The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
The Day of Atonement.
The hearts of all who fear God should tremble with the reflection that all the deeds of the creature are known to the Creator, and will be by Him accounted to them for good or evil. God is ready at all times to acknowledge true penitence; and of repentance there are seven degrees:
First, The righteous man, who repents his misconduct as soon as he becomes aware of his sin. This is the best and most complete.
Secondly, Of the man who has for some time led a life of sin, yet who, in the vigour of his days, gives over his evil ways and conquers his wrong inclinations. As Solomon has said, "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youthful vigour" (Eccl. 12), While in the prime of life abandon thy evil ways.
Thirdly, Of the one who was prevented by some cause from the commission of a contemplated sin, and who truly
repents his evil intention. "Happy is the man who fears the Lord," said the Psalmist. The man, not the woman? Aye, all mankind. The word is used to denote strength; those who repent while still in their youth.
Fourthly, Of the one who repents when his sin is pointed out to him, and he is rebuked for the same, as in the instance of the inhabitants of Nineveh. They repented not until Jonah proclaimed to them, "Yet forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (Jonah 3: 4). The men of Nineveh believed in God's mercy, and though the decree had been pronounced against them, yet they repented. "And God saw their work, that they had returned from their evil ways, and God bethought Himself of the evil which He had spoken that He would do to them, and He did it not." Therefore say the Rabbis, "Our brethren, neither sackcloth nor fasting will gain forgiveness for sins; but repentance of the heart and good deeds; for it is not said of the men of Nineveh, "God saw their fasting and sackcloth," but "God saw their work, that they had turned from their evil ways."
Fifthly, Of those who repent when trouble befalls them. How much nobler is this than human nature! Instance Jephtah: "Did ye not hate me . . . . and why are ye come unto me now when you are in distress?" (Judges 11: 8). But the infinite mercy of our God accepts even such repentance; as it is written, "When thou art in tribulation, and all these things have overtaken thee . . . . then wilt thou return unto the Lord thy God." Founded upon this is the proverb of the fathers, "Repentance and good deed, form a shield against punishment."
Sixthly, The repentance of age. Even when man grows old and feeble, if he repents truly, his atonement will be received. As the Psalmist says, "Thou turnest man to
contrition, and sayest, 'Return, ye children of men.'" Meaning, man can return at any time or any age, "Return, ye children of men."
Say the Rabbis, "Although a man has been righteous in his youth and vigour, yet if he rebels against the will of God in his old age, the merit of his former goodness shall be lost to him, as it is written, 'When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and doeth wrong, and dieth therefor; through his wrong which he hath done must he die' (Ezekiel 18: 26). But a man who has been wicked in his early days, and feels true sorrow and penitence in his old age, shalt not be called 'wicked' any more. This, however, is not gracious penitence when it is so long delayed."
Seventhly, Is the last degree of penitence. Of the one who is rebellious against his Creator during all the days of his life; turns to Him only when the hand of death is laid upon him.
Say the Rabbis, if a person is sick, and the hour of his decease approaches, they who are by his deathbed should say to him, "Confess thy sins to thy Creator."
They who are near the point of death should confess their shortcomings. The sick man is as the man who is before a court of justice. The latter may have advocates to defend him or laud his case, but the only advocates of the former must be penitence and good deeds. As is written in the Book of Job (33: 23), "If there be now about him one single angel as defender, one out of a thousand, to tell for man his uprightness; then is he gracious unto him, and saith, 'Release him from going down to the pit; I have found an atonement.'"
Thus we have seven different degrees of penitence, and he who neglects them all must suffer in the world to come.
[paragraph continues] Therefore fulfil the duties laid upon you; repent as long as you are able to amend. As the Rabbis say, "Repent in the antechamber, that thou mayest enter the room of state."
"Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; wherefore will ye die, O house of Israel!" exclaimed the prophet Ezekiel; and what does this warning mean? without repentance ye shall die.
Penitence is thus illustrated by a parable:
There was once a great ship which had been sailing for many days upon the ocean. Before it reached its destination, a high wind arose, which drove it from its course; until, finally, becalmed close to a pleasant-appearing island, the anchor was dropped. There grew upon this island beautiful flowers and luscious fruits in "great profusion;" tall trees lent a pleasing, cooling shade to the place, which appeared to the ship's passengers most desirable and inviting. They divided themselves into five parties; the first party determined not to leave the ship, for said they, "A fair wind may arise, the anchor may be raised, and the ship sail on, leaving us behind; we will not risk the chance of missing our destination for the temporary pleasure which this island offers." The second party went on shore for a short time, enjoyed the perfume of the flowers, tasted of the fruit, and returned to the ship happy and refreshed, finding their places as they had left them; losing nothing, but rather gaining in health and good spirits by the recreation of their visit on shore. The third party also visited the island, but they stayed so long that the fair wind did arise, and hurrying back they just reached the ship as the sailors were lifting the anchor, and in the haste and confusion many lost their places, and were not as comfortable during the balance of their voyage as at the outset. They were
wiser, however, than the fourth party; these latter stayed so long upon the island and tasted so deeply of its pleasures, that they allowed the ship's bell of warning to sound unheeded. Said they, "The sails are still to be set; we may enjoy ourselves a few minutes more." Again the bell sounded, and still they lingered, thinking, "The captain will not sail without us." So they remained on shore until they saw the ship moving; then in wild haste they swam after it and scrambled up the sides, but the bruises and injuries which they encountered in so doing were not healed during the remainder of the voyage. But, alas, for the fifth party. They ate and drank so deeply that they did not even hear the bell, and when the ship started they were left behind. Then the wild beasts hid in the thickets made of them a prey, and they who escaped this evil, perished from the poison of surfeit.
The "ship" is our good deeds, which bear us to our destination, heaven. The "island" typifies the pleasures of the world, which the first set of passengers refused to taste or look upon, but which when enjoyed temperately, as by the second party, make our lives pleasant, without causing us to neglect our duties. These pleasures must not be allowed, however, to gain too strong a hold upon our senses. True, we may return, as the third party, while there is yet time and but little bad effect, or even as the fourth party at the eleventh hour, saved, but with bruises and injuries which cannot be entirely healed; but we are in danger of becoming as the last party, spending a lifetime in the pursuit of vanity, forgetting the future, and perishing even of the poison concealed in the sweets which attracted us.
Who hath sorrow? Who hath woe?
He who leaves much wealth to his heirs, and takes with him to the grave a burden of sins. He who gathers wealth
without justice. "He that gathereth riches and not by right (Jer. 8: 11), in the midst of his days shall he leave them." To the portals of eternity his gold and his silver cannot accompany the soul of man; good deeds and trust in God must be his directing spirits.
Although God is merciful and pardons the sins of man against Himself; he who has wronged his neighbour must gain that neighbour's forgiveness before he can claim the mercy of the Lord. "This must ye do," said Rabbi Eleazer, "that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord (Lev. 16: 30). The Day of Atonement may gain pardon for the sins of man against his Maker, but not for those against his fellow-man, till every wrong done is satisfied."
If a man is called upon to pardon his fellow, freely he must do it; else how can he dare, on the Day of Atonement, to ask pardon for his sins against the Eternal? It is customary on this day for a man to thoroughly cleanse himself bodily and spiritually, and to array himself in white fresh clothing, to typify the words of Isaiah, "Though your sins should be as scarlet, they shall become white as snow."
It happened that the mayor of a city once sent his servant to the market to purchase some fish. When he reached the place of sale he found that all the fish save one had been sold, and this one a Jewish tailor was about purchasing. Said the mayor's servant, "I will give one gold piece for it;" said the tailor, "I will give two." The mayor's messenger then expressed his willingness to pay three gold pieces for it, but the tailor claimed the fish, and said he would not lose it though he should be obliged to pay ten gold pieces for it. The mayor's servant then returned home, and in anger related the circumstance to his master.
[paragraph continues] The mayor sent for his subject, and when the latter appeared before him asked:
"What is thy occupation?"
"A tailor, sir," replied the man.
"Then how canst thou afford to pay so great a price for a fish, and how dare degrade my dignity by offering for it a larger sum than that offered by my servant?"
"I fast to-morrow," replied the tailor, "and I wished the fish to eat to-day, that I might have strength to do so. I would not have lost it even for ten pieces of gold."
"What is to-morrow more than any other day?" asked the mayor.
"Why art thou more than any other man?" returned the other.
"Because the king hath appointed me to this office."
"Well," replied the tailor, "the King of kings hath appointed this day to be holier than all other days, for on this day we hope that God will pardon our transgressions."
"If this be the case thou wert right," answered the mayor, and the Israelite departed in peace.
Thus if a person's intention is to obey God, nothing can hinder its accomplishment. On this day God commanded His children to fast, but they must strengthen their bodies to obey him by eating on the day before. It is a person's duty to sanctify himself; bodily and spiritually, for the approach of this great day. He should be ready to enter at any moment into the Fearful Presence with repentance and good deeds as his companions.
A certain man had three friends. One of these he loved dearly; the second he loved also, but not as intensely as the first; but towards the third one he was quite indifferently disposed.
Now the king of the country sent an officer to this man,
commanding his immediate appearance before the throne. Greatly terrified was the man at this summons. He thought that somebody had been speaking evil of him, or probably accusing him falsely before his sovereign, and being afraid to appear unaccompanied before the royal presence, he resolved to ask one of his friends to go with him. First he naturally applied to his dearest friend, but he at once declined to go, giving no reason and no excuse for his lack of friendliness. So the man applied to his second friend, who said to him:
"I will go with thee as far as the palace gates, but I will not enter with thee before the king."
In desperation the man applied to his third friend, the one whom he had neglected, but who replied to him at once:
"Fear not; I will go with thee, and I will speak in thy defence. I will not leave thee until thou art delivered from thy trouble."
The "first friend" is a man's wealth, which he must leave behind him when he dies. The "second friend" is typified by the relatives who follow him to the grave and leave him when the earth has covered his remains. The "third friend," he who entered with him into the presence of the king, is as the good deeds of a man's life, which never desert, but accompany him to plead his cause before the King of kings, who regardeth not person nor taketh bribery.
Thus taught Rabbi Eleazer:
"On this great and tearful day the angel Samal finds no blots, no sins on Israel." Thus he addresses the Most High:
"'O Sovereign Lord, upon the earth this day one nation pure and innocent exists. Even as the angels is Israel on this Atonement Day. As peace exists in heaven, so rests it now upon this people, praying to Thy Holy Name.'
"God hears this testimony of His angel, and pardons all His people's sins."
But though the Almighty thus forgives our sins, we may not repeat them with impunity, for "to such a one as saith, 'I will commit a sin and repent,' there can be no forgiveness, no repentance."