The Gemara in Chagigah (15a) cites a fascinating and troubling story about Rabi Meir and Acheir, Rabi Meir’s teacher who became a heretic. One Shabbat, Acheir was riding a horse – meaning he was violating Shabbat – and walking behind him was Rabi Meir, who wanted to learn Torah from him. After walking for some time, Acheir explained to Rabi Meir that he should return back to town, because according to Acheir’s estimation, they were approaching the Techum Shabbat, and even though Acheir was no longer personally interested in keeping the Halachot of Shabbat, he nonetheless did not want his Talmid, Rabi Meir, to violate Shabbat. After hearing this, Rabi Meir turned to Acheir and told him that he should return to the ways of Hashem. However, Acheir explained to Rabi Meir that he had already heard a Bat Kol proclaiming “Shuvu Vanim Shovavim, Chutz MeiAcheir,” “Return, rebellious children, except for Acheir.”
How are we to understand this Bat Kol heard by Acheir? Could it really be that Hashem would not allow Acheir to do Teshuvah? There are many answers given to address this question, but Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l, the founding Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, offers a unique approach to this Bat Kol. While most answers to this question attempt to explain how Hashem could have produced such a troubling Bat Kol, Rav Amital revolutionizes this Gemara by suggesting that the Bat Kol heard by Acheir was not an actual Bat Kol, but rather was a fabrication in Acheir’s mind. Acheir believed that as someone who had strayed so far from the Derech Hashem, he was unable to do Teshuvah. He could not accept the concept of Teshuvah – that Hashem can truly forgive us and that we can truly improve. Therefore, Acheir convinced himself that God would not allow him to do Teshuvah. Rav Amital then went on to say that we all, to some degree, have this incorrect belief in our mind. It is easy, and oftentimes simpler, to tell ourselves that we cannot do Teshuvah, that we cannot improve ourselves, that we cannot change. But this belief is not a Bat Kol; it is merely in our heads. Simply put, we can all do Teshuvah.
In Hilchot Teshuvah Perek 3, Rambam lists many types of people who do not merit Olam HaBa. From a quick reading, one might conclude that there are indeed certain people who do not have the ability to do Teshuvah. However, this is not so. In his closing of the Perek, Rambam says that all these people do not merit Olam HaBa “BeSheMeit BeLo Teshuvah,” “If they die without doing Teshuvah;” however, if these people do Teshuvah, they merit Olam HaBa, “SheEin Lecha Davar SheOmeid BiFenei HaTeshuvah,” “For there is nothing that stands in the way of Teshuvah.” Additionally, Rambam says that anybody who does Teshuvah is forgiven, based on the Pasuk “Shuvu Vanim Shovavim,” “Return, rebellious children” (Yirmiyahu 3:14). Interestingly enough, despite using the same Pasuk found in Acheir’s Bat Kol, Rambam does not note any exceptions to his rule, which suggests that truly everyone, without exception, can do Teshuvah.
Rambam explicates this concept further by noting that at the core of Teshuvah is the concept of free will. And as he proceeds to explain in Hilchot Teshuvah Perek 5, “Reshut Kol Adam Netunah Lo… Kol Adam VeAdam Ra’uy Lihyot Tzadik KeMoshe Rabeinu O Rasha KeYarav’am, O Chacham O Sachal, O Rachaman O Achzari, O Keilay O Sho’a… VeEin Lo Mi SheYichpeihu VeLo Gozeir Alav VeLo Mi SheMoshecho LeEchad MiShenei HaDerechaim, Ela Hu MeiAtzmo UMida’ato Noteh LeEi Zeh Derech SheYiretzeh,” “Free will is granted to everyone… Each person is fit to be righteous like Moshe Rabbeinu or wicked like Yarav’am; wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, stingy or generous… There is nobody who compels a person, sentences him, or leads him towards either of these two paths; rather, he on his own initiative and decisions chooses whichever path he wants.”
Hopefully, if we internalize that we are all granted the ability to do Teshuvah and that we truly and completely choose our actions, we will be able to have a more meaningful Yom Kippur.