Let me tell you about the day that humanity first discovered teshuvah.
As the midrash tells it, it all happens on the day Kayin killed Hevel. After that first murder, Kayin accepts HaShem’s verdict as just—he is to be exiled from the land.
Kayin has sinned; the guilt of fratricide is too much to bear. He deeply regrets his crime. But Kayin has also discovered murder—how easy it is, how final. His punishment is to be an unending stranger, a vagrant with no roots in any society. He has killed his kin and so he will never have kinship. Kayin realizes that strangers in every society are vulnerable. No one is invested in them; nobody would notice if they disappear. Kayin now viscerally knows the fragility of human life. He fears his blood will be cheap in the eyes of anyone who comes across him. HaShem reassures Kayin, “I am the protector of the vulnerable, the guardian of the stranger. So long as I am with you, your blood will not be cheap.” God makes an Oht (sign) in Kayin’s flesh, a symbol of His promise and a warning to those who would take advantage of him (Gen. 4:8-15).
Our midrash picks up after God’s verdict. Adam hurries after Kayin, no doubt anxious to know the outcome of the trial against his remaining son. But to his surprise, he finds Kayin happy. “What happened?” he asks. “Simple,” Kayin responds. “I did teshuvah and God forgave me.” Adam is blown over. Zo hi kocha shel teshuvah v’ani lo yadati—Such is the power of teshuvah, and I didn’t know it!” If only Adam had known about teshuvah after his own sin. Instead of taking responsibility, Adam blamed anyone and everyone else for what he had done (Breishit Rabbah 22:13).
The midrash continues: In response to this incredible discovery, Adam composes a psalm to mark the occasion: Psalm 92, Mizmor Shir L’Yom HaShabbat, a psalm for the Sabbath day.
It’s a bit of a bizarre conclusion. How does a song about Shabbat address Adam’s frustration at missing the opportunity to repent? What does Shabbat have to do with teshuvah?
There are a number of interesting overlaps between Shabbat and teshuvah, but for now I would like to suggest, rather radically, that on some level Shabbat and teshuvah actually achieve the same primary goal—mechila and kapara (forgiveness and expiation).
Consider this statement of Rabbi Yochanan: “Whoever observes Shabbat in all its detail, even if they worshiped idolatry like the generation of Enosh, they will be forgiven” (Shab. 118b). Somehow, Shabbat is so central to our relationship with God, so critical, that it can even make up for serious deficiencies in other areas. What gives Shabbat this power?
Shabbat is special because Shabbat is an Oht (sign) of the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people (see Ex. 31:17 and others). Shabbat is a kind of return; it is an expression, a strengthening, and a reinforcement of the covenantal relationship. The shomer Shabbat stops every seven days to recognise HaShem’s creation and the special relationship they have with God by dint of being a Jew. This is undeniably an act of teshuvah (in its literal meaning of “return”), a return to God and a commitment to their continued relationship.
This is the deep insight of our midrash. Remember: Kayin’s teshuvah is rewarded with an Oht, a sign, in his flesh as a symbol of God’s guarantee and continued commitment to their relationship, despite his heinous crime. The Jewish people, like Kayin, are possessed of an Oht. Our commitment to Shabbat is our guarantee of the everlasting covenant of mutual commitment between us and the Creator. Adam may not have an Oht in his flesh like Kayin, but he recalls the power of Shabbat to represent and constitute a divine covenant. Jubilantly he declares, A song for Shabbat: It is good to thank the Lord and to sing praise to His great name!
This incredible midrash gives our experience of Shabbat a powerful new dimension—throughout the year and especially this week on Shabbat Shuva. Today we say no Selichot (penitential prayers), and make no Vidui (confession)—but our teshuvah on this day is no less potent. Let us make a special effort to make this Shabbat a holy and special day, and we may hope that it will stand as an everlasting sign between us and God, and become the unshakeable foundation for our forgiveness and atonement on Yom Kippur.
Shana Tova, G’mar Chatima Tova, and Shabbat Shalom!