In the prophecy read as the haftara on the second Shabbat of the “Three Weeks,” Yirmiyahu conveys God’s message condemning Benei Yisrael for abandoning God in favor of idols. God warns that even if the people “launder” themselves with various cleaning agents, “your iniquity is an indelible stain before Me” (Yirmiyahu 2:22).
The Gemara cites this verse in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (18a) and notes its implication that once a decree against Benei Yisrael has been issued and “sealed,” it cannot be revoked. Yirmiyahu speaks of the ineffectiveness of Benei Yisrael’s efforts at “cleansing,” seemingly referring to repentance and prayer, indicating that there is no possibility of reversing a sealed decree of punishment. The Gemara notes a verse later in Sefer Yirmiyahu (4:14) in which the prophet urges the people to “launder” themselves (“Kabesi mei-ra’a libeikh”), which clearly implies that to the contrary, repentance is effective in annulling decrees. To reconcile these conflicting verses, the Gemara asserts that before a decree is sealed it is subject to revocation, whereas after it is sealed, nothing can be done to reverse the decision.
As noted already by Abarbanel, in his commentary to this verse, this is a jarring statement – that divine decrees cannot be overturned through repentance. Abarbanel writes that this notion appears to undermine the entire purpose of the prophets’ warnings – which are aimed at urging the people to change course and repent. And, if there is a point where repentance is no longer effective, then people have no reason to try and make an effort to improve.
Indeed, the Gemara itself appears to imply that this rule is not absolute. Several lines later, the Gemara cites this verse from Yirmiyahu and then comments, “Even though it is sealed, it can be repealed.” According to this passage, even a decree described by the prophet as an “indelible stain” can still be revoked. And, the Gemara earlier (16a) cites the teaching of Rabbi Yitzchak that prayer is beneficial for a person even after a decree has been issued.
But then the question arises, why is a sin after the decree described as an “indelible stain”? And is there a way of reconciling these conflicting Talmudic passages, or are they to be viewed as representing different traditions?
One possibility emerges from a comment that appears in between these two statements by the Gemara. As an example of a “sealed” decree which cannot be revoked, the Gemara points to the decree issued against the descendants of Eli, the kohen gadol who served at the time of the birth and youth of the prophet Shemuel (Shemuel I 2). The Gemara cites Amoraim as commenting that although this decree was sealed, it could have been revoked through Torah study and acts of kindness. Quite possibly, these exceptions apply to all “sealed” decrees – they are deemed permanent with the exception that they can be repealed through involvement in study and kindness.
Another possibility, discussed at length by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Sorotzkin, in his Rinat Yitzchak (Sefer Yirmiyahu), is that a “sealed” decree can be eased, but not erased a completely. Yirmiyahu compares such a decree to an indelible stain, but very often, even if a stain is permanent, thorough washing with cleaning agents has the effect of causing it to fade. Perhaps, then, this verse should be understood to mean that although prayer and repentance are beneficial in lessening the severity of the decree, they will not eliminate the decree completely. If so, then repentance is always vital and valuable, though in some instances it will not completely erase guilt.
Rav Sorotzkin also considers a different explanation, based on the distinction famously drawn by the Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (86b) between repentance motivated by fear, and repentance motivated by genuine love of God. The Gemara cites Reish Lakish as teaching that repenting out of fear is effective in transforming one’s willful transgressions into accidental transgressions, whereas repentance driven by love of God has the effect of transforming one’s sins into sources of merit. It would stand to reason, then, that repentance motivated by love of God is effective in annulling decrees even after they are “sealed” – because they retroactively reverse the sin or sins completely. It could therefore be suggested that when the Gemara infers from the verse in Yirmiyahu that “sealed” decrees cannot be repealed, this refers to the limited effect of teshuva mi-yir’a – repentance motivated by fear. But if a person repents out of love, it transforms his sins to sources of merit, which naturally has the effect of annulling harsh decrees. (This point is developed by Rav Yigal Ariel, in his work Erpa Meshuvatam, pp. 581-585.)