Stories from the Talmud about Repentance

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30 Jun 2006

Midrashim” about “Teshuvah,” Repentance

“Midrashim” are stories and ideas from sections of the Talmud not dealing directly with aspects of Jewish Law.

Daf GemaraThe stories are either true stories about famous or not-so-famous individuals, which illustrate a moral point, obvious fables, again illustrating moral points, or philosophical ideas, derived from verses in the Bible. Some of the “Midrashim” found in the Talmud about “Teshuvah,” Repentance, are as follows:

“Rabbi Abahu bar Zeira said, ‘Great is Teshuvah, for it preceded the Creation of the World, as it says, ‘Before the mountains were born,…You reduced Man to nothingness, and said ‘Repent …’ (Tehilim/Psalms 90:2-3)” (Bereshit Rabbah, 1)

Comment: A necessary psychological component which is, indeed, built into the human personality is that he or she is powerless in comparison to G-d, Whose definition of Good and Evil he or she must obey.

“Thus do You teach the sinner the way to go” (Tehilim 25:8) – that Hashem shows the way to Repentance.
Wisdom was asked ‘What should be the punishment for the sinner?’ She answered, ‘Let evil pursue the sinner.’ (Mishlei/Proverbs: 13:21)

Prophecy was asked, ‘What should be the punishment for the sinner?’ She answered, ‘The soul that sins shall perish.’ (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 18:4)

The Torah was asked, ‘What should be the punishment for the sinner?’ She answered, ‘Let him bring a sacrifice, and be atoned for.’

The Holy One, Blessed be He, was asked, ‘What should be the punishment for the sinner?’ He answered, ‘Let the sinner repent and he will find atonement.’ This is the meaning of the verse ‘Thus You show the sinner the way’ – ‘You show the sinner how to repent’ (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehilim/Psalms 25)

Comment: The source of the effectiveness of Teshuvah is the Holy One Himself. More-or-less the same idea as “The Quality of Mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven upon the place beneath.” (Shakespeare)

“Rabbi Yaakov says, ‘This World is like an anteroom (of a Palace) with respect to the World-to-Come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you will gain entry to the Palace.’ (Pirkei Avot, 4:21)

He used to say, ‘One moment of repentance and good deeds in This World is better than all of Life in the World-to-Come. But (by contrast), one moment of spiritual delight in the World-to-Come is better than all of Life in This World.’ ” (Pirkei Avot, 4:22)

Comment: These Mishnayot in Pirkei Avot compare “This World” to the “World-to-Come” in two respects. The first is that “This World” is the place for growth, for self-improvement, for making changes in one’s behavior. The “World-to-Come” is the place of “Reward;” the nature and quality of the “Reward” are dependent on what one has accomplished in “This World.” Change and continued growth are no longer possible in the “World-to-Come.”

But in terms of “Quality of Life,” the “World-to-Come” is immeasurably superior to This World.
The following Midrash stresses the same point as the previous one did.

“If it is bent, it cannot be made straight, and if something is missing, it cannot be replaced.” (“Kohelet”/Ecclesiastes 1:15)

“In ‘This World,’ what is crooked can be made straight, and if something is missing, it can be replaced; however, in the ‘World-to-Come,’ the opportunity to straighten out the crooked or to replace something that is missing has passed.” (Kohelet Rabbati 1)

Comment: If one’s behavior is “crooked” in some way, it has to be straightened out in ‘This World;’ similarly, if one’s behavior is lacking an important characteristic, perhaps to develop and exercise greater generosity, the time to work on acquiring and exercising that characteristic is in ‘This World;’ afterwards, it will be too late.

“Open the door for me, my beloved sister…” (“Shir HaShirim”/Song of Songs 5:2) Rabbi Yesa said, ‘The Holy One, Blessed be He said to Israel, “My sons, Open the door of Repentance as the ‘eye of a needle,’ and I will open it for you so that wagons and carriages can pass through.” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 24)

Comment: “Doing Teshuvah” is not easy. But, like many other worthwhile processes, a person need only start the job. Once that is done, “somehow” Hashem gets involved and helps the person, so that the person is able to surmount the difficulty.

“Rabbi Pinchas the Priest, the son of Chama, said, ‘The Holy One, Blessed be He, does not desire the punishment of his creatures, as it says, ‘For I do not want people to die, says the L-rd G-d, but rather ‘Return’ and ‘Live’ (Yechezkel 18:32)’ And it further says, ‘As I Live, says the L-rd G-d, I do not want the wicked to die! And what does He want? To find His creatures innocent! As it says, ‘The L-rd wants to find him innocent…’ ” (Yeshayahu 42:21) (Midrash Tanchuma; VaYera)

Comment: The G-d of Israel is on the opposite extreme from the picture of the vengeful, wrathful “G-d of the Old Testament” painted by Anti-Semites. Rather, He loves His creatures and He desires that they live a moral life, in accordance with the Torah, and thus merit the World-to-Come.

“Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, ‘What does the verse mean that says, ‘With respect to fools, He will mock; but to the humble, He will show graciousness?” (“Mishlei”/Proverbs 3:24)

“If a person wants to make himself unclean, he is permitted to do so; if a person wants to make himself clean, he is helped…” (Masechet Yoma: 38b)

Comment: This Midrash emphasizes the principle of “Bechirah Chofshit,” “freedom of choice.” A person is given the opportunity to choose between Good and Evil; he or she is with respect to this matter entirely free to choose; there is no coercion. If a person chooses “Good” and “Life,” he or she is assisted. An individual is free, however, to choose “Evil” and “Death.”

This does not mean that life is free of consequences or that choices are not significant. Earlier choices may limit future options, and it may be more difficult, or impossible, to return to a previous state, without tremendous effort. But then again, “If a person wants to make himself clean, he is helped.”

“The stranger is not forced to pass the night outside.” (“Eyov”/Job 31:32) This teaches that Hashem does not disqualify His creatures permanently; rather, He accepts all. The gates are open at all times; anyone who wishes to enter may do so.” (Shemot Rabbah: 19)

Comment: This Midrash complements the previous one and the following one, in illustrating that “No one is permanently pushed away!”

“Rabbi Levi said, ‘Great is Teshuvah, for it enables a person to reach the throne of G-d,” as it says ‘Return, O Israel, to the L-rd your G-d.’ (Hoshea 14:2)” (Masechet Yoma: 86a)

Comment: In general, no matter how far an individual has distanced himself from G-d by his previous behavior, it is possible for him to return, depending on his effort, all the way to great closeness to his Creator.

“Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Great is Teshuvah, for it causes a person’s verdict to be torn up.’ ” (Rosh HaShanah 17b)

Comment: Until a person’s death, there is no such thing as an irrevocable verdict; no matter how bad a person’s behavior was, it is possible for him to have his Heavenly Verdict revoked.

“Resh Lakish said, ‘Great is Teshuvah, for sins done on purpose are converted to accidental sins.’
But didn’t Resh Lakish say, ‘Great is Teshuvah for sins done on purpose are converted to good deeds!?’
The resolution is that the first statement is true when the Teshuvah is done out of fear of Heavenly punishment; the second is true when the Teshuvah is done for the love of G-d.”
(Masechet Yoma 86b)

Comment: It is possible to do Teshuvah out of two motivations: fear of punishment by the “Heavenly Court” in the “World-to-Come,” or out of love of G-d. The Repentance of the second type is so powerful that it can change “sinful acts” done in the past to “good deeds” on a person’s Heavenly Record.