Joel 2: Rend Your Hearts (The Power of Teshuvah)

This piece first appeared in Rabbi Natasha's commentary on the 929 Tanakh Project here.

The tearing of garments is symbolic of (and responsive to) overwhelming grief. It is an outward display of internal turmoil. In the midst of Joel’s call to repentance, he shares the words of the Divine (2:13): ‘Rend your hearts, not your garments, and turn back (v’shuvu) to the Eternal your God.’ 

One reading is that we can, at times, be guilty of performative emotional measures, the same way that we can be guilty of performative worship. In Joel’s example, it is simply not good enough to perform repentance (t’shuvah); it must come from within. However, this reading does not address the fact that Joel tells us to rend our hearts instead of our garments. Here, Rashi suggests that the text could mean that if we rend our hearts, we will no longer need to rend our garments. If we do t’shuvah properly, in our hearts, we will no longer be in a situation that requires the tearing of garments. 

The problem with this reading is that it doesn’t ring true to the world. We know that some of the best people in the world live through situations which would induce garment-rending emotional turmoil. One of the primary themes of the Book of Job is that good religious practice and ethical behaviour do not save us from heartbreak. 

I’m reminded of one of the most intense moments of prayer on the High Holy Days: the Un’taneh Tokef. In the liturgical poem, we admit to a startling lack of power: we cannot know who will live and who will die in this coming year; who by fire, and who by water, and so on. And then, in an incredible moment, the poetry turns around and apparently grants us some modicum of power. ‘Ut’shuvah, ut’fillah, utz’dakah,’ it says, ‘ma’avirin et-ro’a hag’zeira.’ This is usually translated with some slight of hand into something like: ‘But repentance, prayer, and just deeds can annul the evil decree.’ However, a better translation would read: ‘Repentance, prayer, and just deeds can cause the evil of the decree to pass away.’ Nothing is annulled; it passes by. And that which passes by is not ‘the evil decree’, but rather the evil of the decree. It is not the decree that changes; our fates remain unchanged, but the evil passes over us. 

This is a deliberate shift from the original text (which is from Genesis Rabbah 44:12), which states that these three acts ‘annul evil decrees’. The anonymous author of the Un’taneh Tokef, however, shifted this idea into a stunningly theologically sophisticated statement. If we engage in repentance, and prayer, and acts of justice, we can cause the evil of the decree to pass us by. What changes is not the chaos. It’s us.

Perhaps this is what Joel is trying to teach us: If we rend our hearts by doing t’shuvah, we will be better able to handle the situations which cause people to rend garments. T’shuvah does change the world - but it does so by changing us. 


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