An Odessa Jew meets another one. "Have you heard, Einstein won the Noble Prize?"
"Oh, what for?"
"He developed this Relativity theory."
"Yeah, what's that?"
"Well, you know, five hairs on your head is relatively few. Five hairs in your soup is relatively many."
"And for that, he wins the Noble Prize?!"
Today we will discuss this “theory of relativity” in Jewish spirituality. What may seem small on one plane is seen quite differently on another.
What’s the Novelty?
Teshuvah, or repentance, one of the greatest gifts that Judaism and the Torah have given humanity, is the idea that G-d gives second chances. This is a fundamental part of the Jewish experience and is written in innumerable places in Torah -- and it is the focus during this time of the year, as we welcome Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Which is why it comes as a surprise that Rabbi Akiva, the famed Jewish leader and Talmudic scholar living in the second century CE, some 1500 years after Sinai and the writing of the Torah, seems to have been surprised, inspired, and even astounded by the idea that G-d gives a second chance to the sinner who repents.
I refer to a statement Rabbi Akiva made which has since gained fame in Jewish songs, chants, and liturgy, and it is recorded in the Mishna.1
אמר רבי עקיבא, אשריכם ישראל! לפני מי אתם מטהרין ומי מטהר אתכם? אביכם שבשמים! שנאמר (יחזקאל לו) וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם, ואומר (ירמיהו יז) מקוה ישראל ה'. מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים, אף הקב"ה מטהר את ישראל.
Rabbi Akiva said: How lucky are you, O Israel! Before whom are you purifying yourself, and who purifies you? Our father in Heaven! As it is written (Ezekiel 36), “I will sprinkle upon you purifying waters, and you will become purified,” and it is said (Jeremiah 17), “Hashem is the mikva of Israel,” just as the Mikvah purifies the impure, so too does G-d purify Israel.2
What innovation, what revolutionary idea is Rabbi Akiva teaching that has not been taught for over a thousand years? That G-d purifies the impure, forgives the penitents, and absolves the sinner? This is an axiom of Jewish thought dating back to Abraham! This idea is fundamental to Judaism itself. It is as old as Moses and the Jews of the Golden Calf, as Joseph forgiving his brothers, as G-d giving Adam a second chance after eating from the tree of knowledge. The entire concept and institution of Yom Kippur—discussed at length in the Book of Leviticus—is that G-d cleanses the people of Israel!
Comes Rabbi Akiva 1500 years after Yom Kippur was created, and declares a novelty! How fortunate are you Israel. Why? Because your father in heaven cleanses you from your blemishes. It seems that Rabbi Akiva has suddenly “discovered America,” when in essence he is repeating an ancient axiom of all of Tanach!
The question is stronger: To support this thought, Rabbi Akiva quotes verses that were transcribed some 500 years earlier which clearly state this very truth! Yet even the verses he quotes are from Ezekiel and Jeremiah, rather than from the Five Books of Moses, which clearly state the same truth.3
Even if you can find some reason why Rabbi Akiva repeated this ancient idea, why did the Mishna have to record it? The Mishna is a collection of original Jewish Law, and not the place to record inspirational sentiments that do not teach us anything new and innovative.
Two Extra Words
Many times, when studying Torah we will find, that if there are two questions on the same text, one question will be answered by resolving the other. Here too, there is another problem on the concluding words of Rabbi Akiva:
מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקב"ה מטהר את ישראל.
“Just as the Mikvah purifies the impure, so too does G-d purify Israel.”
Every word in Mishna is precise. There is not an extra word used, not even for esthetical beauty. Every word of the Mishna was carefully edited by Rabbi Judah the Prince and is exact and necessary. Rabbi Judah chose from thousands of collected records of teachings and manuscripts and redacted in the Mishna only the best and most exact wordings.
In this statement of Rabbi Akiva, it seems, we have two superfluous words. It should have written simply, “Just as a Mikvah purifies, so too does G-d purify Israel.”
Why add the extra words, “purify the impure”? We all know that a mikvah is designated to purify someone who is impure! Who else would be going to the Mikvah but someone who is impure? Why state the obvious?
Yet, in these seemingly superfluous two words lies a wondrous secret. But first, we have to understand a little about the functioning of a Mikvah.
Two Types of Impurity
There are different degrees of impurity, and there are different methods of purification from these various states of impurity.
[These were mostly relevant in biblical times and during the days of the Temple, when people had to be very careful to maintain their ritual purity in order to enter the Temple, or eat the sacred food of sacrifices. Today, we don’t pay much attention to these ritual patterns; which is why most Jews would not tour the Temple Mount, since you may not enter the space of the Temple if ritually impure.]
For example, if one touches a dead rodent, he becomes impure for a day and can become pure simply by immersing in a mikva and waiting for nightfall. On the other hand, if he touches a human corpse he becomes impure for a week and needs a lengthy process of immersing in a mikvah, as well as being sprinkled with a mixture of water and ashes of the red heifer.
Now imagine if someone has become impure, on both accounts, he both touched a rodent, and a human corpse. He is inevitably impure due to the corpse for a week regardless of whether he goes to the mikva or not for the rodent-tumah. The mikvah, usually potent for purification from rodent-impurity, seems now meaningless and impotent due to the stricter corpse–impurity that remains inevitably for a week. Is there any benefit of him going to the mikvah? It would seem not. He will anyway remain impure because he has also touched a corpse.
However, that is not the case. And here we discover something fascinating. The law is that a mikvah will purify and remove the lesser impurity even if the stricter degree of impurity remains!4
This then is the profound innovation of Rabbi Akiva. “Just as a Mikvah will purify the impure person” who is destined to remain impure, even after going to the mikvah, so too does G-d purify the penitent who still remains, in some ways, distant and separate from G-d!
A person who is not prepared to repent and to return to G-d fully, he is not ready to take the plunge and surrender away all of his sins and pet peeves, this person might think that G-d accepts all or nothing. He might think: Either I truly repent for everything, or I do nothing. Either I entirely change my life, or not bother at all. Since I know that I cannot make so many changes in my life, let me not even begin.
Imagine if someone—a borrower, an investor, a partner—owes you $50,000, but really has neither the desire nor intention to pay you now. It’s not that he denies that he borrowed the money, it’s just that he cannot be bothered, and maybe does not have the money.
Then one fine morning, perhaps the day before Yom Kippur, your dear ungrateful and audacious borrower or partner shows up at your door announcing proudly: “I want to pay you $5,000!”
“$5,000?? What’s that for? You owe me 50,000!!”
“I know, but seriously, I only feel like paying you back 5,000. For now, let’s forget about the rest. We will deal with that another time. Ok? Deal, or no deal?”
How would you react? Chances are you would throw this man out head first, with his measly $5,000. And rightfully so. The sheer chutzpah! What is he thinking?
This is what Rabbi Akiva is talking about. As Jews we turn to G-d each year, and all of us, to some degree or another, feel some sense of remorse or regret for one or two or three things in our life that need to be mended. Not that we are ready to turn over a new leaf, not that we are ready to make the serious changes in our life, not that we are ready for a complete transformation, but there is that one little aveira, that one little sin, that one little lie or cheat, that is nagging me. And I really want to get it off my chest.
I may have hurt someone in a dramatic way and it sits on me; I may have done something wrong that is really perturbing me; I may have insulted someone in a nasty way and I am upset at myself; I may have been involved in something that is eating up on my conscience.
So I repent for just that one thing. I ask G-d, or whoever it was that I wronged, to forgive me for that one act. What is going to be with the rest of my issues I cannot be bothered, and I neither know nor care too much at the moment. I don’t have time or energy to deal with all my sins. But this one thing I am ready to deal with.
Is this worth anything? Does G-d care for this type of repentance?
Comes Rabbi Akiva and says:
מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים.
Just as a Mikvah purifies the impure, the one who will remain impure even after the mikvah, the one who either way has contracted a much more severe and serious impurity which he is not dealing with right now, yet, the mikva works and will purify him at that moment for the lesser impurity, exactly so does G-d purify Israel!
Why? Why doesn’t G-d act as any normal person would, and throw our measly attempt at reconciliation back in our faces?
To this Rabbi Akiva tells us:
מי מטהר אתכם? אביכם שבשמים!
Because G-d is our “Father in heaven,” father who is anxiously waiting for the merest sign of positive movement from, us, his child. A good father will embrace and appreciate the tiniest effort his son makes to connect with him, regardless and oblivious to the fact that the son has done wrong in so many more areas.
Today, all psychologists and educators agree that the way to educate is by focusing and drawing attention to even the smallest positive successes of our children and building on them. Education through criticism has been debunked and proven to be futile at best, and destructive at worst.
But Rabbi Akiva said this almost 2000 years ago. G-d is the ultimate loving parent. When he sees that a Jew makes even the slightest movement of Teshuva, regardless of how much he has left to go, G-d immediately embraces this movement with the deepest love, and purifies him just as the mikvah does.5
Fix One Thing
How many of us have not attempted something because we are afraid of failure? How many of us give up on our dreams because we know we will never fulfill them perfectly? How many of us remain paralyzed by perfectionism? How many of us look at things as all or nothing, and therefore do not begin jobs that we know we can never fully complete?
How many of us deprive ourselves of this gift of a mitzvah that is so dear to us, just because we are scared to become “completely religious?” We feel that if we do not get it all right, we will get nothing right, and it is not worth the effort?
Rabbi Akiva is telling us that a Jew must know, that G-d values and cherishes every single mitzvah a Jew does. G-d embraced and cherished every act of change. Even if I regret one mistake in my life and change that, G-d accepts it fully and purifies me. Whatever you manage to accomplish, any step you manage to take forward, towards a better more inspired, G-dly life, is infinitely treasured by G-d who can purify even the one who still remains impure. It may be one small step for man; but a giant step for G-d.6
1. Mishna end of Yuma.
2. In the original verse, mikva means hope. G-d is the hope of Israel. Rabbi Akiva interprets it as a “mikvah,” a gathering of natural water.
3. He could have quoted for example the verse in Leviticus quoted earlier in this very Mishnah: For on this day He will forgive you, to cleanse you from all your sins…” You can’t get much clearer than this.
4.See for example end of Ch. 3 of Mishna Berachos. משנה זב שראה קרי ונדה שפלטה שכבת זרע והמשמשת שראתה נדה צריכין טבילה
5. This is an innovation revealed and espoused quite fittingly by Rabbi Akiva, the great lover of Jews, and a man who himself made a long and arduous journey from being an illiterate shepherd who actually hated Torah and Scholars, to becoming the pre-eminent Sage and leader of the Jewish people through one of the most difficult moments in their history.
6. This novel interpretation in the Mishna was shared by the Lubavitcher Rebbe during a public address ("farbrengen"), as he concluded the study of Tractate Yuma on his mother’s yartziet, 6 Tishrei 5730, 1969. Part of it was published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 17 Parshas Acharei.