Yom Kippur

Voices from the field

Teshuva, Forgiveness, and Learning

By Josh Feigelson

As we head into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it's worth thinking about how the issues of teshuva and forgiveness find their expression in the life of the teacher.
The story of the spies is one of the central stories of transgression and forgiveness in the Torah. From this story, we draw one of the key lines of the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy: "I have forgiven them, as you have asked" (Num. 14:20). In this story, we witness one of the profound moments when G-d is not so much the teacher, as the learner. Moses is the one who instructs G-d, and in so doing he teaches us– and G- d Himself.

You will recall that after the spies bring back their report of the land of Israel and the people lose faith in their ability to conquer the land, G-d declares to Moses:

“How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they”
-Num. 14:11-12

Moses’s response is instructive – to G-d and to us. He says:

“Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, LORD, are with these people and that you, LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now”
-Num. 14:13-19

It is worth looking closely at this response. Moses does not immediately appeal to G-d’s mercy, or to the contradiction between G-d’s espoused attributes of forgiveness and His anger at the Israelites in this moment. No – he first puts the situation within a political context: What will the Egyptians think? What will the Canaanites think? It would be a shonda for the goyim!

What is Moses doing here? Rashi interprets him to mean that the Egyptians would conclude that in fact they had not sinned in their treatment of the Israelites, and thus the message of G-d’s actions in the Exodus would be lost. Ramban understands Moses to mean something slightly different: the Egyptians would think that the Canaanite dieties were stronger than their own, and would thus exchange one idolatry for another. In either case, however, the fundamental message is the same: G-d’s goal in the Exodus had been to make Egypt, and by extension the world, recognize that G-d was the unique and absolute power in the universe. If G-d didn’t make good on delivering the Israelites into the promised land, then all of G-d’s actions would not only be for naught, but G-d’s goal would be set back.

It is only after he has made this political point that Moses goes for the moral argument: G-d, in our most intimate moment, when You revealed Your glory to me, You told me that your essence is compassion and forgiveness. You’re contradicting Yourself–in fact, You’re not being Yourself. So be Yourself, don’t give in to the temptation of anger, and forgive these people.

And amazingly–or perhaps not so amazingly after all–God agrees: “The LORD replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked” (Num. 14:20).

This is a radical moment– Moses teaches G-d. And Moses does it with the patience and courage of a teacher: he lets the issue ripen. He recognizes that G-d is angry at Israel, and so he doesn’t immediately seek forgiveness for Israel. Rather, he first helps G-d to realize the mistake G-d would be making; and then he reminds G-d to be G-dself, and to turn back to Israel in forgiveness.

The first time I met Parker Palmer, he asked me to think of a moment with a student that had been a particularly effective one in my teaching. And then he asked me a question I had never thought to ask. Where most people would ask, “What did you do as a teacher to make that moment?” Parker instead asked me, “What was it about that student that enabled your teaching to work?”

Parker’s question is a reminder to us that this story is not only about Moses as an exemplary teacher. It is also about G-d as a learner. Hillel the Elder said, “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach” (Avot 2:5). We know that teaching requires courage. But Hillel reminds us, as does G-d, that learning does as well. To truly learn, especially in profound moments, one must courageously admit that one is incomplete, that one can change and grow. This is foundational to the High Holidays. It is also foundational to good teaching and learning. In the interaction between Moses and G-d, it is none other than G-d who humbly teaches us the essence of learning.