any Rabbi since the days of Moshe Rabbeinu, namely Moses Maimonides. Maimonides, I'm sure you know, lived in the 12th century, born and grew up as a child in Córdoba in Spain, which was under moderate Muslim rule, then gets taken over by some very radical Muslims. It's no longer safe to be there, he and his family go travelling, they go to Israel. Israel has been devastated by the Crusades, it's impossible for a Jew to live there, and they land up in Fustat, today a suburb of Cairo, in those days, a village, just four kilometres away from Cairo.

Moses Maimonides was extraordinary. He wrote the greatest code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah. He wrote the most profound book of Jewish philosophy, The Guide of the Perplexed. He became a doctor and wrote at least eight medical textbooks, and became the doctor to the Sultan in Cairo. But what interests us here is that Moses Maimonides was the first person in Jewish history to write a code of laws, called Hilchot Teshuvah, the Laws of Repentance. So if anyone is going to tell us where to find the source for the mitzvah of repenting, it has to be the Rambam. And indeed, we get very excited because here in the superscription to the ten chapters of the book called Hilchot Teshuvah, he tells us that, can you see in source one, Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah Hakdamah, in the preface he says, mitzvat asei echat, “all of these ten chapters will be about one command,” vehu sheyashuv hachoteh michetoh, “that the sinner repent of his sin,” lifnei Hashem, “in the presence of God,” veyitvadeh, “and he confesses.”

So the Rambam has told us there's one mitzvah he's going to explain, and that's the mitzvah of teshuvah. And now let's look at the very first law in the first chapter of Hilchot Teshuvah (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 1:1) and it says as follows, kol mitzvot shebaTorah, “all the commands of the Torah, whether they are positive or negative, if you transgressed one of them deliberately or accidentally, when you do teshuvah and you repent of your sins,” chayyav lehitvadot, “you have to confess before God, as it says,” ish oh isha ki ya’asu, “when a man or a woman commit a sin,” vehitvadu et chatatm asher assu, “and they shall confess the sin which they committed,” and Rambam says, zeh vidu’i devarim, "this is verbal confession. And this vidu’i, this confession, is a positive command. How do you confess? You say, ana Hashem, dear God, chatasi, avisi, pashati, I sinned, I committed iniquity, I transgressed before you, I did such and such and I regret it and I'm ashamed of my deeds and I will never do it again.”

And this is the basic principle of confession, and the more you confess, the better it is. Now where's the source of the mitzvah of teshuvah? Can you see how he has gone right round the houses? He doesn't even quote a verse with the word teshuvah in it. What does he do? He says as follows, when you commit a sin in the day when the Temple stood, then you have to bring a sacrifice, a sin offering, a guilt offering, a transgression offering. When you bring an offering, you have to confess. And when you confess, you say, I did something wrong. And presumably when you confess, you are being sincere and therefore, if you're being sincere, you actually feel bad about it. And that is repentance. But can you see, he's got to go round the houses and doesn't even bring a verse where it says, you must repent.

Though, all the verse says is, you must confess, you must say something verbally. And the Rambam is saying that confession presupposes teshuvah because you wouldn't confess unless you really felt you'd done something wrong and you wanted to put it right. So it is a kind of precondition of confession, but actually the source of the mitzvah is confession. Rabbi Soloveitchik, of blessed memory used to distinguish between kiyyum hamitzvah and ma’aseh hamitzvah. There's the mitzvah act, but there's the inward thing that you need in order for that mitzvah act to be a mitzvah act. So the mitzvah act, for instance, in davening would be to open the siddur and daven the Amidah, but the real mitzvah of prayer is actually to feel these things. So, the Bible doesn't actually command teshuvah at all. It commands confession, but in order for confession to be real, it has to be sincere, and in order to have to be sincere, you will have to regret and resolve not to do it again. Are you with me?

So the Rambam goes right around the houses and tells us that if we want to find the source of this, we've got to go back to the Temple in the days where sinners brought a sin offering and so on and so forth. And then he has to generalise that, to cover all sorts of offences, even those for which you never brought a sacrifice, he uses this idea of a binyan av, this is an archetype, a little example of a wider principle. And then of course we’ve got a question on the Rambam, right? No guys, you have a question on the Rambam. If this is the source of teshuvah, then we've got a big question, because what happened 2000 years ago? Temple destroyed, no more Temple, no more priests, no more sacrifices, no more confession.

So for 2000 years, we haven't been able to do what he's talking about. So the Rambam has to say that even though we don't have any sacrifices anymore, the mitzvah of confession still applies, whether the Temple is standing or not. He brings a source for this, It's a midrashic source, it's a halachic midrash, but one way or another, it's a strange round the houses thing. So far, Maimonides. Now we move on a century to another great Spanish Rabbi called Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides, known in Judaism as the Ramban. And again, an extraordinary scholar, lived in Catalonia and wrote one of the great commentaries on the chumash. He was also a great halachist, and of course, being a great Rabbi in Spain in this time, by now it's Christian Spain, you have a real problem, because the Christians don't like the Jews very much, or at least they don't like their religion very much, so amongst other things, they challenge Jews to a public disputation, in which they are going to show Jews and everyone else who cares to watch, that Judaism is false, Christianity is true, and Jews had to face these charges in public.

The trouble was, of course, it was quite hard to know whether it's better to win or to lose, <laugh> do you follow? If you lose, then you are creating a big chillul Hashem and you're causing your own people to doubt - is our faith really true? But if you win, you're upsetting the Christians, and the Christians have the power and the Jews don't, so what do you do? Do you win or do you lose? In 1263, the greatest of all those disputations in the middle ages took place in Barcelona, and Jews fielded their finest centre forward, Nachmanides. No-one of his stature was ever otherwise involved in one of these disputations, there were many of them, but none of them had Ramban. So this was a major world class player, and of course the Ramban won, except that nobody could say so, so king James says to him, “by your life, sir, I have never seen someone in the wrong argue as well as you do.”

And he awarded him an enormous award of 400 talents of silver and so on and so forth. Then, this is 1263, unfortunately the Ramban then does something, which was, we understand why he did it, but it was probably not the most diplomatic thing to do. He published an account of the disputation in which anyone could see that he won, and this was one step too many. And in the end, the King was forced to sentence Ramban to exile in 1265. Now in 1265, Ramban was already over 70 years old, and in the 13th century to be 70 years old is old. And the Ramban, bless him, said it's the best thing that ever happened in his life because it forced him to make Aliyah. He’s sentenced to exile from Spain, so he lands up, after a little bit of wandering, in Israel in 1267, where he finds the Old City completely ravaged by the crusaders.

There's almost no Yishuv (Jewish community) there. And Ramban rebuilds the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. He builds a synagogue, which you can still daven in, in the Old City called the Ramban’s Shul. And when my great-grandfather of blessed memory was asked in 1871 by the old Yishuv in Jerusalem to become the historian of Jerusalem, and he wrote this four volume work called Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim, The History of the Sages of Jerusalem, it begins with the Ramban because that's when the new settlement, as it were began, when the Ramban built his shul. Now the Ramban, if you have a look in source three, can you see that? (Devarim 30 1:4) Ramban turns to a fascinating passage. This is a passage at the end of Moses' life. He is speaking to the next generation. These are the young generation born in the desert who are going to do what he so longed to do but was not able to do - cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land.

And it is in the book of Devarim that he rises to the outermost limits of prophecy. And he foresees that there will come a day, not just when they enter the land, when they settle it, when they build a country there, he even foresees the day when, because they're so happy, so affluent, they forget where they came from. They forget God, they start failing to follow his commandments and keep his covenant, and when that happens, they will be exiled. So he's already thinking centuries in advance. And then he thinks even beyond that and says, when you are exiled, something will happen. And I predict what's going to happen, because I don't want you to feel this is a story with an unhappy ending. And at this point, almost at the end of the Torah, in Devarim chapter 30, as he is reaching to the outermost limits of prophecy, he says as follows, “when all these blessings,” vehayah ki yavo’u alecha kol hadevarim ha’eleh, “when all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God scatters you among the nations.”

This is the diaspora, this is tefutsot. “When you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart, with all your soul according to everything I command you today. Then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he's scattered you. Even if you are scattered to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord, your God will gather you and bring you back.” What happened in the 19th and 20th centuries, Shivat Tzion, the return to Zion. Moshe Rabbeinu foresaw that moment. So this is a prophetic vision and at the end of this prophetic vision, Moses says these following very poetic words. It's in source four (Devarim 30 11:14). Ki hamitzvah hazot, “this command, which I'm commanding you today is not too difficult for you. It's not beyond your reach,” loh bashamayim hi, “it's not up in heaven so they have to ask who will climb to heaven and bring it down for us?” Loh me’ever layam hi, “it's not across the sea so that you have to say, who will cross the sea to bring it to us?”

Ki karov elecha hadavar, “the thing which I'm commanding you today is” karov me’od, “it's very near,” it's just here, it's beficha uvilevavecha la’astoh, “it's in your mouth and your heart to do it.” So when you're sent into exile and you ask, why are we in exile? And you realise it's because we drifted from God. If you return to God, God will return to you and cause you to return to the land. This is Moses' idea that teshuvah has this double sense, the physical return to the land and the spiritual return to the faith, and they go hand in hand. Moshe Rabbeinu is saying “this command which I command you today is not too hard. Now the Ramban wants to know, what is this command? What would you normally think? Dennis, what would you think?

Audience Member:

Honour Hashem, kiddush Hashem.

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah, kind of Judaism in general, right? The whole Torah, you know. This whole book of commandments that I'm commanding you today is not too difficult. So that is what the Ramban in source five says as his first hypothesis (Ramban Devarim 30:11), Veta’am ki hamitzvah hazot, “the meaning of this command,” al kol haTorah kulah, “presumably it's referring to the whole of Judaism.” However, the Ramban says, that's only your first supposition, but actually I'm going to tell you how hamitzvah hazot, doesn't refer to the whole of Judaism, it refers to one command. And what command is that? Al hateshuvah.

This command is the command to return to God. When you're in exile and you realise, mipnei chatae’nu galinu me’artzenu “because of our sins, we were exiled from our land,” and you want to return to God, that mitzvah, the mitzvah of teshuvah is not difficult. It's not up there, it's not across there, it's in your heart and in your mind to do it, that's teshuvah. Now you may say, how on earth has the Ramban arrived at this conclusion that this is the mitzvah of teshuvah? I mean, the passage doesn't mention teshuvah, okay? But the Ramban had this rarest of attributes. We're not very good on this in Judaism. I always say that good news and bad news about the Jewish people. The good news is that we’re among the world's greatest speakers. The bad news is we're among the world's worst listeners. <laugh>. But if you are writing a commentary to the Torah, you have to listen.

And I want you to go back to source three (Devarim chapter 30), and I've italicised a series of words, which you actually won't see indicated in the English, because they mean a lot of different things in English. But can you see? When all these things happen to you, “the blessings and the curses, which I have set before you,” vehashevota, that comes from the root lashuv, which is the root meaning “to return” from which we get the word teshuvah. The English says “take them to your heart,” but actually it's the word lashuv. And then the second verse, veshavta, “and you shall return to the Lord, your God,” right? And then look at verse three, veshav Hashem Elokecha, “God will return,” et shevutecha verichamecha veshav vekibetzecha. The Ramban, not reading it in English translation, listening to it in the original Hebrew, hears in three verses the verb lashuv from which we get the word teshuvah, five times in three verses.

And he's been listening very carefully and he understands that's what Moses is talking about. He’s talking about teshuvah. Teshuvah means returning to God and God returning to us. And if you listen and you look and you do a word search of the Torah, which passage does the word lashuv appear most times? It's here in Devarim 30. It actually appears eight times in Devarim 30, I just didn't give you the whole chapter, okay? So he is listening and he is saying, teshuvah comes from the experience of Jews in exile and their return to God. And that's the source of the mitzvah. And, why do you think Maimonides doesn't count this as the source?

Audience Member:

It’s national.

Rabbi Sacks:


Audience Member:

It's national, not individual.

Rabbi Sacks:

It's national, not individual, but that's not a problem for him because Yom Kippur has this dual aspect. It atones for us as individuals, but it.., The Rambam very simply says, this isn't a command, it's a prediction, this is what's going to happen. Moshe Rabbeinu sees it in the future. He's not giving anyone a command, he's just giving them a prediction. And why do you think the Ramban does not read it like the Rambam? Because the Rambam's verse doesn't talk about teshuvah. It talks about vidui, it talks about confession. They’re two different mitzvahs. One is vidui, one is to repent and the Rambam doesn't give us a verse where the verb lashuv appears, okay? So Maimonides has a reason for not thinking like Nachmanides, and Nachmanides has a reason for not thinking like Maimonides. I don't want you to think that Rabbis just argued for the sake of argument. The rest of us do that, but Maimonides and Nachmanides, did not argue for the sake of arguing. They wanted to discern what is clear and what is… and so on and so forth.

Now I want to ask a very, very simple question. How many kinds of religious leader were there in ancient Israel? You know, normally today you got Rabbis, okay? You have specialised Rabbis called Dayanim, but we've only got one kind of religious leader, that's a Rabbi. But in the days of the Bible, they didn't have one kind of leader, they had two, and who were they? One the kohen, the priest.

Rabbi Sacks:


Audience Member:
The prophet.

Rabbi Sacks:

The prophet, the Navi, beautifully epitomised in Moses, the greatest of the prophets and Aaron, the first High Priest. And I want you to think for one moment about the difference between a prophet and a priest. What has to happen for you to become a kohen?

Audience Member:

You’re born into it.

Rabbi Sacks:


Audience Member:

You’re born into it.

Rabbi Sacks:

Exactly, you don't have to pass any exams to be a kohen. All you have to do is to be the son of a kohen. How do you get to be a prophet? Just be the son of a prophet, right? It doesn't work that way. <laugh>, I mean, Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest prophet of all time, whatever happened to his children, Gershom and Eliezer? We never hear of them, they didn't become prophets. So one passes dynastically, as a matter of simple inheritance. And the other depends entirely on your personal gift, not who your parents were, Max Weber, the 19th century sociologist called that bureaucratic leadership and charismatic leadership, bureaucratic leadership - leadership in terms of office or what they call nowadays authority. You know, you can have the authority of a leader and you can totally fail to lead, you know. So authority doesn't guarantee that you're a leader. And the other one, he called charismatic, which is entirely to do with the personality of the individual.

Incidentally, this has gender implications because there were no women priests, but there certainly were women prophets - seven of them, according to the Sages, because prophecy is charismatic. It has to do with what I am as an individual, it's not part of a social structure. And when it comes to speaking the word of God, women can do this just as men can do it - there were prophetesses as well as prophets. Tell me, did a kohen have a uniform? Of course, absolutely. detailed in great specificity. What was the uniform that a prophet used to wear? What badge did he have in his lapel to say, I'm a prophet. Answer: none, are you with me? There's nothing bureaucratic, official about a prophet. A prophet doesn't wear a uniform, a priest does. Think of what the kohen actually did.

I want you to think. I have this incredible inferiority complex, because I suddenly woke up one day and realised that my phone is smarter than I am. <laugh>. Now you can programme an iPhone if you are a kohen, right. And it will tell you exactly what to do, bang, it goes, you know, the new iPhone watch? t will tell you, now's the time you've got to offer the morning sacrifice, now's the time you have to offer the afternoon sacrifice. You want to know what to say, here's the specification. You want to know what to do, we'll tell you. So you can predict to the end of time, if we have a Temple again, you can predict exactly what is going to be done when, and exactly which way. Can you programme an iPhone to deliver a prophecy? I hope not. <laugh> That is something beyond the scope of artificial intelligence. For that you need a neshamah from Hashem and so far we're ahead of the game on the computers on this one. A prophet needs intuition, a prophet needs to understand what are the challenges of our time, what are the real issues? And that needs judgement, wisdom, insight, foresight, all that kind of stuff.

In fact, they work in different time zones. A kohen works on the basis of cyclical time, the time on a clock, you know, it goes round and round and round, and always comes back to the same point. The prophet works in historical time. What makes this moment different from any moment in the past or any moment in the future? What is unique about this moment? He understands time, not as a series of cycles, but as a journey through from starting point to destination, from slavery and dispersion to the Promised Land, and the society of justice and compassion. Time is a journey and the prophet knows exactly where we are on the journey and which road we have to take when we come to a crossroad. So these are two different kinds of people altogether. And what is really interesting is that they speak about sin using different vocabularies.

So have a look at source eight (Vayikra 16: 21-30). Can you see? In source eight, we are talking about Yom Kippur in biblical times. On Yom Kippur in biblical times, what happened? Who was the key figure on Yom Kippur?


The Kohen Gadol.

Rabbi Sacks:

Exactly, the Kohen Gadol. This was his great moment in the year where he confessed the sins of the people and made atonement for them and did a lot of other things involving two goats, one, which was offered as a sacrifice, the other, which became the scapegoat, sent into the wilderness and so on. And listen to this chapter, Vayikra 16, which describes avodat Kohen Gadol beYom haKippurim, the service of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Vesamach Aharon et shtei Yadav al rosh hase’ir hachai this is the goat that became eventually the scapegoat. “And he lays his hands on it,” vehitvadah alav, “and he confesses over it.” et kol avonot bnei yisrael “all the sins of Israel,” ve’et kol pisheihem, “ “and all their transgressions,” lechol chatosam, “according to all their iniquities, and you shall place them on the head of the goat which is sent into the wilderness.” Now we're not doing a shiur on the scapegoat, it’s a great shiur, we'll do it some other time.

But look at the language, hitvada, “he confesses.” And he confesses highly specifically for the technical difference between an avon, a pesha, and a chet - the different kinds of sin. The kohen is always making distinctions and getting things exactly right. And you have to make atonement for all those different kinds of things. And the Torah then says, listen very carefully to this language, ki vayom hazeh yechaper aleichem leather etchem mikol chatoteichem, “on this day atonement will be made for you, to purify you, to cleanse you from all your sins. Before the Lord your God, you will be purified.” Those are the key words for the kohen - kapparah and taharah. Kapparah - atonement means God blots out the record. What happens when you get a points on your, I haven't driven for a very long time, but when you get points on your driver's licence, is there a moment when the law actually forgets them?

Audience Member:

Five years.

Rabbi Sacks:

Five years. Okay, that's kapparah, the record is deleted, that's kapparah. And taharah - purify. That's what happens physically when you go to a Mikvah, but it's what happens spiritually when God forgives you. So here we have very interesting language - kapparah and taharah. Whenever you hear those words, you know a priest is speaking. Does the word teshuvah appear in this? No, it doesn't appear at all. This isn't about teshuvah, this is about atonement and cleansing, right? And that is the priest, that's the way the priest thinks about sin and repentance. Now let's think about the way a prophet thinks about sin and repentance. Here’s Isaiah in source nine (Isaiah 55: 6-7), Dirshu Hashem behimatzoh, “seek God where he is found,” kera’uhu biheyoto karov, “call him when he's near, let the wicked man abandon his ways,” ve’ish aven machshevotav, “and the unrighteous person, their thoughts,” veyashov, “and they will return to God,” viyerachamenu, “and he will have compassion on them,” ve’el Elokeinu ki yarbeh lislo’ach, “because he is very generous in forgiving.”

So you notice, first of all, Isaiah is not talking in this technical language of the priest. Was it a chet, was it a pesha, was it an avon?. He's not using words like kapparah and taharah. He's talking about a rasha, a person whoes a bad guy, very general terms. And he uses the word lashuv, “you shall return.” And then he tells you what God will do, ki yarbeh lislo’ach, “God forgives.” Or here's Hosea, let's have a look in source 10 (Hosea 14:2-3). Shuva Yisrael, “Return O Israel to the Lord your God, because you have stumbled because of your sins.” K’chu imachem devarim, “take with you words and return to God. Say to him, forgive our sins, receive us graciously that we may offer the fruit of our lips.” So again, Hoshea is using the word lashuv, “return to God,” come close to him when you feel him close to you. So we are beginning to see that the prophets use a different vocabulary. They talk about lashuv, “to return” instead of kapparah and taharah, they talk about wickedness as a general moral category. And they even emphasise that it's all what you say and what you feel, not just the sacrifice that you're offering, this highly ritualised service of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. So they use different vocabularies, and those different vocabularies ultimately tell us that the kohen and the navi thought about sin in slightly different ways.

The prophet thinks about sin, essentially as number one, you were driving above the speed limit, <laugh> you've committed a legally specifiable offence. So you've got a bad mark on your record and Google never forgets, or I hope it's about to forget, am I right? If you wanted to forget, Google will now allow us to do teshuvah <laugh>. And the second thing is, it kind of defiles you, you know, deep down, you know you've done something wrong and you feel tainted. Does that make sense? When you are aware that you did something wrong, you feel, you know, something is impure, there's a stain on you somehow. So there's a black mark on your record, and there's a stain on your character. And that's how the kohen thought about atonement. And when the Kohen Gadol does the right teshuvah, and you are emotionally with him on that day, because it was a very awe-inspiring day.

And everyone was feeling very bad for their sins, and they watched this man do teshuvah, atone for them. And the kapparah removes the black mark from your record, and the taharah removes the stain from your soul. That's how the kohen thinks about it. The prophet thinks about it in a different way. The prophet is really interested in I-thou relationships. And when you're nasty to people or you've been dishonest or you've, you know, whatever it is, you've betrayed somebody, you have damaged the relationship. You are no longer close to that person and that person is no longer close to you. And whether you've done this to a human being, or you've done it to God, this feeling is that somehow our I-thou relationship has gone wrong, and God is distant from us and we are distant from him, and somehow we have to come together.

We have to turn to him knowing that he will turn to God and we meet in the middle. It's all about personal relationships, our personal relationships with our fellow human beings, and our I-thou personal relationship with God. So the essence here is not kapparah or taharah. It's got nothing to do with the record of the stain on your character. It's coming back - you come back to God, He comes back to you, you meet in the middle, you embrace, and He tells you He's forgiven you and He still loves you. And that is what teshuvah was for the prophets.

You might have noticed that there is only one word that they both use. Can you think of what that word is? Well if you can't, there's a reason for that, because I haven't given it to you yet. <laugh> That key word is selichah. Selichah means, you know, God forgives, ki yarbeh lislo’ach, right? And it is very, very interesting that prophets and priests both use this word lislo’ach. You know, we say selichah, meaning “I'm sorry,” but really selichah also means what the other person does, “I forgive you,” ani mochel, ani sole’ach, “I forgive you.” But it's interesting, when the prophet uses the wordle selichah, it's always in the active tense, it's the simple tense, the kal, ki yarbeh lislo’ach. When the priest uses the word selichah , it's always in the passive, venislach, that's the nifal, right? “It shall be forgiven.” Can you see in source 12 (Bamidbar 15:26), this is the line we say in Kol Nidrei night after Kole Nidrei, venislach lechol adat Bnei Yisrael velager hagar betocham ki lechol ha’am bishgaga, “God will treat the sin of the congregation as if they didn't really mean to sin.”

And the result is venislach, “it will be forgiven.” Whenever you hear a priest talking or the Torah is talking about a priest, nislach, it's always in the passive. But when a prophet speaks, it's always, God says, salachti, “I forgive you.” That's the only word they share. Otherwise, priests and prophets have two different vocabularies because they think of sin in slightly different ways. The priest whose work is being in the Temple, whos very close to God is thinking in very priestly ways and the prophet who's out there in society, where human relationships are everything, is thinking about human relationships and whatever happens down here between us also affects our relationship with God.

Now I want to ask you which world is Maimonides speaking from, the world of the priest or the world of the prophet? You remember how he defined teshuvah? When you commit a sin, you bring a sacrifice, you confess over it. That is where he locates teshuvah - you sinned, so you go to the Temple, you bring a sacrifice, you confess in front of the priest, in front of God. That for him is his image. And of course, above that, that's for individuals, and collectively, what is the image? The High Priest on the Day of Atonement within the Holy of Holies, confessing the seis of the people. According to Maimonides, teshuvah is born in the Temple, in the world of the priest. According to Nachmanides, where does teshuvah come from? Whose world?

He's talking about the world of the prophet. He brings the most prophetic utterance of all in the whole Torah. Moses prophesying saying that one day Israel will be sent into exile and then they'll realise it was because of their sins, and they'll turn return to God, and they will return to the Land. That is what prophets did, they saw God in history. And don't forget what I said about teshuvah for the prophet. For the prophet, teshuvah meant the physical return to the Land and the spiritual return to the faith. It's exactly the opposite with sin as far as the prophet is concerned. What do we say on Yom Tov when we're davening in shul instead of in the Temple in Jerusalem, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days, mipnei chata’enu galinu me’artzenu, “because of our sins, we were exiled from our Land.” And when you're exiled from your Land, you're pretty much exiled from God, because the most vivid place where God lives is in the Holy Land, and within the Holy Land, in Jerusalem, and within Jerusalem, the Temple, and within the temple, the Holy of Holies.

So when we are exiled physically from our Land, it's because we were exiled spiritually from our God. And that is why teshuvah means coming back at both levels. This is how the prophet saw things. And did it actually happen? I mean, is the Ramban just speculating on the basis of a distant prophecy that Moses gives about the future? What happened after the First Temple was destroyed? Anyone remember? The Jews went into exile into? That's where we sat and wept as we remembered Zion, by the waters of Babylon. They were sent into exile because of their sins. And what happens? Exactly as Moses predicted. They said it's because we didn't keep the Torah. And in exile I had a prophet called Ezekiel who encouraged them to return to God. And they did return to God. And when the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, and when first Cyrus and then Darius of Persia gave them the permission to return, and they did return.

And the leaders of the Jewish people in the second wave of return were two great figures, Ezra and Nehemiah. And what did they do on Rosh Hashanah in the Second Temple? They gathered all the people together by Sha’ar Hamayim, by the Water Gate, not Nixon Watergate, the real Water Gate. And they read to the people from the Torah, and the people started weeping, and they started atoning, and then they renewed the covenant. And that according to the Ramban is the historical enactment of teshuvah. The people are in exile, they return to God. They come back to the Land, they rebuild the Temple, and they rededicate themselves to the values of the covenant. And that's what Moses, according to Ramban was predicting. And that's what we are living through right now. Jews have come back to the Land of Israel, but they've also come back to the faith of Israel. We've never had more Yeshivot or seminaries. And we are living in a time, ki mitzion tetzei Torah u'dvar Hashem miYerushalayim, once again, as Isaiah foresaw 28 centuries ago, “that the law will go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem.” So we see here, why Maimonides and Nachmanides disagreed. Because Maimonides locates, teshuvah in the world of the priest and Nachmanides, in the world of the prophet.

And now I want to ask you something very simple. How come teshuvah has this dual form? Why is it one thing for the priest and another thing for the prophet? Okay, what was the first real big sin of the Jewish people? The big one.

Audience Member:

The golden calf.

Rabbi Sacks:

The golden calf, right? Golden calf. What happens? Moshe Rabbeinu prays to God. He then goes down, <laugh> smashes the tablets, smashes the golden calf, grinds it to dust, the whole stuff, you know. Then he goes up to God again and prays for forgiveness and Hashem forgives the people. And then Moshe Rabbeinu comes down the mountain with the second tablets. Does anyone know what day he came down the mountain? 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur.

That is why Yom Kippur is on the 10th of Tishrei. If you look in source 13 (Shemot 34:29), vayehi beredet Moshe meHar Sinai. “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and the two tablets of stone were in his hand when he came down from the mountain and Moses didn't know that his face was shining when he spoke to the people, because he'd seen God, he'd attained forgiveness.” And Rashi says, vayehi beredet Moshe keshehevi luchot achronot beYom Hakippurim, “when he brought down the second tablets and that was Yom Kippur.” And that is why from that moment onward, the 10th of Tishrei became the day of atonement and forgiveness, because that was the day the Israelites, as a people saw that they had been forgiven. Yes, the first tablets were smashed, but here is Moses with the second tablets, showing that God has renewed his covenant with them, showing that God still believes in them.

Now tell me something. If you were an Israelite and you'd been through this and you'd actually read the Book and you realised how close to the abyss the Jewish people had come. And you realise that we all can sin again despite our best intentions, never, ever to repeat a sin. How many Rosh Hashanah resolutions have you really kept? Some of them, I'm sure, but do you remember them? They last for a day or two, okay, and then back you are. Now what would be at the back of your mind if you were a biblical Israeli? I'll tell you what would be the back of my mind, Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest prophet Israel ever had, is able to speak to God and get God to forgive. To do so, he had to use all the lessons he learned in assertiveness training. He even had to go to the very brink, because he says ve’ata im tisa avonam [chatotam] ve’im ayin mecheni na misifrecha asher katavta (Shemot 32:32), "please forgive them, and if not, wipe me out from the book you have written.” Ribbono Shel Olam, this is it, I'm not just asking you, I'm giving you an ultimatum, either forgive them or I'm out of this. Now not many people could say that to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.


So you know what would be at the back of my mind? What happens if we sin again? But this time we have no Moshe Rabbeinu. Don't forget, Yyou know, there only ever was one Moshe Rabbeinu. That surely should make you perennially anxious. What are we going to do if we ever sin again? And without going into the details of the text, I suggest that Moshe Rabbeinu, it needs close reading of the text, was actually saying this to God. He was actually saying, “God, they don't need me to be close to the people, they need You to be close to the people, because I'm a mortal, and one day I'm not going to be here, but you’re not, you’re a mortal, you're always going to be here and we need you, we need you closer.”

And you know what happens? Hakadosh Baruch Hu says, ”Moshe Rabbeinu you're right, you're right. And so instead of you having to come out up the mountain to meet me and talk to me and then go through this very powerful plea on behalf of the Israelites, I am going to give them a place where they can always meet me and we'll call that the Mikdash, the Sanctuary, it became the Temple, and then they can always meet me. They will know exactly what to do, because I'm going to give them the rule book. If you do this, bring that sacrifice. If it's morning, you bring that sacrifice. So for all generations, they'll know exactly what to do. And when it comes to the people's sins, then I'm going to tell you, I am going to give them a religious leader who will always be there, because it won't depend on his charisma, it will depend on his office. And we're going to call this person a kohen and we're going to call the supreme kohen a Kohen Gadol, and his children will be kohanim and Kohanim Gedolim to the end of time. And when it comes to the moment, we will choose the anniversary of the day that you first pleaded for mercy. And that will be the great day in which the priest will win atonement for the people. And therefore the people needn't worry because, hang in there, Yom Kippur is coming.”

God takes religious leadership and moves it from charismatic to bureaucratic, what Max Weber who had a way with snappy slogans, called the routinisation of charisma. Okay, so how do you take peak experiences and translate them into daily disciplines? And that was the movement from prophet to priest. So the first Yom Kippur of all time was the ultimate prophetic moment, but the second Yom Kippur and all subsequent Y’mei Kippur were priestly moments engaged by the high priest who did the necessary ritual. And that is why teshuvah has these two different elements. Because the very first Yom Kippur was entirely from the world of the prophets, but the second and subsequent were from the world of the priests. And Jews continued to have both priests and prophets throughout the biblical era.

Of course something then happened. We lost the Land, we lost the Temple, we lost the priest. We lost the service of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, and we lost prophets, because when Israel is no longer a nation, it's no longer a shaper of history, it's no longer playing in the arena of history. And since the prophets were the people who saw God in history, once Israel ceased to be a player in the arena of history, there were no more prophets. The last prophets were Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi in the Second Temple period, but there were no subsequent prophets. So we've lost the priests and we've lost the prophets.

What did the Rabbis do? They did an extraordinary thing. They said now that we have no more priests and now that we have no more prophets, every single Jew is going to become a priest and a prophet. And exactly as the High Priest atoned for the sins of Israel and said, you know, first of all, for his own sins, chatasi, avisi, pashati, or as we do this in the plural, because it's all of us, chatanu, avinu, pashanu. And in fact, just to make sure we've left nothing out, we do it with the whole aleph beis, ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, exactly like the priest did only at slightly greater lengths, okay? And exactly like the Kohen Gadol did it. It had a specific date in the calendar, 10th of Tishrei, and it has a specific ritual. And although we can't do that ritual in Mussaf on Yom Kippur, we tell the story of that ritual. That's that whole period in Mussaf, we're talking and re-enacting, we're prostrating ourselves as if we were in the Temple with the High Priest.

So we have all that priestly stuff and we call it Yom Hakippurim, which is a priestly word, the Day of Atonement, ki bayom hazeh yechaper aleichem letaher eschem, we have atonement and we have purification and that is the priestly element. But the prophet didn't use these words, he spoke about lashuv, and that is why we call this period, the aseret yemei teshuvah, which is a prophetic word. And it is absolutely fascinating that we atone. I mean, we do the vidu’i many times, we do it all in all 10 times on Yom Kippur, but it has two different forms. We've said one form is ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu. What's the other form? Al chet. Now, if you look at the al chets, you will see very carefully that many of them are about sins between us and our fellow human beings. Don't forget, it was the prophet who was concerned about our relationship with our fellow human beings.

You only came to the Temple essentially to atone for sins against God, and the Rabbis said, Yom Kippur only atones for sins against God. But if you read the al chet, it's our sins against our fellow humans. And that's why on Yom Kippur or before Yom Kippur, we’ve got to apologise to our fellow humans and we’ve got to secure forgiveness from them. So the ashamnu bagadnu is a priestly confession and the al chet is a prophetic one. What is our Haftorah for Yom Kippur? It's an extraordinary moment, you know, we're halfway through the day, the hardest day in the year. Can you imagine a Jewish day when you don't eat? I mean, it sounds like a contradiction in terms, okay? And we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves because we've survived until at least Ko Nidrei night and the morning and we haven't eaten or drunk a thing, yes?

And then what do we read in our Haftorah? Look at it in source 17 from Isaiah no less (Isaiah 58:5-7). “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen only for a people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Now, is that what you call a fast today acceptable the Lord? Is not this the kind of fast I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice, untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked to clothe them, not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” There we are thinking we're so great we're really holy. And Isaiah is coming along. He’s saying, “you think that's serious, go out and tikkun the alma, you know, go out and mend the world. I mean, look after your human beings.” You know, this is the most prophetic voice, and there it is, the haftorah for Yom Kippur, and not a hint of a priest in sight, this is the pure talk of prophecy.

And then what do we do when we come to Mincha, and we're really feeling incredibly impressive? What book do we read at Mincha time? Jonah, and you remember, Jonah is the one prophet that God sent to the gentiles to the Assyrians, Israel's enemy, in Ninveh, their military headquarters, and Jonah runs away. Wouldn't you run away if God is telling you to go over to your enemies and get them to do teshuvah so that God can forgive them? I mean, this is, you know, I don't think you stand for re-election after doing something like that. You know, this is a challenging thing and he runs away, but God doesn't let him run away, and he forces him to go. And Yonah says five words, five words to the inhabitants of Ninveh, od arba’im yom veNinveh nehpachet (Jonah 3:4), ” in 40 days Ninveh will be destroyed.” One sentence, and immediately everyone in Ninveh does teshuvah. The adults do teshuvah, the children do teshuvah, the animals do teshuvah, everyone does teshuvah. The only prophet anyone ever responded to or obeyed, they were the gentiles, Israel's enemies. So we come to Mincha, we've been feeling really impressive. Wow, Hashem, look at this, we've survived so long. And there we are with an ultimate book of prophecy. You think you are great, I tell you even the Assyrians can do that. This is nothing special. You know, get real here. Here in this most priestly of days, we introduce these two most prophetic of voices.

And now we see that what the Rabbis did after the destruction of the Second Temple was, with one extraordinary leap of spiritual imagination, they rescued from tragedy, the most extraordinary achievement. They brought together the two roles that for the whole of biblical Israel had been set apart - the priest and the prophet, and they wove them into one single day, when we act both as priest, going through the rituals of confession, like Maimonides, and as a prophet, returning to God and understanding that we have to mend our relationship with God and mend our relationship with other human beings whom we have wronged,

And so teshuvah, the prophetic concept, and kapparah, the priestly concept come together in this single day. And every one of us is like a prophet and like a priest. So we go through the rituals of Yom Kippur, but we also go through this emotional mending of relationships, which was the very heart of how the priests understood it. And as I say, there are bits of the prayer that are purely prophetic, most important of which is what we call selichot. You know, we do selichot already before Rosh Hashanah, we carry them through the aseret yemei teshuvah. And selichot derive from the time that Moses prayed, the great prophet prayed to God to forgive them for the sin of the Golden Calf. And Hashem said, Hashem Hashem kel rachum vechanun, you know, vayered Hashem be’anan vayityatzev imo sham vayikra beshem Hashem- hashem hashem kel rachum vechanun (Shemot 34:5), that's taken from Moses' prayer after the sin of the golden calf,and Moses’ prayer after the sin of the spies. And God says, salachti kidvarecha. So when we say selichot, that is the prophetic voice, but when we say ashamnu bagadnu, that is the priestly voice. And so Maimonides and Nachmanides come together in perfect harmony, as do priest and prophet. What on earth empowered the Rabbis to do such an extraordinary thing? To say, “you know what, we’ve lost the Temple, we’ve lost our sacrifices, we’ve lost our priests and we’ve lost our prophets.” And not only did they survive this, they took it as a means to democratise holiness.

And how did they do this? How did they allow each one of us to become a priest and a prophet on the day of Yom Kippur? Because, to repeat, the Rabbis listened, and they heard two sentences in the Torah that are quite extraordinary. One occurs in Shemot chapter 19 verse six. This is just before God reveals himself and gives them the 10 commandments on Sinai. And God says to Moses, “Moses, go down and propose the following deal to the people. You have seen, how I rescued you from Egypt and brought you to me on eagle’s wings,” ve’atem tihyu li, “I want you to be for me,” mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” What is a kingdom of priests? A kingdom, every one of whose members is a priest, that's what it means. It never happened in the whole of the biblical age, you know, because kohanim, even to this day, in a literal sense are a minority of the Jewish people. And yet the Rabbis remembered God said, “I want you ultimately to be mameleches kohanim, a nation, every one of whom is a priest.”

Secondly, when Moses was having a really bad day, it's in Parshas Beha’alosecha in Bamidbar chapter 11, you know, he really can't take one more day of leading the Jewish people and God says, “look, choose 70 elders. I'll cause my spirit to rest on them,” and Moshe Rabbeinu chooses six from each tribe, which makes 72. And then they cast lots for the two who are going to be left out and he's got his 70 elders and God causes his spirit to rest on the 70 elders. But they also rest on the two who were left out, their names were Eldad and Medad and they were still in the camp, not surrounding Moses. And Joshua, Moses' deputy says, adoni Moshe kla’em (Bamidbar 11:28), and he saw this as a leadership challenge, he said, “my master, Moses, shut them up.” And Moses said, hamekanei ata li, “are you jealous on my behalf?” U’mi yiten kol am Hashem nevi’im, “would that all God's people were prophets.”

So here we have two sentences in the Torah that never came true in the biblical era, a nation, every one of whose members is a priest, and a nation, every one of whose members is a prophet. The Rabbis in the midst of the worst tragedy almost to hit the Jewish people until the Holocaust said, “now is the moment that we can fulfil these two prophecies that in the whole of the biblical age were never fulfilled. We can become a nation, every one of whose members atones like a priest. We can become a nation, every one of whom is sensitive to our relationships with God and to our fellow human beings, exactly like the prophet.” And that happens on Yom Kippur. Not only did the Rabbis bring together these two highly different roles, they also elevated every single one of us so that we become a priest securing atonement, and a prophet mending broken relationships.

I hope through this, we have seen some of the extraordinary history of teshuvah. It is a very subtle and remarkable concept. And ultimately on Yom Kippur, we are lifted to the heights, because now that we no longer have a High Priest, every one of us has to become a High Priest. And now we have no prophets, so we read the words of the prophets and they speak to us as if we were a prophet. And we say selichot as if we were Moses standing on Mount Sinai and listening to God. This is a remarkable achievement and I believe it justifies what the Rabbis said, adif chacham minavi, a Sage can sometimes be even greater than a prophet. We don't realise how extraordinary was the achievement of the Sages after the destruction of the Temple, as they tried to preserve the essential elements of Judaism in the absence of Land and priesthood and prophecy, but not only did they preserve it, they elevated it.

Friends, I hope this will lead us to think a little more deeply about what we're actually going to do during the 10 days of teshuvah and what Yom Kippur actually represents. And now that I've told you, you will be able during the day to say, “ah, that's a priestly bit, ah, that's a prophetic bit.” And we are both, they come together in our souls and in our congregations. But at the end, don't forget what His bottom line here, what His bottom line is. God created the universe in love and forgiveness asking us to love and forgive others. And why, why did he do this? Why did he take the risk of giving us free will knowing that very often we would misuse it and sin, whether against God or our fellow humans and the end of the day, the answer is this, more than we have faith in God, God has faith in us. And that's why however many times we get it wrong, he never ceases to believe in us, never ceases to think that we can reach the right and the good and the holy. Never lose faith in God's faith in us. And that I believe is the beating heart of Judaism. May we all have the privilege of turning and returning to God. And may we all feel his return to us. Thank you.