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    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
    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.
    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.
    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 Moshe and the Jews of the Golden Calf,
    as Yoseph 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 Sefer Vayikra—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 Moshe,
    which clearly state the same truth.
    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
    “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 Yehudah HaNasi and is
    exact and necessary. Yehudah HaNasi 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
    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 Beis Hamikdash,
    when people had to be very careful to maintain
    their ritual purity in order to enter the Beis
    Hamikdash, 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 Har HaBayit, since you may not enter
    the space of the Beis Hamikdash if ritually
    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
    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
    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
    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
    “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?
    How Lucky!
    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:

    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
    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:
    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.
    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.