Return, O Israel, to HASHEM Your G-d
This world is like a large store into which one enters and looks, but finds nothing to buy. When he leaves we ask him, “Is it possible that in such a large store you didn’t find anything?” And he is distressed. Thus man descends into this world with a divine soul, hands, feet, eyes, etc., and asks himself, “What have I come to do in this world?” We tell him, “In this world there are many things to do. There is Torah, there are mitzvot, good deeds, food, drink, and pleasure.” But man wanders about so much that he wants to have things without buying them, and when he finally dies, he rises to Heaven and we ask, “Is it really possible that you didn’t bring anything with you? No mitzvah at all?” He is distressed, and replies, “But I didn’t have the time....”
It’s on this topic that the prophet said, “Return, O Israel, to HASHEM Your G-d” (Hosea 14:2). Return to G-d so that you may never be confounded! It’s a great act of kindness on G-d’s part that, instead of waiting for us to ask for His forgiveness, it is He Who asks us to return to Him by leaving all the doors open before us. And yet man pays no attention whatsoever, and goes on vacations in this world to places that at other times only the rich would go, whereas today even the poor go there. One should fully realize that in the past only exceptional individuals knew how to return to G-d, whereas today G-d tells everyone, “Return, O Israel, to HASHEM Your G-d,” meaning that it’s possible for all to do so.
One should realize that an ordinary person, even if he has committed many sins and is totally separated from G-d, can (by simply making an effort to repent) arrive at a higher level than that of a righteous person. He could find himself close to G-d, Who would welcome him with open arms. As the Rambam said, “Yesterday he was detestable before G-d, an object of loathing and removal. Today he is loved, cherished, close and a friend” (Hilchot Teshuvah Ch. 7, Halachah 6). Two things can easily bring one to repent: 1. The fact that Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to make Israel meritorious and so gave them Torah mitzvot in abundance (Makot 23b; Avoth DeRabbi Nathan 41:17). This means that if we perform one mitzvah to perfection, we in like manner can perform all other mitzvot, thus purifying ourselves and totally returning to G-d. 2. The fact that man’s soul is a divine spark that moves him to repentance and good deeds. Thus even if he is wicked, he remains attached to G-d by that spark, and should therefore rid himself of his neglectful ways, remember G-d, and return to Him.
There’s something here that we should understand. Actually, if neglect causes man to forget G-d, why did G-d create neglect in the first place, since it brings on sin? It would be better for a man to not be neglectful in that case! But in reality there exits two types of neglect, or failure to keep in mind. The first is that which originates from G-d, and allows man to ignore the impending day of death, as the Sages have said, “The day of death is hidden from man” (Pesachim 54b). If he were to constantly be thinking of that day, he wouldn’t be able to perform mitzvot, for the thought of his death would constantly afflict him. This type of neglect allows him to overlook his troubles and to concentrate on performing mitzvot. But there is another type of neglect, one that comes from the evil inclination, and which makes man ignore the fact that there’ll be a severe judgment after death, so that he continues to sin without repenting. This type of neglect is extremely harmful.
That’s why, during the month of Elul, the evil inclination comes to man to make him forget the day of judgment, and with it to make him lose his sense of fear. To be able to feel the anxiety of the coming judgment a person has to picture himself as but a tourist in this world, not a permanent resident. As well, he should recall without stop that Someone calls him to repentance: “Return, O Israel, to HASHEM your G-d, for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (Hosea 14:2). This thought will automatically create a desire to repent, but if he waits until G-d calls him, his end will be bitter and wretched. For who knows just what depths he will have sunk to before G-d calls him, wakes him up, and brings him out of the abyss! That’s why it’s better for a person to bring these things to mind himself and repent.
This allows us to understand what the Sages have said, namely, “The house of Shammai and the house of Hillel argued for two and a half years, one saying that it would have been better for man to have not been created, and the other saying that it was a good thing for man to have been created. They finished by concluding that it would have been better for man to have not been created, but that now that he’s been created, he should carefully examine his ways (Eruvim 13b). It seems that we can explain this in the following way: The house of Shammai, for whom it seemed that man shouldn’t have been created, thought that this was so because neglect reigns in this world, and because of this neglect man will not serve G-d as he should. Certainly it would be better to not be neglectful, and instead to recall without stop of the day of death (which will push a man to do the will of G-d and repent). But because the evil inclination makes us ignore all this, it would have been preferable not to have been created.
As for those who held that it was good for man to have been created, it’s because of the fact that man can conquer his evil inclination and his neglectful ways. They all concluded, therefore, that because the risk is enormous, it would in fact been better for man not to have been created, but now that he’s been, he should carefully examine his actions, know that he is not in this world to stay, and continually fear the coming judgment and so return to G-d with all his heart.
And man should also know that the Holy One, blessed be He, judges him for every moment that he could have performed a mitzvah yet did not, with no moments exempt. We know what the Gra said about this, on the Mishnah: “Before Whom you are destined to give an accounting” (Perkei Avoth 3:1). Why does this expression contain two words in Hebrew (din and cheshbon) whose meanings are almost the same? Din is the judgment passed on the sin itself, and cheshbon deals with the time during which a mitzvah could have been performed instead, for even on that we are judged. It’s very serious, for a sin can create as much damage as a match. In the same way that a single match can cause an entire forest to go up in flames, so too can a single sin cause everything to be lost. Likewise, a single mitzvah can save everything. That’s why the power and value of repentance is so great.
To confirm this, we can cite the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya (Avodah Zarah 17a), who one day wanted to sin with a harlot from a city across the seas. He took a large bag full of money and traveled across seven rivers. In the course of the act she exhaled and said, “In the same way that this breath will never return to its place, the repentance of Elazar ben Durdaya will never be accepted.” Thereafter he went and sat between two mountains and asked the mountains and hills to ask G-d to forgive him. But they refused because they themselves had to ask for His forgiveness, as it is written: “For the mountains may be moved and the hills may falter” (Isaiah 54:10). In the same way, the heavens and the earth refused, for they as well were asking forgiveness for themselves, as is written: “For the heavens will dissipate like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment” (Isaiah 51:6). The sun and the moon equally refused, for they asked for themselves, as it is written: “The moon will be humiliated and the sun will be shamed” (Isaiah 24:33). And the stars and constellations didn’t want either. He said, “The matter rests on me alone.” He put his head between his knees and began to cry bitterly, crying until his soul left him. Thus a celestial voice said, “Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya is destined for life in the world to come.”
We don’t understand. The woman in question was a great sinner; how did she come to preach to him? It’s because she herself suddenly realized what was happening. When she saw Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya giving himself over entirely to sin, she understood that he was wrong, since all originated from the evil inclination. That’s why she pushed herself with all her heart to truly repent, and also managed to bring back Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya to G-d (I’ve already spoken at length on this story in another article). As a result, in the same way that it’s possible to sin with one’s entire heart, so too is it possible to perform a mitzvah with all one’s heart. Therefore a person should consecrate himself entirely to the mitzvah and a complete repentance.