“Nothing Stands in the Way of Teshuva!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As the parasha opens, G-d says to Moses, Exodus 10:1, בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה:  כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ , “Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn, so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.”

Rashi explains that G-d told Moses to go to Pharaoh to warn him that if he does not allow the people of Israel to leave, another plague, the plague of locust, would soon strike Egypt.

In Exodus 10:3, we see that Moses does exactly as instructed. Moses and Aaron both go to Pharaoh, and tell him, כֹּה אָמַר השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵי  הָעִבְרִים, עַד מָתַי מֵאַנְתָּ לֵעָנֹת מִפָּנָי; שַׁלַּח עַמִּי, וְיַעַבְדֻנִי , “So said the L-rd, G-d of the Hebrews: ‘Until when would you refuse to be humbled before Me? Send out My people so that they may serve Me.’”

G-d further declares, “For if you refuse to send My people forth, tomorrow I shall bring the locust swarm into your borders and cover the surface of the earth, so that no one will be able to see the earth, and it [the locust] will consume the remaining residue that was left to you by the hail. It will consume all the trees that will grow for you from the field. They [the locust] will fill your houses, the houses of your servants and the houses of all of Egypt, such as your fathers and your grandfathers have not seen from the day they came onto the earth until this day.”

At that point, Pharaoh’s servants, who are desperately frightened, beg him to let the people go so that Egypt would not be destroyed. Pharaoh, however, refuses to allow the Israelite children to leave with their parents, and proceeds to chase Moses and Aaron away. G-d then strikes Egypt with the eighth plague, the locust.

The issue that has long confounded the commentators is the question of Pharaoh’s free-will and his ability to repent.

In his Mishneh Torah, the Laws of Teshuva/Repentance, Maimonides lists 24 people who will not receive a share in the World to Come. However, if even these most wicked people repent before they die, they too will gain entry into the World to Come, since “Nothing can stand in the way of Teshuva.”

According to the great Maimonides, (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 3:14), even a person who denies G-d’s existence his entire life and repents only in his final moments can earn a share in the World to Come. Any wicked person or apostate who repents, whether privately or publicly, will be accepted. And even if that person is still somewhat rebellious, and repents in private rather than in public, their Teshuva will be accepted.

The Talmud in Brachot 10a, tells the story of King Hezekiah, who, when he took critically ill, was visited by the prophet Isaiah, who told him that not only would he die, but that he would also have no portion in the World to Come because he (Hezekiah) failed to participate in the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiply.

Hezekiah explained to Isaiah that he refrained from bearing children because he had received a vision that his children would be wicked. Isaiah told the king that he should not try to discern the secrets of G-d, but rather fulfill the mitzvah that G-d commanded him, since G-d will do as He pleases. Eventually, King Hezekiah takes Isaiah’s daughter for a wife, who bears two sons, Manasseh and Rabshakeh.

The righteous King Hezekiah did all he could to change the fate of his children by giving them a proper education, to no avail. Rabshakeh dies and Manasseh becomes one of the most evil kings in the history of the Jewish people.

The Midrash Sifre on Deuteronomy 6:5, cites the verses is Chronicles II 33:10-13, describing how the Assyrian king took Manasseh in chains, exiling him to Babylon.

The Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 10:2, describes the extent of Manasseh’s wickedness, that even when he was tortured, he refused to abandon his worship of idols. When he no longer could endure the torture, he remembered that his righteous father, Hezekiah, had taught him the Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 4:30), “When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you at the end of days, you shall return to the L-rd, your G-d, and hearken to His voice. For the L-rd your G-d is a merciful G-d, He will not abandon you, nor destroy you, and He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them.”

The Talmud relates that the angels in Heaven tried to seal off all the avenues of repentance for Manasseh. Yet, G-d dug a channel under the heavenly throne, allowing Manasseh to repent and return to Jerusalem and to his kingship.

If even the wicked King Manasseh could repent, how then could the doors of repentance be sealed for Pharaoh?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, explains that Pharaoh too could repent, and achieve forgiveness, but only if he underwent a total transformation.

This is the message that G-d sent through Moses to Pharaoh, when Moses said to Pharaoh in G-d’s name: “Until when will you refuse to be humble before Me?”

G-d had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, yet He continued to give Pharaoh the option to repent by humbling himself before G-d. However, if Pharaoh preferred to remain on his throne so he could be worshiped as the god of Egypt, G-d would continue to harden Pharaoh’s heart, and repentance for him impossible.

G-d knew that Pharaoh had the ability to humble himself. The only question was, how long it would take Pharaoh to finally do so. True Teshuva is not remorse for a specific transgression. It is much more, as is indicated in the High Holiday prayer in which we declare, “Behold, I am before You like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation” (Talmud Brachot 17a, the prayer of Rabbah). It is only when we humble ourselves, entirely and completely, that G-d enables the truly penitent to do Teshuva, even for the sins about which we are told atonement is impossible.

A fascinating Midrash in Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer maintains that Pharaoh eventually did do Teshuva. The Book of Jonah 3:6, reports that Jonah’s appeal to the king of Nineveh and the people of Nineveh to repent, was met by the king’s total contrition, “He rose from his throne removed his robe from upon himself, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes.” The Midrash states that the king of Nineveh was none other than Pharaoh (some say a reincarnation of Pharaoh).

Nothing stands in the way of Teshuva. The choice to repent is never taken away from anyone.

May you be blessed.