Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Jewish Wisdom on Repentance for Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Yesterday was Fat Tuesday, Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, or Fausnaught Day, depending where you live. These names all signify the attempt to get something fattening or sweet to eat before Lent begins. I suspect, however, that many people who ate donuts and sweets yesterday are not planning to give them up for Lent and some have no idea what Lent is and why it is significant. If you were in New Orleans yesterday it was Mardi Gras, which takes the above idea to all kinds of extremes. And I doubly suspect that many people at Mari Gras also have no intention of giving up something for Lent.

Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a beginning of self-reflection, a time of concentrated repentance. Some will go to church today and receive ashes as a mark of their repentance. Some will wash them off immediately; others will wear them all day. The ashes are supposed to signify our need to repent. But as happens for many of us in life, we go back and do the same things that we repented of.

With that in mind, I thought I would offer some wisdom on repentance from Jewish sages. All but the first are from the Babylonian Talmud.

Ben Sirach 34:25-26

He that washes himself after the touching of a dead body, if he touch it again, what is the point of his washing?  So is it with a man that fasts for his sins, and goes again, and does the same: who will hear his prayer? or what does his humbling profit him?

Rabbi Adda b. Ahaba also gave a similar statement:

One who sins and confesses his sin, but does not repent may be compared to a man holding a dead reptile in his hand, for although he may immerse himself in all the waters of the world his immersion is of no avail unto him; but if he throws it away from his hand then as soon as he immerses himself in forty se'ahs of water, immediately his immersion becomes effective. (Ta'anith 16a)

Our brethren, neither sackcloth nor fasting are effective but only penitence and good deeds, for we find that of the men of Ninevah scripture does not say, And God saw their sackcloth and fasting, but, God saw their works that they turned from their evil way. (b. Ta'anith 16a)

This last one is my favorite.

Rabbi Eliezer said: 

Repent one day before your death.  His disciples asked him, Does then one know on what day he will die?  Then all the more reason to repent today, he replied, lest he die tomorrow and thus his whole life is spent in repentance.  (b. Shabbath 153a)


  1. Thanks Dr. John,
    This is a good place to start Lent.

  2. I think that this is good.... to an extent.

    I think that historically Lent has been reduced to one of two things: 1) sin management and 2) a formula for getting God to respond to our needs. In either case I think we miss the point. I think we should see Lent as a time of coming to grips with our true selves. When we fast for Lent we are engaging in a dangerous practice were we remove those things in our life that we use to cover over or brokenness. With the removal of these things we are confronted with the idols we cling to, so that our feelings of brokenness remain hidden.

    The amazing things that happens when we become aware of our brokenness is that we find God in the midst, embracing us in our brokenness. So Lent is not about us doing something for God to meet our needs, rather it is a time where we stop covering over our brokenness, thereby creating space where God can be made known. He can be known in this place because he is a God who knows suffering, weakness, and brokenness.

    Obviously this dynamic that I have described still involves divine separation, or as we call it sin, but this is not a problem where God pulls away from the "unholy." Rather, it is a problem with humanity, who pushes God way. May we come to know that God is waiting for us to stop fooling ourselves, to honestly face our brokenness, and to know that he dwells in the darkest recesses of our lives, waiting to bring forth light and life. Light shines in the darkness; and death gives birth to life. This is the meaning of Lent that must not be reduced to either sin management, or to a magical formula.

  3. I've always had a difficult time with Lent and expectations of what one is supposed to do during Lent. Being naturally joyful and (a little too) light-hearted, 40 days of solemnity and introspection has always challenged me. When younger, my friends and I tried to outdo each other in giving up more and more drastic things in our lives, but it was more of a game than a time of reflective sacrifice. And then I learned that in the history of the church Lent was a time of preparation for those wishing to become members of the church - for learning the creeds and prayers and sacraments, etc. When did it become a time of sacrifice and reflection for all? Why can't I be mindful of Jesus' journey and sacrifice while still celebrating the fact that we know "the rest of the story" (thank you Paul Harvey). We are resurrection people! We are Easter people! And as such, everyday is a day for repentance because we believe in the blessing and the power of forgiveness - and it's resulting joy!

    1. I agree. We should be mindful every day of thr Grace and Mercy and Forgiveness of God and not just repent once a year.