The Gates of Teshuvah
It is written, “I lift my eyes to the mountain – from where will my help come? My help will come from the L-RD, Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalms 121:1-2).
When a person begins to look into his soul and realizes the seriousness of his sins before G-d, the harmful spiritual and material effects of his deeds, he will, as a result, come to realize the gravity of Hashem’s anger. Naturally, he will give in to despair and ask, “from where will my help come?”
He asks from where this strength, which is so necessary to modify his deeply engrained habits, will come from. How will he thus be able to do Teshuvah? And above all, how can G-d accept Teshuvah from his part? Actually, the term “where” in Hebrew is mei’ayin. Ayin also means “nothing”, for the existence of the person in question is void of meaning; he therefore cannot do Teshuvah by himself.
To this King David tells us that above all, one must not fall into despair, for despair by definition is the work of the Satan. The gates of Teshuvah are never closed before one of the Children of Israel, even if he is a sinner.
To illustrate this measure of Divine clemency, we may take the example of King Manasseh. Even though he introduced idolatry into the Beit Hamikdash, as soon as he did Teshuvah, G-d accepted him.
This leads to the second part of our phrase: “My help will come from the L-RD.” In other words, instead of succumbing to despair and thus remaining lethargic, on the contrary a person must wake up and recognize his sins and their destructive consequences. G-d will then accept his Teshuvah.
However our passage does not end there, for it specifies, “My help will come from the L-RD, Maker of heaven and earth.” Here we can clearly ask why King David specified that G-d is the Creator of the universe. Don’t we know this? Obviously we do.
Nevertheless, this fact is meant to bring another truth closer, which is the following: Because of our sins, heaven and earth undergo changes that continually threaten their existence. For its continued existence, the universe strictly depends on the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot and good deeds. Now, in the same way that Hashem continually renews the universe, He also helps us to “renew” ourselves through Teshuvah.
Teshuvah itself is to be the fruit of our soul-searching. In reality, by his essence a human being does not want to sin. A person’s negative deeds are the result of his Yetzer Hara (evil inclination), which also tries with all its power to prevent him from making a spiritual “accounting” and in this way to come closer to G-d. King David says, “The L-RD is your Guardian; the L-RD is your protective Shade at your right hand. … The L-RD will protect you from every evil” (Psalms 121:5,7). Actually, when a person sins, he distances himself from his Creator, but as soon as he does Teshuvah, he is once again connected to Him, and He then protects him from everything.
Our father Jacob provides us a concrete example. When Abraham’s servant Eliezer went in search of Rebecca, he brought many gifts with him: Ten camels, a gold ring, two gold bracelets, and so on. On the other hand, when our father Jacob went to look for a wife among the same family, he brought nothing with him. Nevertheless, the Midrash states that Jacob did not lose hope, knowing that “my help will come from the L-RD, Maker of heaven and earth.”
Notwithstanding, Jacob felt hopeless for two reasons:
First, in his opinion Eliezer had succeeded in his mission thanks to the extravagant gifts that he gave, thus demonstrating the great wealth of his master Abraham. On the other hand, Jacob had arrived with the same intention (meaning, to marry one of Laban’s relatives) yet without bringing any gifts. How was he going to achieve his desire?
Second, Jacob thought of himself as inferior not only to his ancestors, but also to Abraham’s servant Eliezer. Proof of this is that when Laban tried to kill Eliezer, the latter disappeared by pronouncing the Ineffable Name. Thus Eliezer saved himself all while obtaining the reverence and fear of Laban, and he even freed him from idolatry. It was not the same for Jacob. When he was attacked by Eliphaz (Esau’s son), he was completely stripped of all his goods. Knowing that he was venerable, from then on Laban had no reason to fear, and he could even murder him. Hence Jacob’s increasing awareness that his merit was inferior to Eliezer’s.
In relating these events to our original passage, when our father Jacob said, “I lift my eyes to the mountain…”, it was a specific reference to his ancestors, since it was their merit that saved Eliezer and completely freed him from Laban. “Why then,” Jacob asked himself, “didn’t this merit also protect me?” The question, “from where will my help come?” becomes even more relevant after Jacob’s dream in Beth El, since Hashem clearly told him, “I will be with you, and I will protect you everywhere you go.” Are we in a position to infer that Jacob doubted this promise?
We return here to the vital subject of soul-searching that we mentioned earlier. When a person experiences suffering, he must first examine his actions to look for the source of his troubles. Like Eliezer, our father Jacob could pronounce the Ineffable Name and thus save himself from Eliphaz. Yet he didn’t do so because his primary concern was not to save himself, but to first understand the origin of these troubles – to find out why Eliphaz had attacked and stripped him of all his goods – since the occurrence of this event itself demonstrates spiritual weakness.
Even though Jacob could protect himself in the same way that Eliezer had done (by pronouncing the Ineffable Name), he did not do so. Actually, he wanted to prepare a path free of all obstacles for his descendants. For that to happen, instead of yielding to despair, on the contrary a person must undertake a spiritual self-evaluation.
In the phrase, “From where will my help come?” the expression “from where,” as we have already mentioned, can also mean “nothing”. This is due to the fact that we become aware of our vanity in noting our distance from G-d as compared to our ancestors. At the same time, the expression mei’ayin (“from the void”) consists of the same letters that form the word mei’ani (“from myself”). In bringing these two meanings together, we reason that from myself, help is nothing. More specifically, the help that I can give myself is nothing, which is the reason that I should rely on G-d’s help.
Our father Jacob, despite being destitute, was able to marry Laban’s daughters even though Laban greatly cherished wealth. In the same way, a destitute person who wants to get married, yet is lacking the financial means to do so, should have faith in G-d, Who will know how to come to his rescue.
Eliezer was saved by pronouncing the Ineffable Name, while our father Jacob was saved from physical harm even without pronouncing it. It’s true that Eliphaz completely despoiled him, but contrary to the will of his father Esau, he left him alive, which is the essential thing.
It sometimes happens that G-d takes away a person’s material possessions in order to save his soul, for as the saying goes, “Charity saves from death.”