Hope for the Elderly
Chapter 3, Law 14(b)
"When is it the case that all of these [people] have no share in the World
to Come? When they die without repentance ('teshuva'). But if [such a
person] repents from his wickedness and dies as a repenter ('ba'al teshuva'
-- lit., 'master of repentance'), he is among the ones who receive [a share
in] the World to Come. For you have nothing which stands in the way of
teshuva. Even if one denied G-d (lit., 'the Primary') all his days and at
the end repents, he has a portion, as it is stated, 'Peace ('shalom')!
peace! to the far one and the near one, says G-d, and I will heal him'
"All wicked people, wanton sinners, apostates, and the like who return via
teshuva, whether openly or in the recesses [of their hearts], [the heavenly
court] accepts them, as it is stated, 'Return wayward children' (Jeremiah
3:22). Even though the [person referred to] is still 'wayward' -- for he
returned only secretly and not openly, they accept his repentance."
We are now up to the Rambam's final point in this chapter. After listing the
most heinous types of sinners who lose their share in the World to Come, the
Rambam concludes on a more positive note. He states that nothing stands in
the way of repentance. Even the worst sinner, who vehemently denied the
existence of G-d his entire life, can still return. G-d awaits his
repentance till the very last moment. He created the world for the express
purpose of granting man the opportunity of coming close to Him. And He waits
till man's final moments to give him that chance.
The Rambam made a very similar point earlier, in Chapter 2, Law
1. There he stated that true repentance is being in precisely the same
situation as when one sinned in the past and even so not repeating. For
example, if one sinned with a woman and later finds himself in the exact
same setting with the same person and they feel the same about each other,
and even so he resists, he is a true repenter. (See our discussion there --
one should most certainly not test his new resolve by recreating the scene
of the crime.) To that the Rambam concluded that even though such is the
ideal repentance, if one repents in his old age when he can no longer do the
same sins he used to, it is considered repentance and his sins are forgiven.
At first glance, it appeared to me that the Rambam was repeating himself,
restating a point he made once before -- perhaps in order to end so
cheerless a chapter on a more upbeat note. However, when we consider these
passages more carefully, their messages are actually rather different.
In 2:1 the Rambam was discussing physical sins, people who succumb to the
desires (or the laziness) of their flesh. Regarding that, certainly the
ideal repentance is done when one still possesses his desires and abilities.
Nevertheless, concludes the Rambam, even if a person repents after he is old
and infirm, when his body is too frail to engage in any of the sins which
earlier occupied him, his teshuva is still worthy.
In a way, such repentance is quite easy to come by. When we are no longer in
the grips of our lusts and desires, it is easy to see that the flesh was
really not all that important. Our body was a decaying animal all along. It
today is frail and failing while we -- our souls -- are still alive and
vibrant. And it is easy once that stage of life arrives (or is seen
approaching) to recognize that our bodies never really were who *we* are. As
we all see when we age, what truly matters to us in the long term are the
important things in life -- our families, relationships, spiritual standing
-- not our biceps, our hair, our popularity, or our physical abilities. They
were at best some of the external gifts G-d granted us; they were never
*us*. As we age our values and priorities in life slowly change and mature.
What we ran after years back we recognize now as a waste of the youthful
energy we wish we still possessed.
(As an aside, even for such repentance a person requires some appreciation
of spirituality. The Talmud states that the older a Torah scholar gets, the
wiser he gets, while the older an ignoramus ('ahm ha'aretz') gets, the
crazier he gets (Shabbos 152a). The meaning, as my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
explained, is that as the Torah scholar ages, he is less ruled by his
passions and devotes himself more fully to wisdom and spirituality. The
ignoramus, however, who only appreciated the superficial and the
pleasurable, the less he is capable of indulging, the more crazy he becomes
with unfulfilled cravings.)
Thus, the main point of the Rambam earlier was not that a person will repent
when he is older -- but that G-d *accepts* it. "Sure, *now* you recognize
the futility of it all! Sure, *now* you know better! After you lived it up
and wasted your entire youth, you all of a sudden realize it was all for
And you know something, if I were G-d (fortunately for us all, I'm not), I'm
not sure I'd be so merciful. Such repentance is almost obscene, an insult!
G-d challenged us in our youths, we utterly failed, and now when the test is
long over we ask for clemency. As the Rambam quoted King Solomon there, "And
remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the bad days come,
and the years arrive of which you will say 'I have no desire for them'"
(Ecclesiastes 12:1). Repenting now almost misses the point -- and to be
honest I really don't envy someone in that situation.
Yet as the Rambam (and Scripture) attest, our all-merciful G-d does accept
such teshuva. Ideal it certainly is not, yet it is better than nothing. And
in this game -- in the game of life -- any positive act helps. G-d accepts
*any* repentance. So long as we are alive, of sane mind, and really mean it,
it is never too late.
Now we turn to this week's law, and here the Rambam is making an entirely
different point. The types of sinners the Rambam listed in the previous
paragraphs were generally not hedonistic sinners, wrapped up in their
indulgences. They were heretics, agnostics, or big-time transgressors. And
when we think about it, old age will not be an incentive for them to repent.
If anything it will make it harder.
If your sin was physical, as your body ages you will realize the futility
and pointlessness of idolizing your body. It was never you and was never
anything worth serving.
If, however, you've convinced yourself G-d did not give Israel the Torah at
Sinai (when we think of it, that requires an irrational leap of faith --
even today -- but for another time), age will not change that. And the
opposite: The older we are, the more set we are in our ways, and the harder
it is to get ourselves to rethink our beliefs and change.
I have a very wise rule in life never to argue with anyone 20 years older
than I. We all know how pointless that is -- and yes, we've all learned that
from experience. Older people are generally less willing or interested in
reassessing life with fresh eyes and starting anew -- and they're certainly
not going to put up with being lectured to by some still-wet-behind-the-ears
young punk. Such people are who they are -- and very few forces on this
earth can do anything about that.
In a deeper sense, a person's beliefs and values are part of his definition
of his "self". This is who *I* am. Changing one's dearly-held notions --
even if they were never really thought out or just picked up from who knows
where in the long-forgotten past -- is almost doing an amputation. Telling
me that what I believed for the last 60 years is false is asking me to
recant my entire past. I have to begin again in my final years. Very few
people are capable of doing that. Our physical bad habits we may be able to
slowly outgrow, but our beliefs usually accompany us to the grave.
Regarding this, the Rambam makes a similar but different point. First of
all, repentance even there is accepted. Even though one may think he is not
really disassociating himself from his past with a simple admission, even
that is worthwhile. You may not be so sure yourself that you truly believe,
but you know something? Deep down you do. We all know there is a G-d who
created us and who wants us to cleave to Him. A well-known axiom of life is
that there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole. Likewise, when our
life is ebbing away and we know the chips are down, we will reach out to the
G-d we know exists. We know He is there waiting, and our mere admission of
His existence and our allegiance to Him may make all the difference.
The Rambam then goes one step further -- and this really hits the proverbial
nail on the head. The Rambam states that in this case even repentance in the
recesses of one's heart is efficacious. You're too proud and too convinced
of yourself to openly admit you were wrong all these years? At least accept
it in your heart. You may not be able to say it out loud, but at least say
Ever been in an argument with someone (like your wife), when you know he or
she really is right but you just cannot come out and admit it? So you save
face and somehow weasel your way out of the situation. But hopefully we are
all mature enough to admit at least later, to ourselves, that we were really
wrong. Our deathbeds are no time for pride and stubbornness. G-d knows how
hard it is to openly admit our errors and recant our beliefs. And so, in
this one time, He goes even further: He accepts even the penitent thoughts
in our hearts.
But the idea is even deeper. G-d asks for a soul connection with Him -- in
your innermost thoughts -- because in a sense that's really what it's all
about. You may have doubted and denied Judaism your entire life. Your very
soul questioned G-d's existence. Yet, as Sages know and the Rambam here
attests, there is an even deeper place within your soul which knew it all
along. And perhaps when you're in pain, in your dying moments, you can sever
yourself from your "outer" soul -- the thoughts and beliefs you covered
yourself with during the good times. You can peel off those layers of
confusion and apathy, and in your final moments, get in touch with whom you
truly are beneath. You know there is a G-d, you know He loves and cares for
you. You know He is rooting for you to mend your ways till your very last
breath. And when all is said and done, when there is nothing left but to
return your soul to your Creator, you may just reach out and find Him.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org