- Jewish Laws and Thoughts
translated by Hillel Fendel
It happened on a particular Yom Kippur Eve. Rabbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the great defender of Israel, entered the synagogue all fired up. He screamed, "Look all over! Find them! Look even under the benches and the tables!"
Everyone looked around at each other in discomfort. What were they supposed to look for?
Rabbe Lev Yitzchak explained: "Today is the day of Tehuva [Return; realigning one's own will with that of G-d's], and if we do Teshuva not out of fear, but rather from love, we can change even our sins into merits! This is what the Sages teach us! So it's important to look around and find all the sins that we have committed, and then, via our Teshuva, turn them into merits! The more sins we find, the more merits we will have!"
This anecdote brings to the fore a great enigma: How is it possible to turn a sin into a merit? How can repentance accomplish such a thing? We can understand that for one who sincerely regrets his sinful actions of the past and takes upon himself to rectify his deeds in the future, his sins may be overlooked, and a new page can even be opened for him. But to have the sin turned into a good deed?! How can that be?!
For instance, if a person breaks a plate, and then regrets his carelessness and takes upon himself to always be careful when handling plates – it is likely that we will forgive him. Still, however, the plate will remain broken! As we read in the Bible, "That which is crooked cannot be straightened" (Eccl. 1,15).
To understand the answer to this fundamental question, let us cite a Rabbinic Midrash. The Bible tells of "Yonatan, son of Gershom, son of Menashe." Yonatan was a priest for idolatry, working with the statue of Micah. and was actually the son of Moshe Rabbeinu's son Gershom, and therefore the grandson of Moshe Rabbeinu. However, to conceal this terrible fact, the Bible added the letter nun to Moshe's name, thus rendering the name "Menashe."
The Sages explain that the reason Yonatan deteriorated to such a low level is because he misunderstood the words of his grandfather, Moshe Rabbeinu. What happened was that Yonatan had been looking desperately for a way to make a good living, and he met up with Micah, who offered him a job as a priest for idolatry. Yonatan hesitated, but then remembered his grandfather's words: "Worship idols – lit, perform foreign work – but do not cast yourself on the mercies of others." That is, one should make sure never to rely on the charity of others.
But what Moshe meant to teach was that every job a person does is honorable – even if it is foreign to him, even if it is lowly, even if it is something like stripping animal skins from carcasses. He should choose to do even that, in order not to need charity from others. However, Yonatan misunderstood the phrase "foreign work" to mean idolatry. This was of course a total mistake, but still, it was a mistake that originated in the words of Moshe.
A few generations later, David became King, reigning from Ramah. He saw that this Yonatan lusted for money, and so he appointed him Minister of the Treasury in the Israelite kingdom. Yonatan in fact did Teshuva at that time, and the Bible called him Shvuel ben Gershom – a name that the Sages understood as meaning "shuv e-l," meaning "return to G-d," and that he "returned to G-d with all his heart."
But, the Sages note, this story presents a difficulty. Recounting the incident of the idol of Micah, the Bible tells us that Yonatan and his sons remained priests for idolatry until the days of the Exile! How can it be said, then, that Yonatan repented of his evil deeds? The Sages explain that after David's death, his son Shlomo replaced all his ministers, and that once Shvuel was fired, he returned to his evil ways and the business of idolatry.
The reader is most certainly amazed: How can the Sages say that Shvuel returned to G-d with all his heart? All he did was to follow the money! When Micah gave him cash, he went with him, and when David came along, he put on a kippah and tzitzit and became a yeshiva bocher!
But on the other hand, the fact is that it is the Biblical writings of the Prophets that refer to Yonatan as Shvuel, one who wholeheartedly returned to G-d. That means that this is how G-d viewed him and that this was true Teshuva on Yonatan's part. Yet he still reverted to his evil ways afterwards. What is going on here?
The explanation is that this is precisely the depth of Teshuva. The sinner takes his G-d-given strengths and uses them to distance himself from G-d. After all, even the very minute the sin is being perpetrated, the sinner's life is given him by G-d, as are the powers for sin. These are thus divine forces dressed in negative attire. Therefore, when he does Teshuva, he is actually taking those same powers and reconnecting them to their divine source.
This was King David's very profound diagnosis of the situation. David is our Prince of Teshuva, and he noticed that Yonatan had great strengths and abilities connected with money. When these forces do not find positive expression, they lead him into the depths of sin. But when David found them a positive outlet – by naming him Treasury Minister, enabling him to be close to his strength – Shvuel immediately returned to G-d, truly and with all his heart. Only when he was lacking this positive horizon did he fall.
This is the reason that Teshuva has the power to rectify and fix even the past. In truth, while the sin is being executed, the sinner's strengths are not totally broken; they have simply taken on a false and negative set of clothing. Via Teshuva, these strengths are returned to their true source.
This is why the month of Elul, which is the month of Teshuva [it begins this coming Monday], is the last month of the year, and does not come at the beginning. This tells us that we have it within us to grasp even the misguided strengths of the outgoing year – and raise them up.
As the Sages teach: "We are guaranteed that in the end, Israel will do Teshuva, and will then immediately be redeemed." May it happen speedily in our days!
In order to get articles like this delivered straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the Israel National Torah newsletter here