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 dabbling in.”
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 least temporarily.
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 repentance, 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.