Beit Yisrael Synagogue
This year Parshat Nitzavim is read prior to Rosh Hashana, a time when our thoughts should be on Teshuva. I would like to quote an appropriate pasuk from the Torah reading. "When all 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 Lord you G-d has banished you, and you return to the Lord your G-d" (Devarim 30:1-3).
One may ask -- what a strange place to do teshuva, among the gentile nations to which we have been scattered. A more appropriate place for teshuva would seem to be Yerushalayim -- a spiritual place which initiates thoughts of G-d. To explain this, let me quote from a midrash on Bereshit.
It concerns a certain Yosef Misisha, who was one of the Mityavnim (assimilationists) at the time of the Greek occupation of Israel. The Greek authorities decided that the Temple in Yerushalayim should be desecrated and moreover, that this should be done in such a way that a Jew should do the dirty work.
For this purpose they chose Yosef Misisha and told him to go into the holiest part of the Beit Hamikdash and remove any of the holy objects he saw, for his own keeping. He agreed, entered the Temple and seeing the dazzling golden Menorah in the Sanctuary, decided that it would look good in his home. So he removed the Menorah and took it home. This did not, however, satisfy the Greeks. Everyone owned some sort of candelabra in their home -- the Greeks wanted the desecration to stand out. They demanded that Yosef return it to the Temple and remove something else. At this time, Yosef refused -- and he stuck to his refusal -- even under torture, from which he died.
The same Midrash gives another story, about a certain Yakum Ish Tzrorot, an assimilationist during the Roman occupation of Israel. His brother-in-law, R' Yossi ben Yoezer, was sentenced to death by the Roman authorities for teaching Torah, a kiddush Hashem. As R'Yossi was led to be executed, Yakum rode up and shouted at him: "Do you see now what happens to you for performing mitzvot?" R' Yossi responded back: "In that case, you can imagine what is going to happen to you for not performing mitzvot!" These words had an unbelievable effect on Yakum -- "like a serpent's poison" -- and he immediately did teshuva.
What is the common theme of these two stories? In each story the central figure stooped as low as one can and then did teshuva. In the first story, the person violently desecrated the Temple, and this experience apparently led him to teshuva and a refusal to repeat his sin. In the second story, the person was humiliating someone who had been sentenced to death, yet in spite of his disgusting behavior, he was still receptive to his brother-in-law's rebuke.
It seems that when someone is in a low enough moral state he may specifically at that time derive inspiration from his situation, so as to reach moral heights.
No one is suggesting that we should deliberately sin in order to do teshuva afterwards. Actually the more one sins, the harder it is to change the situation. I think the message should be that when one is retrospect over the past year and feels there were mistaken deeds and wrong paths taken, instead of brooding and falling in despair, one should learn from these stories. Specifically, during one's hard times, it may be possible to use one's state as a springboard to higher levels.
This is, perhaps, the reason the Torah speaks of teshuva taking place while we are scattered about the nations of the world and in exile. We will repent not in spite of this situation, but actually because of it.
May our year be blessed to be a quiet one, in which we will all rise to heights in all spheres of life.
Esti and I wish one and all a Happy and Healthy New Year.
Rav Chanoch Yeres