As I write this, we are in the midst of the Aseres Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Day of Repentance that last from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. In the laws of Teshuvah (3:4), the Rambam tells us that a person should always consider himself as if his mitzvos equally balance his sins and the world’s mitzvos equally balance the world’s sins. Accordingly, if he performs a mitzvah or a sin, he tips the scales not only for himself but for the entire world.
In truth, each of us is always on the precipice between being a tzaddik and a rasha (righteous or evil). None of us is so good that we cannot stumble and fall and none of us is so fallen that we cannot get back up again.
Regarding the former, the mishna in Avos (2:4) tells us, “Do not be confident in yourself until the day you die.” The Bartinuro gives the example of Yochanan the Kohein Gadol who officiated for 80 years but was ultimately swayed by heretical philosophies.
When it comes to righteous people who sinned, our go-to examples are usually Yehuda (who sinned in the incident of Tamar in parshas Vayeishev) and King David (who sinned in the incident of Batshava in II Samuel chapter 11). But those are examples of righteous people who stumbled and then course-corrected. There are, sadly, those who started out on the proper path and then went what one might call “off the derech.” (Let’s use this term for simplicity’s sake and save discussion of its accuracy for another day.)
For this point I usually invoke Yeravam (Jeroboam – I Kings 11-13), first king of the breakaway northern kingdom. He was originally a hero who stood up to King Solomon when that righteous monarch erred in a matter of public policy. He was righteous enough that God sent the prophet Achiya to appoint him ruler over ten of the 12 Tribes of Israel. Fear of the divided nation re-uniting and costing him his position caused him to erect idolatrous altars in his new regime and to keep his subjects from the Temple. The Talmud uses Yeravam as the example of one whose inflated ego would not allow him to repent even when personally invited to do so by God (Sanhedrin 102a). But Yeravam isn’t the only one in such a situation.
Yoash (Joash – II Kings 11-12) was a descendant of King David but a usurper had seized the throne and slaughtered all the other heirs. Yoash was smuggled out as a baby and raised in the Temple by a kohein named Yehoyada. The ouster of the pretender and the coronation of the true prince at the age of 7 was a cause for great celebration. Yoash is perhaps best remembered for a Temple renovation project that is favorably recalled every year as the haftarah for parshas Shekalim. The navi (v. 12:3) tells us that Yoash “did that which was right in the eyes of God all his days” but it qualifies “as long as Yehoyada the kohein instructed him.” After Yehoyada died, it was another story. The book of II Chronicles (chapter 24) relates how he allowed himself to be worshipped as a deity and permitted the worship of other idols as well. Yoash was also responsible for the murder in the Temple of the prophet Zechariah – who happened to be the son of his mentor, Yehoyada! The Talmud (Gittin 57b, el al.) relates how Zechariah’s blood bubbled on the Temple floor for more than two centuries!
Let us not forget Elisha ben Avuyah. One of the Sages of the Mishna, he stated a dictum that learning in one’s youth is like writing on fresh parchment (i.e., long-lasting) while learning in one’s old age is like writing on erased, re-used parchment (Avos 4:20). Despite his great Torah scholarship, he also immersed himself in heretical philosophy and ultimately became a heretic known as “Acheir” – “the other” (Chagigah 15a-b). His student Rabbi Meir urged him to repent but Acheir had decided that he was too far gone (ibid.).
Whether because of power corrupting (as it did Yeravam), lack of a proper role model (as in the case of Yoash), exposure to negative influences (as with Acheir), or some other factor, none of us is so great that we can’t go completely off the rails. You’re capable of that (and so am I).
But that’s not all! The mishna in Avos also tells us (2:10) “Repent the day before you die.” The usual explanation is that, since one never knows when he will die, one should be in a constant state of teshuvah. But the simple explanation remains true as well: teshuvah performed after a life full of sins is nevertheless effective. We also see this from Biblical and Talmudic exemplars.
King Menashe was as bad as the evil kings came. He restored Baal worship, Asheira worship and Molech worship, he introduced the worship of heavenly spheres and put altars to them in the Temple, he practiced astrology, necromancy and divination, and he did much of it just to antagonize God. Almost as an afterthought, the navi mentions that he also spilled innocent blood (II Kings 21). Among other crimes, the Talmud credits Menashe with the murder of the prophet Isaiah (Yevamos 49b). Nevertheless, the book of II Chronicles (chapter 33) tells us that Menashe did teshuvah. He humbled himself before God and did his best to reverse the damage that he had caused.
Regarding King Yoshiyahu (Josiah), the book of II Kings tells us that no king ever returned to God with the zeal and enthusiasm that Yoshiyahu did (23:25). Whatever his shortcomings may have been, his teshuvah was so thorough that they aren’t even recorded!
In the Talmud (Avodah Zara 17a), we have the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaiah. A lifelong sinner, he was told by a prostitute that his teshuvah would never be accepted. This moved him so much that he cried and repented so hard that he literally died from the effort. Counter to the prostitute’s assessment, Elazar ben Dordaiah was accepted directly into Heaven without first having to be cleansed in Gehinnom. Additionally, he was awarded the title “Rabbi!”
So we see that no matter one’s flaws, one is never so far gone that he can’t overcome them. You’re capable of that, too! (And so am I.)
I mapped out my Biblical and Talmudic examples for this article some two weeks ago but the rabbi of my shul told a contemporary story on Rosh Hashana that illustrates this principle so well that I just had to include it. In the 1920s, the Yabloner Rebbe (born Yechezkel Taub) moved much of his community to Israel in anticipation of Moshiach’s arrival. Things went poorly and the Yabloner Rebbe had to sell most of the land they had bought. In the 1930s, in danger for his life from angry followers, he went to America to raise funds. While he was there, the war broke out in Europe and he heard that his entire Hasidic sect had been eradicated. Absolutely devastated and with nowhere to go, the Yabloner Rebbe took off his yarmulke, shaved off his beard and became George Nagel of Los Angeles. Some forty years later, in 1980, the residents of Kfar Chasidim, grateful that George taking them out of Europe had saved all their lives, tracked him down and persuaded him to return. Nagel not only returned to Israel, he returned to Judaism and resumed the position of Yabloner Rebbe, a role he retained until his death in 1986.
Can a Hasidic rebbe go “off the derech?” Yes; we human beings are capable of that. Can a Jew who turned his back on Judaism for four decades return and be welcomed back with open arms? Yes; we’re capable of that, too.
God has given us a yetzer hara (evil inclination) and yetzer tov (good inclination) but we are not slaves to them. We also have the gift of free will and are able to choose between them. Sometimes one inclination is stronger in area A while the other is stronger in area B. No one is so strong that they can be sure they won’t sin – even big time – but no one is so weak that they lack the capacity to come back from their errors.
One more quote from Avos: “Do not be wicked in your own eyes” (2:13). The Bartinuro gives two explanations, each of which fits one of our points. First he says that we should not do anything that would make us consider ourselves wicked because – you know what? – we’re capable of doing such things. Then he cites the Rambam that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as wicked because if we do, we’ll start to act as wicked people do. We’ll put ourselves in the mindset that we’re too far gone to do teshuvah when in fact we’re capable of that, too.
Human beings are incredible creatures and God has designed us remarkably well. It is true that not each of us has the ability to be an Olympic athlete, a Grammy-winning recording artist or the next Stephen Hawking. In that way, we’re all very different. But in spiritual matters, each of us has the ability to accomplish whatever we put our minds to.
So… what are we going to do about it?
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon. Rabbi Jack also serves as Educational Correspondent for Jew in the City. Follow him at facebook.com/rabbijackbooks.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.