Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar
Former Cheif Rabbi of Rishon Letzion and Israel
Currently Cheif Rabbi of Jerusalem
The line quoted above, from the holy poet Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, penetrates our very heart and soul. It is difficult if not impossible to come up with an alternative description as sharply and clearly drawn to describe the situation in which the sinner would find himself, if not for the possibility of teshuvah (repentance).
A fool will not understand why the sinner’s situation is comparable to that of a ship’s captain, on whose shoulder rests complete responsibility for his ship and all its passengers. When the captain faces a raging storm at sea which threatens to overwhelm the ship and sink it along with everything on board, he and his crew do everything in their power to save the ship. They make use of every trick they have picked up in their years of sailing. But when everything fails and they see that the end is near, the captain gathers together all the passengers and crew, and lets them know that within minutes they will all drown in the deep water. They will sink like lead to the bottom of the sea, they and the ship, and everything they own. The sharks and fish will feed off their flesh. Who can begin to imagine how awful every one of the passengers on the ship feels at that moment? Feeling even worse are those responsible for guiding the ship safely to shore. And feeling worst of all is the captain himself, responsible for the ship and all its passengers. These people entrusted their lives to him, and thus set sail on the ocean. They have no knowledge of the sea or its powerful waters, nor which direction might lead them to safety. They do not know how to guide the ship, nor how to battle a storm in the middle of the ocean. Now the captain realizes that he is unable to save them. He cannot even save himself. It is impossible to even imagine the intense and agonizing emotions at such a time (may God preserve us).
Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (of blessed memory) sets sail in his mind, and compares a sinner to this captain resigned to his fate. The sinner would be just like the captain if not for God’s statement, “Return to Me and I will return to you” – in other words, if not for teshuvah.
Many will wonder – what’s the big deal? Isn’t it a bit of an exaggeration to compare the sinner to a captain resigned to his fate? Isn’t the poet letting his imagination run away with him? But in truth, the only person who would wonder this is someone who has not thought about it deeply. He has not attempted to get to the root of the issue, to understand what sin is, how it works, and how far-reaching its effects are.
In contrast, the person who can understand it is someone who pays attention to what he does, thinks about his lifestyle, tries to clarify his role in the world, and is aware that he will be called to account for all his deeds.
Each person has a role to play. God created man for a purpose, granted him mastery over all of creation, and bestowed upon him amazing wisdom, deep insightfulness, and endless creativity. How could anyone possibly think that this was all given him just so that he could live for a few decades, then leave his wealth to others, while all his wisdom goes to waste, as if it never existed at all! Is this unique creation meant to be only temporary, with no ultimate purpose (God forbid)?
Fortunately, the Torah teaches us the wisdom and understanding to know that there is an ultimate purpose. Man’s purpose is not limited to the confines of this temporary world, which God created only for the short term. Each person passes a certain number of years here, like someone crossing a bridge in order to reach his destination. He has no intention of remaining on the bridge, and his stay there is temporary. So too, a person briefly passes over the “bridge” of this world. During the time that he has, he passes through the purifying forge established for each individual in accordance with the roots of his soul.
Accordingly, a person’s deeds should not be aimed at this-worldly purposes. Rather, he should be like a ladder which is rooted on earth, but whose top rungs reach towards heaven. A person is grounded on the earth, and functions here with material tools, but the ultimate purpose of these deeds is to reach up to heaven. If one’s deeds are good and proper, he is building skyscrapers in heaven. But if they are evil and corrupt (God forbid), he is causing destruction and ruin in heavenly terms.
If a person were able to comprehend what types of buildings he could construct with his good deeds, and even more so with his Torah study (whose reward is described as “No eye other than Yours, God, has ever seen it”), he would feel the unbelievably deep disappointment of lost and wasted opportunities. He would feel bad for not having taken advantage of the incredible opportunity given to him – life. Someone who makes proper use of life constructs his spiritual world – the eternal one –an everlasting structure with a unique design, a dynamic building which exists forever.
If someone wastes his opportunity, he has lost all this. He could have collected precious stones and unlimited pearls, namely the mitzvot which he does in this world, which become diamonds in the next world. Instead, he was lazy about it. He gathered wood and rocks, namely the desires of this world and its vanities. Instead of invaluable, large diamonds, he collected air and nothingness, things of no importance in the eternal world. Not only that, but one may be called to account for them if they involved prohibitions, and he will be fittingly punished as would be expected for transgressing His will.
The eye has not been granted permission to view even the smallest part of the destruction and ruination which improper deeds bring about. If one could do so, it would be easier to understand the vivid image that the holy poet draws with the line comparing a sinner lacking teshuvah to a captain resigned to his fate. In both cases, the destruction is great, absolute, and irremediable. One stands and sees what he has lost, knowing there is no way to fix it. His ship is sinking before his very eyes, and he cannot save it. He has lost not only himself, but multiple worlds. Therefore, the poet does not compare the sinner to one of the passengers going down with the ship. Rather, he compares him to the captain, on whose shoulders all the responsibility rests.
God created the universe and filled it with a seemingly infinite variety of animals and a tremendous number of plants. There is no end to the type of beings which He created. God entrusted all of this to each Jew, who was given the Torah. It is he who determines what will befall the worlds – goodness or destruction (God preserve us). The responsibility for all these worlds rest on his shoulders. He is the ship’s captain, the skipper. The comparison works perfectly.
Imagine a person who enters a control room at the Panama Canal, the waterway that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Because the water level changes significantly from one canal passage to the next, each “lock” (connecting section) features enormous gates which block the water passages. When a boat enters a lock, the gates are closed in order to raise or lower the water level to that of the next passage. When they open the enormous gates, millions of cubic feet of water spill out at once. The lock is built with a very clever design. The gates can be opened manually, via two small handles like the faucets on a sink. With a slight movement to the right the gates open, and with a slight movement to the left they close.
If an irresponsible person makes his way there and plays around with the controls, he can cause tremendous loss of life and property. Picture his closing them while a boat is entering or leaving a lock. He can kill hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people, and cause millions of dollars of damage. If this person were asked why he did what he did, he would likely reply with great surprise, “What did I do? I only turned a little handle. No big deal.” He has no idea that with his “little” action, he has caused death and destruction. So too, the sinner claims, “I only did something minor. I only said such-andsuch. It’s nothing.” He is unaware of and unable to understand the spiritual havoc he has wreaked. When they show him in heaven what damage he did, he will feel worse than the ship’s captain resigned to his fate.
Now we can understand why God created teshuvah before He created the world. For God knows what will happen in advance; He looked and predicted what the state of a person would be after sinning: “There is no one on earth who is so righteous that he does only good and never sins” (Kohelet 7:20). Without teshuvah, everything would be hopeless and uncorrectable. The world could not exist, because anyone who sinned would be liable to destruction. God would also not be long-suffering, since the meaning of “long-suffering” is providing time and opportunity for repentance. If there were no teshuvah, there would be no point to God’s being long-suffering.
Since God created teshuvah before creating the world, we see that without teshuvah there would have been no reason to create the world. For the world’s existence depends upon the ideal person who studies Torah and fulfills the will of God (Who created man and also brought into existence, formed, and created all the worlds). If man did not exist, then the entire universe would not exist. Therefore, God first created teshuvah – in order to enable man to exist, to study Torah, and to worship God. This in turn enables him to guarantee the world’s existence and settle it. “If not for My covenant day and night, I would not have made the fixed laws of heaven and earth” (Yirmiyahu 33:25).
We see that God did an unbelievable kindness for us by creating teshuvah. It allows someone who truly repents of his evil deeds, confesses to them, and resolves never to repeat them, to be granted Divine forgiveness. All his sins disappear like a cloud, as it is written: “I have swept away your sins like a cloud” (Yeshayahu 44:22). Furthermore, if the teshuvah is undertaken out of love for God, then his transgressions are transformed into merits. All of this falls outside the realm of justice and law. It is a result of God’s goodness, which He directs at us. This is an amazing kindness in its own right.
But God’s kindness extends even further. By creating teshuvah before creating the world, He provided the cure before the disease. For, God is forgiving, and His mercy knows no bounds. He is long-suffering towards the wicked and sinners, does not remain angry, and controls His wrath, because teshuvah exists and there is the chance that the sinner will repent and live. The prophet Yechezkel (may he rest in peace) spells this out: “As surely as I live, declares God, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Yechezkel 33:12). If not for God’s statement about teshuvah, “Return to Me and I will return to you,” waiting for the sinner to repent would not be relevant. Rather, he would be punished immediately (God preserve us).
With this we may be in a position to understand the following statement of our Sages: “Teshuvah is so great that it reaches all the way to God’s throne of glory , as it is written, ‘Return, Israel, to the Lord your God (Hoshea 14:2).” Why do the Sages use the phrase “to God’s throne”? After all, the prophet simply says, “to the Lord your God”!
Perhaps their point is the one that I have made above. Because of teshuvah, the world continues to exist. This is relevant to God’s throne, because that is where God judges His world. We say this in our prayers: “May You move from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy, and have mercy on Your people Israel.” Apparently the throne is where decisions are reached concerning the continued existence of the world. Since God desires life, is full of mercy, and wants the world to survive and not be destroyed, therefore teshuvah reaches all the way to the throne of glory, where the world and all its inhabitants are judged. Teshuvah reaches there in order to serve as defense counsel and advocate for the continued existence of the penitent who has done teshuvah and been purified, as well as on behalf of the whole world.
Now that God has created teshuvah and given it an exalted and sublime role, it is truly appalling if a person does not take advantage of it to purify himself. He will be called to account for this omission, in addition to being called to account for the commission of all the sins he has done. If he does not bother to purify himself, he will be held responsible for not having fulfilled the mitzvah of teshuvah. Even though God in His great mercy created it for the good of His servants, His handiwork, this person was stubborn and unwilling to make the efforts to take advantage of it, change his evil ways, and wipe out his sins.
How happy is someone who thinks about his lifestyle and examines his deeds. He is taking proper advantage of life, studying plenty of Torah and performing many mitzvot, building himself eternal buildings, taking advantage of God’s mercy towards His people, and making use of the most precious gift of all – teshuvah. It should never be far from him, day or night, at home or on the road, at every time and season. In everything that he does, he should never be unaware of it. May all his days be holy and all his deeds desirable before God. May he cling to God and His Torah always. After he completes the task which was designated for him in this world by the Creator, may he depart with tremendous spiritual treasure which will escort him and adorn him like graceful jewelry. May he go from strength to strength, perceiving the Face of God, with eternal bliss and everlasting light. May he enjoy the glory of the Divine Presence, behold the beauty of God, and dwell in His Palace.