Failure to Escape

PrisonRabbeinu Yonah, zt”l, teaches a lesson of teshuvah from a statement on today’s daf. “One who repeats one sin ten times has transgressed ten sins. We learn this from a nazir. A nazir gets a separate spate of lashes for every time he drank wine if the witnesses warned him before each drink.

“Even for a person who keeps the entire Torah, there is often at least one sin that he violates without much inhibition. He acts as though this sin is no sin at all. Even if this lax attitude extended to only one sin that would be serious enough. But most people have many areas that they do not take seriously. Some say the Name of heaven in vain. Others are not careful that their hands or the place they are in be clean before they say God’s Name. Some turn a blind eye to the poor, or one’s weakness may be slander, baseless hatred or arrogance. Or it may that he gazes at the forbidden. And laxness in the hardest mitzvah to fulfill properly is all too common: Torah study which counts like the entire Torah.

“It is therefore proper for every ba’al teshuvah to write down his flaws and mistakes and read this book every day. In that manner he will surely repent.”

Rabbeinu Yonah provides a famous parable on the importance of teshuvah. “This is likened to people who were jailed and managed to dig a tunnel out of their cell. Everyone escaped except one man. When the jailor noticed the tunnel and that everyone had escaped he began beating the man. ‘You fool! Why didn’t you take the opportunity and escape like everyone else?’”

When the Chiddushei HaRim, zt”l, quoted this Rabbeinuu Yonah he taught a brilliant lesson. “We see that failing to do teshuvah is worse than sinning in the first place!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Get Out of Jail”
Chullin 82

How interesting. If sin is putting yourself in jail, then teshuvah, the process of turning from sin back to God, is escaping from jail. We don’t normally consider a jailbreak in a positive, moral light, but think about it. If you are put in jail as the consequence of committing a crime, you wait passively. There is little or nothing you can do to secure your release except to wait for time to pass and your sentence to be up. You do not participate in your redemption in any way.

On the other hand, a jailbreak is an active process. It requires planning, gathering the right tools and, in some cases, organizing the different roles required for the escape with other people. You aren’t simply going to be released just because you’re waiting around. You actually have to do something about it. So it is with the process of repentence. So it is with the activity of making teshuvah. It won’t happen unless you take an active part.

But as in Rabbeinu Yonah’s parable, there will always be those people who, for whatever reason, continue to allow themselves to be imprisoned when they could have escaped and become free again. Failure to make amends, to repent, to turn from sin, and return to God is worse than the sin that landed you in jail in the first place.

But there’s more.

Both Passover and bringing of the first fruits are times when we must recognize our blessings and their origin. They say “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but foxholes are a lousy place to get religion! The Torah wants us to develop a connection with happiness and love, rather than fear. The curses found in this week’s reading only come about “because you did not serve HaShem your G-d with joy and a good heart, from an abundance of all.” [Deuteronomy 28:47]

-Rabbi Yaakov Menkin
Director, Project Genesis

This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about the mystery of “joy”. About six months ago, I wrote something called Failing Joy 101. By nature, I’m not a continuously happy or joyous person. I don’t walk around with a smile on my face all the time. I don’t always approach the day with boundless enthusiasm. I even sometimes find people who really are cheerful all the time as kind of annoying. And yet we have this. Not only are we to stage a jailbreak when we are incarcerated within sin, but essentially, we’re to do so with a song of joy in our hearts.

And if we don’t, it’s a sin. It’s sin that gets us in jail in the first place. It’s sin that keeps us in jail when we could escape. And it’s sin, even when we escape, if we don’t do so joyfully.

I think I’m getting a headache.

Joyous enthusiasm is the child of inspiration. It is the emotional elixir that galvanizes, energizes, electrifies our lives. It empowers us to move mountains and make impossible dreams come true. Without joy, we plod mechanically toward our goals, seeking relief rather than fulfillment, but with joy we soar toward glittering mountaintops.

Clearly then, joy is a critical factor in our service of the Creator. It infuses every observance, every prayer, every moment of study with a divine energy that brings us that much closer to our Father in Heaven. One of the Chassidic masters once said, “Joy is not a commandment, but no commandment can accomplish what joy can.”

But what if a person cannot achieve joy? What if a person is overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of life and is unable to free his spirit and let it soar? Surely, he does not deserve to be condemned and chastised for this failure. Surely, he should continue to serve the Creator to the best of his ability even if his efforts are less than inspired.

-Rabbi Naftali Reich
“The Little Voice”
Commentary on Parshas Ki Savo

DespairIt’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who thinks about these things. Rabbi Reich goes on to say, “Some commentators resolve this perplexing problem homiletically. They read the verse as follows, ‘Because you did not serve Hashem your Lord – with joy.’ It is not the absence of joy which is deserving of punishment but rather the presence of inappropriate joy.’

Let’s go back to the inmate who refused to escape from jail. Why wouldn’t he leave? Why stay in sin…unless he liked it there.

I don’t know if Rabbi Reich is reaching a little too far for a solution, but it is one that we could consider. As the Rabbi says, it’s “one thing to fall short in the service of Hashem, to fall victim to the weakness of the flesh. But it is quite another to revel in sinfulness, to delight in the saccharine juices of forbidden fruit.” So the absence of joy in our acts committed for the service of the Creator may not be desirable, that’s not where our sin lies.

A king was angry with his son for neglecting his princely duties. He decided to discipline him by banishing him incognito to a remote village.

When the prince arrived in the village of his banishment, he was mortified. The place was a collection of rude huts without the most basic comforts and refinements of polite society. There were no books or works of art for miles around. The people were vulgar and ignorant. The stench in the streets was overpowering.

A year passed, and the king began to reconsider his decree of banishment against the young prince. But first he sent spies to see how the prince was faring.

The spies arrived in the village, but it was a while before they located the prince sitting among a group of peasants in a barnyard. The once handsome and elegant young prince was filthy and dressed in vermin-infested rags. He was stuffing his face with half raw meat, the red juices running down his chin. Every few minutes, he would roar with laughter at one or another of the coarse peasant stories that were being bandied about. The spies immediately returned to the palace to report on what they had seen.

When the king heard their report, he wept. “If my son is happy among the peasants, he will never be a prince.”

The parable quoted from Rabbi Reich’s commentary tells the same story as Rabbeinu Yonah’s parable. Two men were sentenced to isolation from the world of faith and hope for a certain time. The intent was to teach them, in their misery, that they should desire to return to their former lives and learn appreciation for what was temporarily denied them. Instead, we find that the opposite happened. Both men learned to become accustomed to their life of depravity and sinfulness. I suspect both men lost hope because without hope, there can never be joy.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. –Philippians 4:12-13

I suspect that Paul could write these words with sincerity because he had hope in Jesus. It was a hope that transcended circumstances and became interwoven with the very fabric of his being. It is a hope that only true trust and faith in God can create and nurture. Knowing God exists provides a certain amount of comfort. Having absolute trust in Him, regardless of your situation is where one discovers faith, hope, and finally, joy.

While we are expected to somehow just “have” these treasures, they don’t simply lie along the common path, like wildflowers growing out of the gravel. Digging an escape tunnel doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of effort. So, for at least some of us, does the search for the fruits of the spirit.

If we have no joy in our hearts, we deny the love of God. We should not say, “Our heart is the dwelling place of lust, jealousy, anger; there is no hope for us.” Let us realize that we have another guest in us who desires to give us life and joy, notwithstanding our sin.

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

There’s another reason why the prisoner might choose not to escape; not due to any attraction to or love of sin, but because of the futility of hoping that any escape would be permanent or even long lived. Perhaps the son of David was right after all.

The road

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

One thought on “Failure to Escape”

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