We read in Sefer Divrei Hayamim II (33) of the wicked king Menashe, the Judean king who ruled towards the end of the First Commonwealth. Menashe embraced idolatry and even placed an idol in the Beit Ha-mikdash, in response to which God empowered the Assyrian Kingdom, whose army attacked Jerusalem and took Menashe captive, bringing him in chains to Babylonia. Then, we read, “in his distress, he beseeched the Lord his God, and he was greatly humbled before the God of his fathers” (33:12). God accepted Menashe’s prayers, and had him returned to Jerusalem and reinstated as king over Judea.
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Melakhim II 21) fills in the details of Menashe’s prayer and God’s favorable response. Seeing he was on the brink of death, Menashe appealed to every pagan deity. In the Midrash’s words, “There was not an idol in the world that he did not mention.” When his appeals to the pagan gods did not help, Menashe remembered a verse in Sefer Devarim (4:30), “In your distress, when all these things befall you, you will then return to the Lord your God.” Menashe then decided to call out to the one, true God. He said, “If He answers me – fine; and if not, then all divinities all equal!” If God did not answer his prayers, Menashe declared, then this would be proof that He is no more powerful than the pagan deities.
The Midrash continues that in response to Menashe’s prayer, the heavenly angels quickly began “shutting the windows of the firmament,” insistent on blocking Menashe’s prayers from penetrating the heavens and reaching the Almighty. “Master of the world,” they proclaimed, “a person who stationed a graven image in the Sanctuary – does he possibly have [the opportunity of] repentance?”
God replied, “If I do not accept his repentance, then the door will be locked in the face of all those who wish to repent.” The Midrash concludes that God “dug” an opening underneath the Heavenly Throne through which He accepted Menashe’s prayer.
This fascinating account gives rise to several questions. First, how could the verse in Sefer Divrei Hayamim II describe Menashe as “greatly humbled” (“va-yikana me’od”), if he turned to God only after his prayers to pagan deities went unanswered, and even then, he remained skeptical – “If He answers me – fine; and if not, then all divinities all equal”? And why did God accept this kind of repentance, which sounds artificial and insincere? Additionally, why was God concerned that His rejection of Menashe’s repentance would result in the “door” being “locked” before all sinners who wish to repent? Why would the rejection of Menashe’s insincere repentance necessitate the rejection of the genuine teshuva performed by future sinners? Another question arises from the angels’ petition that God should reject the teshuva of “a person who stationed a graven image in the Sanctuary.” Why did they perceive this sin as too grave to allow for the possibility of teshuva? Seemingly, the reason why Menashe’s repentance did not deserve a favorable response is because it was insincere. Why, then, did the angels point to the gravity of his placing an idol in the Mikdash, rather than to the fundamentally flawed nature of his teshuva?
The answer, perhaps, is that the essence of teshuva is not the end result, but rather the process. The goal is to advance and take a significant step forward, not to immediately soar to spiritual greatness.
When the angels heard Menashe’s prayers, they concluded that they were worthless. If he was capable of entertaining the possibility that “all divinities are equal,” then this cannot possibly qualify as repentance in any sense of the term. As such, Menashe at that point, as a helpless captive in chains uttering a prayer as he faced execution, was the same Menashe who brought an idol into the Temple. He had not changed at all.
God, however, who understands the human heart, who knows the difficulty of change, and who compassionately values every step forward made by any sinner, viewed Menashe’s prayers differently. While it is true that Menashe “repented” only as a last resort, and the repentance itself left much to be desired, it was still a significant step forward. The man who rebelled against everything his righteous father, Chizkiyahu, represented, was now invoking and applying a religious teaching which he had learned from him. After decades of firm and passionate denunciation of monotheism, Menashe took a step forward and uttered a prayer to the Almighty. God had to accept this repentance, so-to-speak, because if He didn’t, He would be unable to accept any sinner’s repentance. For in truth, Menashe’s repentance was not fundamentally different from that of any other sinner. Repentance is not about transforming into a righteous person overnight, but rather about advancing from one’s current spiritual state and moving forward. And that is precisely what Menashe did.
Thus, surprising as it may sound, Menashe sets a model of repentance for all of us to follow. While we must, quite obviously, aspire to far, far more than the point Menashe reached, he serves for us as an example of progress and change. God looks favorably and lovingly upon every step we take forward – even the steps taken by a wicked sinner like Menashe. The Midrash thus encourages us, and urges us, to set reasonable, modest, but meaningful goals as we embark upon the process of teshuva, and trust that every small achievement and every step forward is deemed inestimably valuable by the Almighty.
(Based on Rav Yosef Ben-Amram’s Ali Be’er, pp. 19-20)