Hashem appeared in the Tent, in a cloud pillar, and the cloud pillar
stood at the entrance of the Tent. Hashem said to Moshe, "Behold you will
lie with your forefathers; this nation will arise and stray after the gods
of the foreigners of the Land, in whose midst he comes. They will abandon
Me, and break the covenant I have sealed with them. My anger will blaze
against them on that day. I will forsake them. I will conceal My face from
them, and they will be consumed. Many bad things and troubles will befall
them. On that day, they will say, 'Is it not because my G-d is not in my
midst that these troubles have befallen me?' And I will [further] conceal
my face from them on that day... (31: 16-18)
Aside from their ominous undertone, the above verses are troublesome for
another reason: It seems that at some point the nation recognizes its
wrongdoings, and acknowledges it has strayed from Hashem. "On that day,
they will say, 'Is it not because my G-d is not in my midst that these
troubles have befallen me?'" Instead of reconciliation, their words seem
to distance them even further: "And I will conceal my face from them on
that day..." The concept of teshuva, the validity of repentance, is
reinforced numerous times in the Torah, most notably at the beginning of
this week's double-parsha: "It will be, when all these things come upon
you, the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you, and you
will take it to heart, amidst all the nations Hashem, your G-d, has
dispersed you. You will return to Hashem, your G-d, and listen to His
voice..." (30:1-2) The Torah goes on to promise that Hashem will accept
our teshuva, bring us back to our Land, once again make us prosperous,
etc. Yet here Hashem is angered by our attempt at acknowledgement—one of
the crucial facets of repentance.
In the introduction to his treatise on teshuva, Sha'arei Teshuva, Rabbeinu
Yona writes: "One of the great kindnesses Hashem, blessed is He, did with
His creations was to prepare a way for them to elevate themselves from
their misdeeds, and escape the trap of sin. To raise themselves from the
depths, and remove His anger from them: He taught them to return to Him if
they sin... And even if they have sinned gravely and continuously, and
rebelled against Hashem, He never closes the doors of teshuva on them...
as it is written, (Yirmiyah 3:22), "Return, wayward children..."
It is strange that Rabbeinu Yona uses this verse to prove that, "He never
closes the doors of teshuva." The famous teacher of Rabbi Meir, Elisha ben
Avuyah, also known as Acheir, abandoned the Torah. Rabbi Meir was
devastated by losing his Rebbe, and having to see him in such a sorry
state; he exhausted himself in his efforts to convince him to repent.
During one of his attempts, Acheir told him, "What do you want? You want
me to repent? Forget it. I already heard a heavenly voice, from 'behind
the curtain,' announce, 'Return, wayward children—except Acheir.'"
The Gemara would not record Acheir's retort were it not true. This
presents us with two difficulties: 1) Rabbeinu Yona's assertion that it is
a basic tenet of teshuva that the possibility to repent can not be
revoked. 2) The verse that Rabbeinu Yona quotes in proof that "it's never
too late" is the very same verse Acheir heard telling him not to bother.
Imagine a rebbe (teacher) who has been blessed with the world's-most-
difficult talmid (student). The rebbe is a fantastic rebbe with endless
(okay almost endless) patience, and has put up with a ridiculous amount of
disruption, audacity, and outright chutzpah. There have been punishments,
threats, reward programs; all for naught. The rebbe sees not only a
difficult talmid; his classroom is falling apart. He realizes that if he
doesn't put his foot down now, he will lose all control, the inmates will
run the asylum, and there is no chance that anyone will learn anything
more this year.
After a particularly difficult episode, he pulls what he hopes is his
trump card. "That's it," he says, his voice shaking with
indignation. "That is the last time you are going to ruin this for
everyone. Mark my word: You have 0 chances. If you disturb, disrupt, or
misbehave again, today, tomorrow, or next week, you're out. I've never
kicked a talmid out of yeshiva before, but if you can't control yourself,
you don't deserve to be here anymore."
The classroom was silent. Not one boy doubted the rebbe meant it
seriously; not even the troublemaker. And it was clear to them, and
perhaps even to him, that he was right. He had already been given far too
many chances; there had to be and end-of-the-line somewhere, and now they
knew where it was.
Amazingly, there was a change. Class-clown suddenly knew how to behave. He
sat quietly, tried his best to listen, and refused to disturb in any way.
This went on for the better part of a week. Good things though often come
to an end, and at some point his model behaviour began to deteriorate, at
first slightly, but then more rapidly. The kids sensed things would soon
come to an edge. It was clear that Mr. Difficult was soon going to be back
to his disruptive self.
Something or another finally got under the rebbe's skin. He had not
forgotten his threat. "Out!" He bellowed. "Get out of my classroom, and
don't come back. Find yourself another yeshiva; you're not welcome here
any more." The kid started walking out of the classroom. "Where are you
going? Don't just leave. Take your books, your Gemara, your jacket, your
yo-yo, your sling-shot—everything. I meant what I said; I can't help you.
You can't come back."
The next morning, to the class' great surprise, there he was outside the
building with a Gemara in his hands. The speculation was his father had
threatened the menahel (principal) and they were letting him come back.
But when the yeshiva doors opened, he did not enter. This was even
The same thing played itself out the following day. There he was, with a
Gemara, but he didn't enter the building—he didn't even try—and he didn't
talk to anyone. On the third day, someone happened to notice movement by
the classroom window, and nonchalantly strolled over to get a better look.
Yes. There he was, sitting directly below the window, with a Gemara,
listening intently to the rebbe's shiur (lecture). Word spreads quickly in
a classroom, and soon all the kids were in on the secret.
The rebbe noticed that everyone was finding excuses to stroll past the
window. Curious, he discreetly walked by himself. Not letting on, the
rebbe got a peak at what everyone else was looking at. He let things be,
and went on teaching.
This went on for about a week. Every day the rebbe would check, and there
he was, listening intently, without even momentarily removing his gaze
from the page they were studying. It was astonishing. No longer able to
resist, he waited until the class emptied out one recess, went to the
window, and called the boy over. "What are you doing here? You probably
think I'm going to take pity on you and let you back in the class."
"So then what are you doing here—what are you trying to accomplish?"
"I am just trying to understand the Gemara. After you threw me out, I did
a lot of thinking, and I realized how foolish I had been. Too bad for me
that it's too late—I know you can't let me back in class. Well you can
kick me out of class, and rightly so, but you can't stop me from learning
Torah. So I decided I'd learn Torah even if I'm not in class."
"My son," the rebbe said, tears welling in his eyes, "nothing you could
have argued would have convinced me to let you come back. But instead of
arguing, you have touched my soul with your pure desire to study Torah.
It's never too late; come back in class."
"On that day, they will say, 'Is it not because my G-d is not in my midst
that these troubles have befallen me?'" They will despair. They will say
in their hearts, "We deserve no better; there is nothing more to be done.
We have been thrown out of our Land, and cast from before Hashem. We lost
In a sense, they are right. "My anger will blaze against them on that day.
I will forsake them. I will conceal My face from them." Hashem, as it
were, wants nothing to do with them. He has tossed them away. Yet they
might have done like the small boy. They might have stood themselves
quietly in a corner, opened a siddur, and poured their hearts out to
Hashem. "Hashem can refuse to listen to our prayers. But that doesn't stop
us from praying and repenting. As long as He allows our neshamos (souls)
to remain in our bodies, we may use our life-breath to pray and praise
In truth, teshuva can never be rejected, even when a heavenly voice says
otherwise. This would have been the correct response, for them and for
Acheir [Agra D'pirka]. In absence of it, there can only be further
distance. "And I will conceal my face from them on that day..." Or as the
Agra D'pirka puts it, paraphrasing a Gemara (Pesachim 86b), "Everything
the Boss says to do you should listen, except if He says, "Leave."