It was a devastating personal downfall. A respected Torah scholar had committed the unthinkable: He had gone from the hallowed walls of the beis medrash to become a highway bandit. Along with two partners in crime, he robbed every passerby. Even those who weren’t carrying anything valuable on them and, therefore, assumed that they could safely traverse the roads, were stopped and robbed of what they were wearing. In the process he forgot his Torah learning.
While we can only speculate what the Jews of that generation — some two millenniums ago — were thinking, we can deduce how we would view such an individual today.
While in the back of our minds we would presumably recall the fact that the gates of teshuvah remain open as long as a person is alive, many would conclude that even if this scholar-turned-robber abandoned his most disturbing choice of profession, it was highly unlikely, if not impossible, for him to truly rehabilitate himself.
Yet the great Amora Rabi Yochanan had a very different approach.
“Your strength is for Torah,” he declared as he observed the highwayman swimming in the river. He then proceeded to offer the highwayman his sister in marriage if he would agree to leave his career in crime and return to Torah learning.
Rabi Yochanan’s offer was accepted and the result was that the world merited the saintly Amora Rabi Shimon ben Lakish, usually referred to as Reish Lakish, whose Torah teachings continues to light up our lives to this very day. For the rest of his life he used all his talents and strengths solely for avodas Hashem.
Nearly a thousand years earlier, the world had witnessed a far greater exhibition of the power of teshuvah.
Menashe was the son of Chizkiyahu Hamelech, one of the most righteous kings in Jewish history. Chazal (Sanhedrin 101b) teach us that Chizkiyahu taught “the whole world Torah,” and greatly exerted himself to teach his son and eventual heir the ways of Torah and mitzvos.
Yet despite Chizkiyahu’s best efforts, Menashe chose a path of great wickedness. While have no inkling of the enormous temptations he faced, (Menashe later told the Amora Rav Ashi in a dream that had Rav Ashi lived in the generation of Menashe “you would have lifted the bottom of your garment and run after me!”) the gravity of the sins he committed are incomprehensible. He brought sacrifices to every type of idol imaginable, and filled the streets with blood of the innocent. Among those that he brutally killed was his own maternal grandfather, the navi Yeshaya.
Eventually, the Assyrian army captured Menashe, and bound him with copper fetters and transported him to Bavel. His enemies threw him into a cauldron and lit a fire under him. As he lay trapped, he began to call out to his idols, beseeching them to save him.
It was only after he ran out of options that he called out to Hashem.
The Heavenly angels strongly opposed his calls and sought to block this last minute teshuvah — prompted solely by utter desperation — from being accepted.
But Hashem decided otherwise, accepted his supplications and returned him to his throne in Yerushalayim.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, we will b’ezras Hashem, read in the haftarah of Minchah how the prophet Yonah was forced by Hashem to travel to Nineveh to inspire the people there to do teshuvah.
Chazal (Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer 43) tell us an a seemingly astonishing fact: the king of Nineveh was none other than the same Pharaoh who lived at the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, many centuries earlier.
According to this view in Chazal, while his mass armies all drowned in
the Yam Suf, Pharaoh survived, and moved to Nineveh. After witnessing the Ten Plagues and the great miracles at the Yam Suf, Pharaoh reverted to his evil ways and lead his new kingdom down a path of immorality and unadulterated evil.
Yet even for Pharaoh, the gates of teshuvah weren’t closed, and when he accepted the words of Yonah and regretted his deeds, his repentance was accepted.
As we prepare for Yom Kippur, this is an ideal time to emphasize the fact that it is never too late to start anew. No matter how far one has fallen, no matter much grievously we or others may have erred, we can always use the future to rectify the past.
As long as a person is alive, it is never too late to return. We must internalize this fact both in regard to ourselves, as well as to how we view others.