Repentance is in Itself a Trial
It is written, “All the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines stopped up and filled them with earth” (Genesis 26:15).
This is surprising. Nothing is worth more to people than the benefits of a well that satisfies thirst. How did the Philistines have the heart to stop up the wells that Abraham’s servants had dug for their survival?
A person who repents should not think that this repentance is enough to solve all his problems, or that now he will have an easy life and all the doors that were previously closed to him will be opened. The Sages tell us, “The Gates of Tears are never closed” (Berachot 32b) and “The Gates of Repentance are always open” (Eicha Rabba 3). The Gates of Tears and Repentance are open, but it does not necessarily follow that all the gates of Heaven are open and that it will now be easy for the one who has repented to mend all his ways. Reality proves that, on the contrary, when someone repents, it is just then that he must confront all sorts of trials. Sometimes these are so difficult and bitter that he risks falling even lower than he was before having taken the first step in returning to G-d.
Everyone should realize that the goal of the Satan is to capture and trap in his net the one who repents, otherwise that person represents a loss to the Satan. He therefore tempts him with all sorts of difficult ordeals – hardships dealing with his wages, his household, attacks from those around him, or personal isolation – to the extent that he actually feels that doors are being closed before him. With superhuman obstinacy, the devil tries to sap and shatter his will.
Sometimes, it is even G-d Himself Who puts a man to the test. This is in order to wash away his past sins and make him experience His love, as it is written: “So as to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would observe His commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2). Despite everything, a man’s love for G-d should not depend on a reward, but rather it should be a love that “is not dependent upon a specific consideration” (Perkei Avoth 5:16).
Based on what we have said, when someone repents and begins to mend his ways, he confronts a first test, namely the decision to not repeat his past sins. This occurs until, as the Rambam writes, “the Knower of all that is hidden testifies about him that he will never return to that sin again” (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2). In addition, many doors will begin to close for him after he has repented, and therefore the very fact that he has repented constitutes one of his most difficult trials, for he must be particularly careful to insure that his repentance is sincere, like a selfless love.
We must raise another question. Concerning Abraham it is stated, “The souls they made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5), which our Sages explain as follows: “Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women” (Bereshith Rabba 39:21; 84:2). We must therefore ask ourselves what became of all these souls that Abraham and Sarah converted. Since the Torah does not mention them afterwards, did they disappear? This is quite surprising.
All the people that they converted disappeared as if they had never existed because their repentance was performed out of self-interest. These people thought that by attaching themselves to G-d, all the doors of Heaven would be opened before them and all their undertakings would succeed without problems, even faultlessly. They did not think that repentance is but a beginning and that they must continue to progress despite difficulties and accept Heaven’s yoke every instant without flinching, doing so until they have proved that they will not repeat their past sins. One must realize that it is the Satan who places these difficulties before them and who will not rest until he has caught them in his net. Without permanent effort, it is impossible for a person to succeed. Attaining a position in the World to Come demands a great deal of effort, and this is not achieved without difficulty.
The people who converted in Abraham’s time enjoyed great benefits while Abraham was still alive, yet when hardships began after his death, they were incapable of overcoming them. Their repentance was motivated by reward; their love was selfish. This is why they failed when confronted by numerous problems and why they ended up by returning to their previous lifestyles. They reverted back because they did not manage to overcome the trials of time. They preferred an unfettered life, one without problems, for they did not understand the primary meaning of the test of repentance.
During Abraham’s time these people lived well, but after his death this comfortable lifestyle turned into pain and suffering. They therefore turned against Abraham’s ways because he had led them to repent, which was now the cause of their suffering. These are the Philistines concerning whom is it said that they stopped up the wells that Abraham had dug (Zohar III:302b), the wells of living waters of Torah (which is compared to water – Bava Kama 17a), and which is called “life” (Avoth D’Rabbi Nathan 34:10), for they abandoned the yoke of their conversion. It is possible that they plugged these wells in order to erase all memory of Abraham, the one who had converted them.
Such is the gratitude of the wicked, as reflected in the statement: “Cursed are the wicked, for even the good that they do is defective” (Bereshith Rabba 89:9). Righteous men guide them along the right path and protect them, yet the wicked repay them evil for good. When they confront difficulties, they stop up the wells of living water, renounce the Torah – which is called a well (Berachot 56b), as it is written: “Well that the princes dug” (Numbers 21:18) – and they forget the kindnesses they have received, paying them back with evil.
Everyone should realize that not only is repentance an essential trial, but that life itself and its demands constitute one great and difficult test. Trials not only confront the one who repents; every Jew is continually tested at every occasion. Someone who during his entire life gives his goods to the poor, who supports those who study Torah (like the tribe of Issachar, who supported the tribe of Zebulon – Vayikra Rabba 25:2), and who gives a tenth of his wages to charity may all of sudden see fortune turn against him, resulting in a loss of all his possessions. Someone such as this may rightfully turn to G-d and say, “It is written, ‘You shall surely tithe’ [Deuteronomy 14:22] and ‘Tithe and you shall be rich’ [Shabbat 119a]. Yet I have given great amounts of my money to help the needy, I supported those who study Torah, and I was kind over and over, yet I still lost all my possessions! If such is the case, what became of Your promise?”
It is certainly true that losing all one’s possessions is a severe ordeal, but one must overcome it because the pain that it causes can lead to giving up hope (G-d forbid). A person must accept this decree, for “the L-RD has given, and the L-RD has taken away. Blessed be the Name of the L-RD” (Job 1:21) and he should say, “You are just in all that has come upon us.” He should strive to be, at every possible moment, one concerning whom it is said, “Who is wise? He who foresees events” (Tamid 32a). This means that as soon as he becomes richer, he should realize that this wealth is not his. Rather it belongs to G-d, as it is written: “For everything is from You, and from Your hand have we given to You” (I Chronicles 29:14), for it is He Who gives and it is in His power to take back. If He bestows riches, and if He has decided to withhold them, no doubt it is for a reason. It is possible that G-d has deprived him of his wealth in order to make him endure a hardship proportional to the greatness of his soul, this being so as to purify him and bestow more merit upon him. Or perhaps G-d has deprived him of his possessions well before he abuses them, for G-d has anticipated and seen that in the long run he would abuse his wealth. It is also possible that He deprived him of his wealth for having, at one time or another, shamed a man of Torah, something that the Sages speak of: “Whoever scorns a man of Torah has no remedy for the harm he has caused” (Shabbat 119a). It is even possible that G-d made him rich at first so that he could correct some character fault, and now that he has corrected it, this wealth has been taken away from him.
The test of riches or poverty is one of the most difficult. King Solomon prayed, “Give me neither poverty nor wealth” (Proverbs 30:8), these two things being capable of leading a man to despair or stopping up the wells of the Torah. In other words, they can lead a man to rebel and revolt. One must grow stronger through these hardships, in the sense of the verse: “Do not throw a stone into the well from which you drank” (Bava Kama 92b). One must not deny one’s good deeds. On the contrary, one must realize that everything stems from G-d and that “we must bless G-d for the bad that occurs to us just as we thank Him for the good,” for we do not know how things will end up (Berachot 54a). The one who accepts this fact will continue to follow the right path, as it is written: “In order that you may walk in the way of the good and keep the paths of the righteous” (Proverbs 2:20). May G-d come to our aid.