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Repentance and Responsibility

Feb 20, 2023

מִצִּיּ֥וֹן מִכְלַל־יֹ֗פִי אֱלֹהִ֥ים הוֹפִֽיעַ׃

From Tzion, perfect in beauty, Hashem appeared

mi-tzi-YON mikh-lal YO-fee e-lo-HEEM ho-FEE-a

Psalms 50:2

By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz

According to the sages (Yoma 54b), the world was created from Zion. More precisely, it was created from the foundation stone that was at the location of the Holy of Holies. It is also from this foundation stone, the “navel” of the world, through which God’s sustenance flows. 

King David hints to this tradition at the beginning of Psalm 50:

Hashem, Hashem spoke and summoned the world from east to west. From Tzion, perfect in beauty, Hashem appeared. Psalm 50:1-2

The Psalm then describes the Jewish being put on trial for behaving inappropriately. The heavens and earth are called in as a witnesses, a fulfillment of the verse in Deuteronomy in which Moses designated heaven and earth to be witnesses to the covenant between God and the Children of Israel before they crossed into the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:1).

What is the connection between Zion and the trial of the Jewish people?

Heaven and earth also appear in a story described in the Talmud (Menachot 44a). The Talmud tells of a person, Eleazar son of Dordia, who had sunk to the depths of depravity by chasing after every prostitute he could find. He heard of one who lived in a distant land that charged an exorbitant amount for her services. He crossed seven rivers and paid her price just to have a chance to be with her. While he was with her, she blew forth breath and said: “As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Elazar ben Dordia never be received in repentance.”

That statement shook Elazar to his core. He jumped up and left and found a lonely place situated between two mountains. There, he called out to the mountains and hills, asking them to beg for mercy and do teshuva (repentance) on his behalf. The mountains replied that they could not pray for him since they were in need of mercy themselves. 

Elazar then requested that the heavens and earth help him repent. They replied in the same manner as the mountains, as did the sun, moon, stars and constellations. Finally, he realized that “this matter depends solely on me.” Only he could repent for himself. He put his head between his knees and cried, trembling and crying until he died. A heavenly voice then declared: Rabbi Eleazar son of Dordia is ready for the world-to-come.

Repentance is a contradiction. It rewrites reality. It seems impossible. How can you erase actions that were already committed? Repentance reaches down into the depths of creation and shakes the world. That is why King David invoked Zion, the source of creation, before talking about judgement this is meant to lead to repentance.

Repentance for a Jew is greater than the world, greater even than the heavens. It requires connecting directly with God in his sanctuary in Jerusalem:

Mark this, you who are unmindful of Hashem, lest I tear you apart and no one save you. He who sacrifices a thank offering honors Me, and to him who improves his way I will show the salvation of Hashem.” Psalm 50:22-23

King David knew all this, which is why he bought the threshing floor on the lonely mountain top (II Samuel 24:18-25), the very same location which would later become the site of the Temple. 

The trial of the Jewish people in Psalm 50 is a reminder that our actions have consequences and that they we accountable to God, who created the world from Zion. Repentance is the key to overcoming these consequences and actions, and help us reconnect directly with God in His sanctuary in Jerusalem.

Related Names and Places:

Relate Bible Verses: Chapter 50

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