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Ellul: Teshuba Can’t Wait

The Gemara tells that Nahum Ish Gamzu, the legendary Sadik, suffered terribly toward the end of his life. He lost his vision, as well as both arms and legs. His students asked him if he could think of a reason for why he, who lived a life marked by extreme piety, would be subjected to such suffering. He replied that he was once traveling with three donkeys carrying food, and a poor person approached and asked, "Rebbi, Parneseni" – "My Rabbi, feed me." Nahum replied to the pauper, "Wait for me until I get off my donkey." By the time Nahum Ish Gamzu got off his donkey to fetch some food from his cargo on the other donkeys, the poor man died of starvation. For this, he told his students, he was punished with suffering.

This story seems very difficult to understand. While it is true that Hashem is especially strict with the Sadikim, and holds them accountable for even seemingly minor mistakes, in this instance it does not appear that any wrong was committed at all. Nahum did not turn the poor man away. To the contrary, he immediately agreed to give him food and proceeded right away to get some. It is certainly tragic that the poor man did not survive long enough to be rejuvenated, but why should Nahum Ish Gamzu be accountable for this man’s dire level of starvation?

Several answers have been offered, but the correct explanation, I believe, is that Nahum told this story to his students as an analogy, as a life lesson that is relevant to each and every one of us, particularly as we enter the season of the Yamim Noraim.

Every person is comprised of both a body and a soul; we have a physical component, as well as a spiritual component. Our bodies, the physical part of our beings, could be described as "wealthy." It is pampered. We eat, drink, sleep, bathe and seek medical treatment. We generally take good care of our body and keep it in tiptop shape. The soul, however, is "poor." Many of us deprive our soul of its nourishment – Torah and Misvot. Although we certainly spend some time learning, praying and involving ourselves in Misvot, we cannot honestly say that we "pamper" our souls the way we pamper our bodies.

Nahum Ish Gamzu was telling not a story about himself, but rather the life story of the vast majority of people. The poor man, representing the soul, comes to us and begs, "Parneseni" – "Feed me!" It desperately pleads for some spiritual nourishment. Our response, more often than not, is, "Wait for me until I get off the donkey." The donkey, which is a strong, robust animal with hardly any intelligence, is often used as a symbol of physicality, and indeed its Hebrew name, "Hamor," relates to the Hebrew word for physicality ("Homriyut"). We tell the soul, "Wait until we finish with our physical needs." We do not deny that our souls are deprived and need more nourishment, and we have every intention of providing this nourishment, but not now. First we have to get the business on its feet, get our career going, save up for retirement, fix up the house, marry off the children, and so on and so forth. We are sympathetic to the plight of the "poor man," we acknowledge our shortcomings, but we feel we need to put the needs of the soul on hold until we are finished with the needs of the body.

And, as we know, most people never really finish with the needs of the body. The Mishna in Avot thus exhorts, "Do not say, ‘When I have time I will learn,’ for you might perhaps never have time."

Our Sages teach that whenever we see the word "Ve’ata" – "And now" – in the Torah, it alludes to repentance. This is not just a lesson in Biblical Hebrew; this is a profound lesson about Teshuba – it is all about "now," working to improve ourselves now, in our current situation, and not delaying any further. Nahum’s response to the poor man, "Wait for me," might be the greatest weapon the Yeser Ha’ra (evil inclination) has in its arsenal. The more we delay our Teshuba, the less likely we are to actually do it.

This lesson is a vital one to learn at any time, but it is especially relevant to us as we are about to begin the days of judgment. There is no longer any more time to wait. There is no more delaying. Let us feed the "poor person" right now, and do what we can in our present situation to nourish our soul, to raise our level of spirituality, without any further delay.

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