Rabbi Yaacov Haber's
Torah InsightsEREV YOM KIPPUR
drasha was given at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo on Erev Yom Kippur 5748 (1987), and
transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker.
The entire series has been published in a book
titled "Reachings" and can be ordered by
Comments and questions are always welcome.
An interesting person in Jewish history
was King Menashe -- interesting, that is, in a negative sense. He was the son of King
Chizkiahu, and one of his early acts was to kill his grandfather, the prophet Isaiah [see
the drosha on Shabbos Shuva for some background]. This set the tone for his future
actions, which included desecrating the Temple by extinguishing a flame which had been lit
there by King Solomon. He also became involved in various pagan cults, and built a
monstrous idol which he brought into the Temple.
In his old age, according to a midrash, he started feeling aches and pains, and in an
effort to cure these, sought about for a form of worship which might help him. He went
through all the pagan cults he knew, and then suddenly remembered a passage from the
parsha Nitzavim which his father Chizkiahu had read to him as a child: "When all
these things befall you -- the blessing and the curse that I have set before you -- and
you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which the L-rd your G-d has banished
you, and you return to the L-rd your G-d . . . then the L-rd your G-d will . . . take you
back in love" (Deut. 30:1-3, trans. JPS).
"Well," he thought, "the Jewish faith is worth a shot. I'll see if it helps
my pains, and, if not, I'll know it's no better than all these pagan cults I've been
So thinking, he engaged in prayer to G-d. The angels in Heaven were furious at this
attempt at teshuva by such a wicked man, and closed all the windows to Heaven, so that
Menashe's prayer could not enter.
G-d pleaded with the angels, but they refused to open the windows, and so G-d (allowing
the angels to have their way) took a saw, and sawed out a hole beneath the Heavenly
Throne, so that Menashe's prayer could enter Heaven (Talmud Yerushalmi).
We might have thought, with the angels, that such teshuva was not worth much. Leaving
aside Menashe's wickedness up to then, there is the provisional nature of this teshuva: if
it cured his headache, fine, he'd stay with it, otherwise he'd go beck to his idol
worship. Hardly what we would call whole-hearted penitence! And yet it was enough for G-d
to saw out a hole to receive Menashe's prayer!
The best kind of teshuva is, of course, the whole-hearted kind. But it seems, from this
midrash, that that is not the only kind.
There is a Gemara in Kiddushin about provisional marriage declarations. If a man declares
to a woman under the chupa: "Behold, you are married to me provided I give you
$1000", and he does not give her $1000, then the marriage is void. But if he says:
"Behold, you are married to me provided I am a complete tzaddik at this moment",
then the marriage is valid, even if the man is completely wicked! How is this possible?
The man might have done something really bad one minute before making this declaration,
and do something else really bad one minute afterwards, but the possibility exists that at
the moment of making the declaration he has just done teshuva, and is, at least at that
moment, a complete tzaddik!
Now this cannot be a complete teshuva, since, for example, according to the laws of
teshuva, a baal teshuva must ask forgiveness from every person he has ever wronged, and
make financial and other amends to such a person. He must also recite an oral confession,
which this man obviously has not done. Nevertheless such a provisional teshuva, which was
the kind that Menashe made, may be enough to convert someone into a complete tzaddik, at
There is a lesson here for us all. Many of us are afraid to make a commitment to a
permanent change in lifestyle. Permanent is a very big word. Perhaps we would do better to
make a less permanent commitment, yet a very real one.
R' Yisroel Salanter, founder of the modern Mussar movement, was once told by a yeshiva
student that he planned to learn the whole Shas (all the tractates of the Gemara) in three
years. That is an ambitious project: 4000 pages! There are only a handful of people in the
world who know the whole Shas. One can spend one's whole life learning just one of these
4000 pages, and still not understand it! R' Yisroel said to this student: "Plan to
learn just one page, and then, when you've completed that, plan on another page, and so
on. You'll go much further that way."
The point is that the further one goes in Torah observance, the greater becomes one's
yetzer hora (evil inclination) -- so as to maintain a balance. So a year's worth of
commitment brings with it a year's worth of yetzer hora. Just one day's worth of
commitment at a time will bring with it just one day's worth of yetzer hora. So we should
decide: "Today I'll do (or won't do) such-and-such. Tomorrow is tomorrow."
There is a lesson for us in Menashe's teshuva. Don't worry about the weeks and months to
come, and whether you'll be able to stick to your high ideals in the year ahead. The
Siddur knows we cannot! Three minutes after the end of the Yom Kippur service, we are once
again davening the Shmone Esre of Maariv, which includes the prayer for repentence, before
we have even had a chance to do a really big sin since the end of Yom Kippur!
Today, on Yom Kippur, let us all stand tall as people and as Jews, and decide at least to
make the attempt at teshuva, one step at a time, one day at a time.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
has served as the OU's National Director of
Jewish Education and is the founder of its
Pardes Program. He currently serves
as Rosh Yeshiva of
Yeshivat Orchos Chaim, Jerusalem,
and President of TorahLab. Rabbi Haber can be reached at
"A tree of life for those who embrace
Send comments to Rabbi Haber at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Yaacov Haber