tears of repentance

Repentance and Forgiveness in the Face of Tragedy

Even if a sharp sword rests upon a man’s neck he should not desist from prayer.

Berachos 10a

In the history of the Jewish people there were many times that could be called “lost opportunities.” Such opportunities existed, for example, before the sin of the Golden Calf, before the Jewish people entered the land, as well as during the times of Kings Saul and Solomon. Yet, the opportunity faded or did not turn into what it could have been.

-by Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
from “Hezekiah: The Messiah Who Was Not”

I think just about anyone can be put in a situation where they feel helpless and hopeless. Even the most faithful Christian, Jew, or other religious person can face a crisis that tests their faith and trust. Sometimes that situation is the consequence of sin. Other times, it is just a life occurrence.

I’m reminded of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with brain cancer and chose to commit assisted suicide. Her diagnosis was terminal and she was given a scant six months to live. There have been a lot of arguments for and against her decision, however, I’m not writing to debate the choice she made. Suicide, at least in the case of an intelligent, mentally and emotionally capable individual, is often an attempt to take control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation. Brittany was going to die a terrible death and there was absolutely nothing she or anyone else could do about it…

…except preempt the conclusion by dying sooner and by different and more merciful means.

The sword was at her neck. But unlike the aphorism from Talmud which I quoted above, she chose to desist from prayer, if she had prayed at all, and allowed the “sword” to fall, so to speak.

Is there ever a circumstance where we are justified in giving up?

Not according to Berachos 10a which is based on the following scripture verses:

So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time, and seventy thousand men of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. When the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who destroyed the people, “It is enough! Now relax your hand!” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking down the people, and said, “Behold, it is I who have sinned, and it is I who have done wrong; but these sheep, what have they done? Please let Your hand be against me and against my father’s house.”

2 Samuel 24:15-17 (NASB)

Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.

Job 13:15

Even total reliance on the grace and mercy of God does not guarantee a perfect life free from stress, harm, or tragedy. It certainly doesn’t guarantee that God will remove the consequences of our errors, mistakes, and sins. It also, sadly, doesn’t mean that bad things will never happen to good people, though as the Master said no one but God is good (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19).

What does it feel like when the sword is resting on the back of your neck and you know it can and probably will fall within the next few seconds? It must feel pretty desperate.

It must feel like how the Children of Israel felt when Moses discovered their sin with the Golden Calf. It must feel like how the Children of Israel felt after they refused to take the Land of Canaan and then, once God’s protection was removed, when they tried to enter Canaan only to be routed in humiliation (Numbers 14). It must have felt like how Hezekiah felt when he was told he was about to die from his illness (Isaiah 38:1-2).

deathMost rational people don’t blame a sick person for being sick. Oh, there are probably some exceptions, such as how we might feel when we hear a chronic cigarette smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer, or when we find out an alcoholic has liver disease. Even Hezekiah’s illness was a consequence of his behavior or the lack of it, at least according to Midrash (Sanhedrin 94a):

On the night of Passover, in the middle of the night, an angel smote the army of Assyria and 185,000 died from a plague (II Kings 19:35).

Imagine — the Jewish people were staring annihilation in the face. An overwhelming implacable foe completely surrounded their last stronghold. There was a constant propaganda barrage against them in their native tongue. They had doubters from within. They went to sleep Passover night with no realistic hope.

However, they woke up the morning of Passover and the threat was suddenly gone. Someone had smitten the outstretched arm of the enemy with the sword it had raised against them.

At that moment, the Talmud remarks, Hezekiah had the chance to become the Messiah. All he had to do was sing the praises of God. Moses and the people had done so after the Egyptians were drowned in the sea. Had Hezekiah done the same he would have been the Messiah and history as we know it would have proceeded differently.

However, he did not sing. That is why he was not worthy to be the Messiah. The opportunity was lost.

But although it seemed as if God’s mind were made up as far as the King’s fate was concerned, Hezekiah continued to plead:

Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, and said, “Remember now, O Lord, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, saying, “Go and say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city.”’

Isaiah 38:2-6

God listened and he relented, adding fifteen more years to Hezekiah’s life. He removed the sword from the King’s neck, so to speak, at least for another decade and a half.

Of course, Hezekiah had a “track record” of walking before God “in truth and with a whole heart.” If he had been sinful and disobedient as was Hezekiah’s father, it is unlikely that God would have spared his life.

So too it is with us.

defeatNo, not all of our woes involve terminal illness, but when we plead and beg God to take the pressure off, He is under no obligation whatsoever to do so, especially if we are still unrepentant of our sins. Keep in mind, even a perfectly repentant person, if there is such a thing, may still pray to God for mercy in relieving their illness or other problems and God may, for His own sovereign reasons, not provide the desired answer to prayer.

But how would you like to face tragedy and disaster in life, whether you deserve it or not…with a conscience right with God or still buried in your own iniquity?

I’m not preaching to you or being judgmental. I’m as human as anyone and I make plenty of mistakes. I’m writing this as much for me as for anyone else.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

That quote has been attributed to Plato, Philo of Alexandria, and Ian MacLaren among others, but the words are very true. Most of us don’t show any outward sign of the battles we fight every day and when we do, it usually means we’ve come to the end of our rope. I mentioned the other day about the importance of forgiveness and gratitude, and this is like it.

When you are tempted to “drop the hammer” or “lay down the law” on someone, even if they deserve it, stop for a moment and get in touch with your own “hard battle,” and then try to realize that the other person is also fighting as hard as they can. If you expect forgiveness from God for your own sins, then forgive the other person if it is at all possible.

But before all that, repent of your own sins and ask for forgiveness from your Heavenly Father. It requires being forgiven in order to forgive.

Be very, very humble.

-Ethics of the Fathers 4:4

Rabbi Raphael of Bershed complained bitterly to his teacher, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, that he was unable to eradicate feelings of vanity.

Rabbi Pinchas tried to help him by suggesting different methods, but Rabbi Raphael replied that he had already tried every one without success. He then pleaded with his mentor to do something to extirpate these egotistical feelings. Rabbi Pinchas then rebuked his disciple. “What is it with you, Raphael, that you expect instant perfection? Character development does not come overnight, regardless of how much effort you exert. Eradication of stubborn character traits takes time as well as effort. Today you achieve a little, and tomorrow you will achieve a bit more.

“You are frustrated and disappointed because you have not achieved character perfection as quickly as you had wished.

“Continue to work on yourself. Pray to God to help you with your character perfection. It will come in due time, but you must be patient.”

The Talmud states, “Be very, very humble,” to indicate that true self-betterment is a gradual process. We achieve a bit today, and a little more tomorrow.

Today I shall…

..try to be patient with myself. While I will do my utmost to rid myself of undesirable character traits, I will not become frustrated if I do not achieve instant perfection.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Kislev 7

praying aloneIf you aren’t patient with yourself and you don’t believe you can repent and be forgiven by God (and even if you know that although God may forgive you, some people never will), then you will cease to pray when you feel the sword rest on your neck or even when you see it coming. You won’t trust God that somehow, in some way, this too is for the good. Remember my previous quote of Rabbi Twersky who was quoting the Baal Shem Tov:

The Baal Shem Tov taught that God acts toward individuals accordingly as they act toward other people.

I think that includes how you act toward yourself. If you give up and won’t forgive yourself, how will God forgive you?

Why do parents love their children?
Because the lower world reflects the higher world. And above, there is a Parent and He loves His children.

Why do parents of an only child have such unbounded love for their child?
Because this is the truest reflection of the world above: Above, each one of us is an only child, and His love to us is unbounded.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Only Child”

2 thoughts on “Repentance and Forgiveness in the Face of Tragedy”

  1. Great post with a lot of depth behind the meaning. I’m reminded of a story a woman shared during a bible study class. Her grandfather was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver when her mother was a young adult. Her mother was devastated, as any daughter would be. The grandmother chose to visit the man in jail that killed her husband in an effort to extend forgiveness. Apparently, she told her kids that this man would live with his own guilt for the rest of his life for a tragic mistake, so why allow her own life to become bitter through unforgiveness, thus robbing her of joy. This lesson changed the young woman, turned her towards God, and she became a missionary with her husband, who worked all over the world. The woman that told me this said her mom and aunts all became active Christians, and passed the story down to the grandchildren, and now great grandchildren. The story of forgiveness had been passed to three generations and includes many believers that would not have been had the grandmother clung to unforgiveness and turned bitter.

    1. That is a wonderful story, Terry. The trauma suffered by the woman who lost her husband must have been tremendous, but she found the grace to be able to extend forgiveness anyway. She’s right. The man’s guilt is its own punishment but I hope that being forgiven helped change his life for the better.

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