Punishing the Penitent
Vayikra 26 details both the rewards the Children of Israel will receive for following the commandments and the punishments that will be meted out if they do not. When describing the exilic fate of the sinning nation, the verses appear to suggest that, at least ultimately, the people will repent:
(מ) וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת עֲוֺנָם וְאֶת עֲוֺן אֲבֹתָם בְּמַעֲלָם אֲשֶׁר מָעֲלוּ בִי וְאַף אֲשֶׁר הָלְכוּ עִמִּי בְּקֶרִי. (מא) אַף אֲנִי אֵלֵךְ עִמָּם בְּקֶרִי וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם אוֹ אָז יִכָּנַע לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל וְאָז יִרְצוּ אֶת עֲוֺנָם.
(40) And they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, by trespassing against me, and that they have walked in hostility against me. (41) Also I will walk in hostility against them, and will bring them into the land of their enemies, if then their uncircumcised hearts become humble, and then they should find acceptance regarding their iniquity.
Surprisingly, Hashem's reaction to the nation's apparent confession is not forgiveness but redoubled punishment! How should this response be understood? Does Hashem really reject sincere repentance?
The end of Devarim contains a similar list of blessings and curses applied if the people either uphold or defy Hashem's commandments. There, too, Hashem describes how, from amidst their suffering, the nation will eventually turn to Hashem:
(יז) וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם הַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא הֲלֹא עַל כִּי אֵין אֱלֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה. (יח) וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עַל כׇּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כִּי פָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים.
(17) And my anger will flare up against him on that day, and I will abandon them and I will conceal my face from them, and they will be for devouring, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, was it not because God was not in our midst that these evils have befallen us? (18) But I will conceal my face on that day, because of all the evil they have done, for they turned to other gods.
Once again, though, Hashem's response does not seem to be to forgive and forget, but rather to continue the earlier punishment and hide His face from the nation. Are not confession and repentance supposed to bring atonement in their wake? Does not Devarim 30:2-3 promise:
(ב-ג) וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד י"י אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ... וְשָׁב י"י אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ וְשָׁב וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכׇּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ י"י אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה.
(2-3) And you will return to Hashem your God, and obey Him... and Hashem your God will restore your fortunes, and have compassion on you, and He will return, and gather you from all the nations where Hashem your God has scattered you.
Is it possible that, in contrast, the above two Biblical passages suggest that atonement is not a given despite one's best efforts?
The various verses contains several difficult phrases whose clarification might impact one's reading of the entire passage::
- "אֲנִי אֵלֵךְ עִמָּם בְּקֶרִי" – What does the word "בְּקֶרִי" mean, and how does the nation's walking "בְּקֶרִי" relate to Hashem's doing the same?
- "וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם" – Considering that the verses present the nation as already in exile, what enemy land is referred to here?
- "אוֹ אָז יִכָּנַע לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל וְאָז יִרְצוּ אֶת עֲוֺנָם" – How does this description of submissive hearts relate to the punishment that is spoken of immediately beforehand? What role does the word "אוֹ" play in the sentence? Does the verse describe a reaction to the punishment or an alternative to it?
- "הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי" – What does the hiding of Hashem's face entail?
1. See Devarim 4:30-31 similarly.
See approaches on alhatorah.org.