This pair studied together as the perfect example of what we call machloket in Hebrew. It is the word for how the Talmud is set up, with educated Jews arguing. But it is more than that, because it acknowledges that in order to better understand your own opinion, you must find a study partner who has very different opinions from yours. It's a two-party system of learning, and it works because the two sides have great respect for one another. Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan’s arguments appear throughout the Talmud on a variety of topics.
One day they are discussing something relatively mundane, and they get into an exchange of insults that leaves both of them angry. Before they can make amends, Resh Lakish falls ill and dies, and Rabbi Yochanan goes crazy out of sadness and mourning, and he starts searching the streets, calling out for his friend, inconsolable. Eventually the other rabbis pray for God's mercy, and Rabbi Yochanan dies, tortured over not having fixed their relationship, over missing the chance to repent (B. Baba Metzia 84a).
So it clearly can be too late to repent.
For Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan their deaths prevent repentance, and it is a tragic tale of what-if-I-had-only-repaired-my-relationship, which reminds me of a teaching you might recognize:
Rabbi Eliezer taught, “Repent one day before your death.”God willing we will all live to 120. God knows this is not likely to be the case.
His disciples asked him, “But how does a person know on what day [they] will die?”
Rabbi Eliezer answered, “All the more reason, therefore, to repent today, lest one die tomorrow. In this manner, one’s whole life will be spent in repentance” (B. Shabbat 153a).
We read a very disturbing passage in our High Holy liturgy called Unetaneh Tokef, which makes the ominous proclamation that:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.Taken for its literal meaning, Unetaneh Tokef seems to tell us that in these Ten Days of Awe it is determined if this year is going to be our last year. We could interpret this as understanding that our fate is sealed, and what we do after Yom Kippur does not change that.
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die;
who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
who shall perish by fire and who by water;
who by sword and who by beast…
We would be mistaken.
Unetaneh Tokef is liturgical poetry. As such, we need to understand that it might not mean it is determined that we will literally live or die. But, and this should be no less bothersome, every year, we all have moments when we live and when we die. When we feel every year of our age, and when we are struck with youthful vitality. When we are burned and when we are drowned. The answer to every phrase of, “Who shall A and who shall B?” is: I will. At some point this year I will experience all of these things.
The message of hope comes in the next line which reminds us of the tools we have to mitigate the severity of the decree, and the very first one is T’shuvah, repentance. We spoke about T’shuvah a bit on Rosh Hashanah, but to serve as a bit of review I will quote our very own Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who lists the five R’s of Repentance: Responsibility, Recognition, Remorse, Repair, Resolve. In other words, we must:
1. Take personal ownership over our actionsEven with the powerful apparatus of repentance at our disposal, we might be too late for it to be effective. If we do not make it through those steps, either through our own death like Resh Lakish, or through the death of the one we wronged like Rabbi Yochanan, repair can never be achieved, and our repentance is incomplete.
2. Admit what we did and to whom we did it
3. Share how we now feel about what we did
4. Make restitution and reparations to those we’ve injured
5. Commit to a change in behavior to not repeat the act.Responsibility, Recognition, Remorse, Repair, Resolve
So repent today. Do it now. Make the call, tap the person on the shoulder, and repent. Make t’shuvah so that you can temper the severe decree that awaits us all at the end of Yom Kippur. And on the flip side, tell people who have wronged you that you are awaiting an apology from them. Let them know you are hurt so they can begin the process of t’shuvah.
Of course, sometimes the sins we have committed, by their very nature, make it too late to repent.
A collection of Midrashim called Pirkei d'Rabbi Natan enumerates a list of five people who cannot be forgiven: One who is forever repenting, one that sins excessively, one that sins in a righteous generation, one that sins with the intention to repent, and one who profanes God’s name.
The one who is forever repenting is the person who always seems to be saying they’re sorry. They do something wrong, “I’m sorry.” They make the same mistake, “I’m sorry.” One of my college roommates seemed to always be yelling at her girlfriend and saying very mean things. I asked once how they stay together with all the things she says, and she smiled, put an arm around me and said, “I’m a great apologizer.” Unfortunately, as Pirkei d’Rabbi Natan points out, that is not the case. Whether someone is a great apologizer or always says “sorry,” eventually it gets old. I tell my own children that after a while, “sorry” isn’t enough until they change their behavior.
Sinning excessively reads as subjective. What is excessive? In Hilkhot T’shuvah 4:3 (Mishnah Torah), Maimonides notes that some misdeeds by their very nature preclude the possibility of repentance. He mentions one who curses an entire people, one who shares stolen property with a thief, one who finds lost property and does not look for its rightful owner, one who abuses the poor, the orphan, and the widow, and one who takes bribes to subvert justice. Maimonides could not have comprehended the possibility of the horrors of the holocaust, but surely he would have included them in his list had he lived centuries later.
An excessive sinner is also the person who makes excuses for their sins. Whether we say them out loud or to ourselves, we might say, “I’m only speeding because I’m running late.” “I’m only cheating so I can get into a good school.” “I’m only gossiping so you’re aware of what’s happening.” Taken on their own they might not seem that bad, but like the stone at the bottom of the lake, we have no idea where the ripples of our actions have gone.
One that sins in a righteous generation is the foil to Noah, who was noted as a righteous man for his time, which is often interpreted as being an ok guy in a time where everyone else was awful. He was chosen to save the world because when everyone else was behaving badly, Noah raised the bar. Sinning in a righteous generation may not sound like it applies to us at all, but if we replace the word “generation” with “community,” it absolutely does. When we are surrounded by good people and we decide to do bad things, we not only lower the bar, we encourage bad behavior among those who would not otherwise do so.
One that sins with the intention to repent seems even worse. This person understands that they are sinning. They do it anyway, figuring they can sin with impunity if they repent later. However, the last R of repentance is Resolve: resolving to change our behavior should we encounter the opportunity to make the same mistake again. Believing we can later repent and doing it anyway subverts that resolution. If we were truly to be repentant, we would never commit the act in the first place because we know it is wrong.
One who profane’s God’s name, or in Hebrew Hillul Hashem, appears again and again in the Talmud. Rabbis are lauded for enduring torture rather than denouncing God. Because he declares that God does not exist, Alisha ben Abuya is never referred to by name. When an argument of his is cited, he is referred to only as Acher, “the other.” Today we do not seem to care if people are faithful followers or devout atheists. While I respect the opinions of those whose beliefs are different from my own, there is something deeper here than a declaration of faith. Hillul Hashem can also be interpreted as profaning God’s presence that exists in every human being.
We often point out that human beings are created betzelem elohim, in the image of God (Gen. 1:23). When we denigrate another human being, we desecrate God’s presence that exists within them, and thereby profane God’s name. Whether we make fun of someone’s disabilities; judge someone for their skin color, religion, or country of origin; deny the rights of the LGBT community; or engage in bullying of any kind, we are guilty of hillul hashem. It is unforgivable, and it must stop.
Tonight, Yom Kippur begins. This is our chance. Tonight, the gates are wide open, and we can do more than say we are sorry. We can both try to eradicate feelings of hate, anger, envy, and greed that can lead us to commit these heinous acts, AND we can demand that our friends and loved ones do better. Yom Kippur is our Day of Repentance, and we can go back to Resh Laskish who said, “the greatness of repentance lies specifically in its ability to take willful acts of disobedience and transform them into merit” (B. Yoma 86b).
This is our chance to turn our sins into virtues. In masechet Brachot, it says that “even the righteous cannot stand where repentant sinners stand” (34b). The merit of those who repent is superior to that of those who never sinned, for the former had to exert greater effort in suppressing their impulse to turn away from God’s law.
Rabbi Israel Salanter tells the story of walking into a shoemaker late in the evening. He saw the shoemaker working as he leaned over a flickering candle. When he asked the man why he didn't stop working and go to bed, he replied, "As long as the flame burns, it is possible to mend."
This is our chance. It is not too late. The flame still burns. If we do this right, if we truly repent, we can turn from our habits that may be unforgivable and become among those who are the most righteous.
May this be, for all of us, the year we stop worrying about whether it is too late because we have made repentance. May this be the year we have no regrets, the year we have left nothing unsaid. May this be the year we are all truly written in the Book of Life.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.