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September 29, 1989 - Image 41

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-09-29

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whose prophecy of disaster
does not come to pass, be-
cause his warning has been
heeded and people have al-
tered their ways according-
ly.) The more important role
of the prophet is to stimu-
late change, to provide al-
ternatives, and to awaken
the dormant strength and
potential of the nation. "Let
us examine our ways and
Oh, turn again to the Lord"
(Lamentations 3:40) is the

call; everything else is but
an elaboration of this.
Thus we see that the pro-
phetic admonitions are di-
rected mainly toward the
nation, the community of Is-
rael, in which individuals are
only part of the whole. In
the Talmud, on the other
hand, the admonition, the
call to repentance and to
soul-searching, is more like-
ly to be addressed to the in-

Part of Prayer





The call to soul-searching,
that admonitory call that
appears so often in litera-
ture, was also for many gen-
erations an essential part of
Jewish practice. For genera-
tions, both the maggidim in
the cities and the itinerant
preachers who visited the
outlying hamlets and vil-
lages preached repentance
and soul-searching. Several
days of the year were set
aside for this purpose, such
as the entire period from the
beginning of the month of
Elul until the Day of
Atonement itself. More, for
centuries it was the accepted
custom among all the com-
munities of Israel to set
aside the eve of every new
month as a day of repen-
tance and fasting known as
a "minor Day of Atone-
On these days, the central
theme of sermons and study
was the soul-searching in-
cumbent on' the individual
vis-a-vis the Creator and the
reckoning that same in-
dividual must make within
himself. Many people dedi-
cated several hours daily to
studying musar literature,
which dealt with ways of
improving and correcting
the soul.
This kind of introspection
was intended not for out-
standing scholars and the
pious but for the ordinary
Jew — the Jew who
throughout the year was ab-
sorbed with the problems of
livelihood and business and
all the other cares of daily

Needless to say, soul-
-searching was more refined
and developed (and even be-
came the central issue) in
those circles and groups
that devoted themselves to
an intense spiritual life, such
as the Kabbalists among
Sephardic Jewry and the
Chasidim among the Ash-
kenazim. For such people,
soul-searching was a matter
of profound, daily signifi-
cance, and whether they
were Torah scholars or not,
they set aside some time for
reviewing the deeds, words,
and thoughts of each day.

Shock Therapy

Yet, despite these in-
stances of soul-searching as
part of the routine of life, as
something consciously pres-
ent at all times for the com-
munity as a whole, such in-
trospection usually occurs
only in times of trouble and
distress. This is true both of
imminent and anticipated
catastrophe and of events
that have already taken
place and left a deep and
tragic impression.
A catastrophe, by its very
nature, brings a halt to the
flow, a break in the routine
of life. This break gives one
the time to take stock and
review. Another effect of ca-
tastrophe is shock: the con-
fusion that seizes in-
dividuals and communities
in times of disaster. Normal-
ly, routine is the common el-
ement of daily life every-
where, the element that
prevents man from reex-
amining his circumstances,
because human beings are
creatures of habit. People
become accustomed to, and
learn to live with, not only
good things but also those
that, even in their own eyes,
are undesirable.
The sages have pointed
out that if a man commits a
transgression and "sleeps
on it, ' then that transgres-
sion is, as it were, sanction-
ed. In other words, when one
sins knowingly and then re-
peats the same sin or error,
it becomes part of one's rou-
tine and one no longer pays
attention to it as something
calling for correction. Shock
jolts a man out of his rut and
enables him to look at things
anew, to re-examine his life.
Only when the misery in-
tensifies and when things
become unavoidably obvi-
ous, "Then will their hearts
surrender" (Lev.26:41).
Sometimes the wish not to
be stopped, not to change,
not to admit error is so deep

and so strong that not even
a whole series of disasters
avails. The sages say that
this is because of that very
factor operating when one
attempts to alert people to
impending troubles: They
try to isolate the events, to
view them as random and
unconnected, to destroy all
traces of causality between
the past and the future, be-
tween deeds and their out-
Thus, it is sometimes nec-

that she once ate the straw
lining from her master's
boots; here at last is obvi-
ously the cause of their mis-
fortune. All fall on the sheep
and slaughter it, and every-
thing is in order again.
This fable is usually taken
to point out the hypocrisy of
the animals, who ignore the
sins of the strong and attack
those of the weak. The basic
issue, however, is rather
more profound: it is an ex-
ample of the kind of soul-

True soul-searching assumes that
those matters that we take for
granted are the very things that
require review and revision.

essary for shock to be inten-
sified and sharpened until it
permeates the general con-
sciousness. Because of the
existence of these defense
mechanisms, warnings of
forthcoming catastrophe
and disaster are seldom ef-
fective. This is usually not
. because of a lack of belief in,
or the credibility of, he who
warns, but is rather the re-
sult of an unwillingness or
inability to make some kind
of spiritual reckoning.

Fundamental Probing

Soul-searching obliges one
to look afresh at those
things that seem to be
whole, good, and beautiful.
A certain zaddik is reported
to have said, "When I think
of repentance, I don't review
those deeds I know to have
been sins but rather those
mitzvot that might give
cause for concern."
Soul-searching is thus
much more than a profit and
loss accounting. Regardless
of the kind of problem it
deals with — moral, econom-
ic, or political — it is an
overall reckoning that in-
cludes a presupposition of
the possibility of error, of a
great and fundamental mis-
There is a well-known fa-
ble about the animals who
decided to repent because
their sins had brought disas-
ter on them. The tiger and
the wolf confess that they
prey on other creatures, and
are vindicated. After all, it is
in their nature as predators
to hunt and kill. So all the
animals in turn confess their
sins and, for one reason or
another, all are exonerated.
Finally, the sheep admits

searching that merely con-
firms the status quo. As
long as soul-searching does
not address itself to such
basic and fundamental
issues, as long as it does not
question even the most ob-
vious assumptions, then the
sin singled out for correction
will be trivial and no overall
change will be forthcoming.
True soul-searching is
based on quite a different
premise. It assumes that
those matters we take for
granted, the status quo, the
general consensus, are the
very things that require re-
view and revision. In the Bi-
ble this is expressed in
Leviticus 26:40 — "And
they shall confess their sins
and those of their fathers"
— an exhortation that finds
its echo in the confession in
the daily prayer book: "But
we and our fathers have
sinned" (Jeremiah 3:25).
This inclusion of the fathers
in the confession is not acci-
dental. Rather, it is an at-
tempt not only to examine
oneself at the level of pres-
ent being, but also- to pene-
trate to the very roots of
one's existence.

Communal Level

All this, which relates to
soul-searching at the in-
dividual level, is even more
true at the communal level.
It takes infinitely more ef-
fort for a whole community,
or a nation, to carry out soul-
searching than it does for
the lone man or woman.
First, in the context of the
community, although in-
dividual deviations may be
condemned, the errors or
shortcomings common to
the society as a whole are

usually reinforced.
When an entire nation is
headed for disaster, not only
are its citizens to some ex-
tent inured to what is hap-
pening to them, because the
whole society is subject to
the same conditions (which
thus become to some degree
"normal"), but there is also
no opportunity in the rush of
events to stand back and
assess what is going on,
much less devise an effective
means of response.
There is another aspect to
the problem of the nation as
a whole. Individuals have
their own thoughts and ide-
as, but these are not always
common to the national en-
tity. Indeed, the course of a
nation is never the sum of
the life experiences of the
individuals who make up
that entity, just as the body
is not the sum of the nervous
impulses of its limbs and
In the Bible, the leaders
are called the "eyes" of the
community, an assumption
that they are to be the
"receivers" of coming
events, instruments for ori-
entation and control, for
sensing danger and an-
ticipating developments
long before these become
manifest. A nation whose
eyes are not beautiful is one
whose whole body requires
examination, because the
failure of the eyes almost
always signifies the failure
of the whole. This is true
even in those cases where a
nation appears to be finer
and better than its leader-
Exploration must be made
not only in terms of existing
assumptions, but on a re-
view of the most fundamen-
tal values, and at such times
it is essential that the eyes
of the community see far
and clear and penetratingly.
In ancient Israel, the proph-
et was defined as the "Scout
of the House of Israel," the
one who saw from afar and
who, in simple speech, was
called "the shepherd." A na-
tion needs its guides and
shepherds, its scouts and
leaders of the flock, who will
carry out the function of
leadership: the ability to feel
and the power to think. LI

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of
Jerusalem is a prolific au-
thor best known for his two-
decade effort to translate the
Talmud into Hebrew, and
now into English. — (c) 1989



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