The Gates of Torah and Repentance are Never Closed
It is written, “Take a census of the sons of Gershon as well” (Numbers 4:22). The great commentators and Kabbalists have explained this verse in various ways, and I will also add my contribution.
We must be cognizant of the great power of Torah. In an awe-inspiring way, the work entitled Noam Elimelech speaks of this concerning the fact that the Children of Israel breached the forty-nine gates of impurity while in Egypt (Zohar Yitro 39a). That was the reason why G-d made them leave Egypt immediately, lest they attain the fiftieth gate. In such a case, since they had not yet received the Torah, they would have lost all rights to their existence. This is why it is said, “and they were not able to tarry, ve’gam [and also] they had not made provisions for themselves” (Exodus 12:39), the word ve’gam having a numerical value of 49. However, once they received the holy Torah, even if they had breached the fiftieth gate of impurity, the Torah would have had the power to purify them. This is because “the words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity” (Berachot 22a), and the Torah would have brought them back from the gates of impurity towards those of purity.
In examining these holy words, the idea came to me to point out that we find an allusion to this in the passage, “Take a census [nasso] of the sons of Gershon,” for the word nasso can be decomposed into the letter nun (having a numerical value of 50) and the word aish (“fire”), an indication that even if a man breaches the fifty gates of impurity, he can rise upwards like fire by means of the holy Torah, which is called “fire” (Mechilta Yitro 19:18), as it is said, “at His right hand, a fiery law for them” (Deuteronomy 33:2).
We may even add to this that the world nasso (literally “count”, but also “elevate”) is made up of the same letters as shoneh (which evokes shinun, the study of Torah through repetition). This means that when a man studies the laws of the Torah and repeats them throughout the day (Niddah 73a), it makes him great and elevates him in all his actions (Perkei Avoth 6:1), which is the idea contained in the word nasso. He thereby no longer has any connection to the evil inclination, which tries without cease to chase after him (legaresh, which evokes Gershon) in order that he should have no part in the heritage of the Eternal.
In addition, the word nasso is made up of the same letters as soneh (the root of sina, “hate”), for a man should hate the honors afforded by an official position (Perkei Avoth 1:10), which buries those who assume it (Pesachim 87b), and he should love work, meaning that he should act solely for the love of Heaven, not for honor. This will make him merit long life, during which time he will never forget that he is attached to “Gershon,” a stranger (ger) in this world, all this by the power of the holy Torah.
This is what a man’s work in life on earth should be like: He should realize that as soon as he takes his first steps in the service of G-d, the evil inclination will immediately try and instill an icy attitude and despair in him. The evil inclination does this in order to provoke a man to take a big fall, for when we feel that things are hopeless, it is very easy for our instincts to convince us that repentance and Torah study are useless. Our instincts tell us that our sin is too great to bear, and that any repentance on our part will be of no use whatsoever. This is what happened to Elisha (Acher), who heard a Heavenly voice say, “Return, rebellious children, except for Acher” (Hagigah 15a). He concluded that he had been chased away from the world to come, to the extent that he decided to at least enjoy this world, and so he abandoned everything. This was a grave mistake, for he quickly lost all hope by thinking that there was no way for him to rectify his sins. Yet he was completely mistaken. He should have told himself that if his repentance was really not wanted, he would not have been told this by means of a Heavenly voice, a voice whose very goal was obviously to awaken repentance within him and help him return to G-d!
We may compare this situation to that of a rebellious child whose father, in order to educate him, tells him that all his children except for him will receive gifts. Obviously, all that the father wants is to arouse remorse in the child, that he asks himself why he is being treated differently than his brothers, and that he arrives at the conclusion that his father wants him to improve. He surely doesn’t intend to discourage his son, for that wouldn’t be of any use because it would only lead the boy to continue in his errant ways.
And in fact the disciple of Acher, Rabbi Meir, who also heard the Heavenly voice, concluded that its goal was to lead Acher to repent, otherwise there would have been no need for it. He therefore told him to repent and tried to convince him to return to G-d. Moreover, he knew that the doors of Teshuvah were always open (Eicha Rabba 3:35) and that everything depended on Acher. This is why Rabbi Meir continued to study Torah with him, all while still sorting the good from the bad by “eating the inside while rejecting the peel” (Hagigah 15b). This would have been impossible if the doors of Teshuvah had been closed. We learn from here the certainty that by means of the holy Torah, it is possible to elevate ourselves once again, as if a light was returning us along the right path (Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:7). Yet if we now find ourselves in a very low state, G-d never chases after us, for His arm is outstretched to receive all who return to Him (Pesachim 119a) and He awaits a man’s repentance, as it is written, “Do I desire at all the death of the wicked man … not rather his return from his ways, that he might live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). G-d doesn’t want to make anyone give up hope. He respects the honor and property of each and everyone and waits for a person to return to Him by elevating himself. The Torah also respects the honor and the individuality of the Children of Israel (Rabbeinu Ovadia Bartenura, Keritut 6:3), even if they have acted very badly. In fact it is written, “The son of an Israelite woman went out, and he was the son of an Egyptian man” (Leviticus 24:10). The holy Ohr HaHaim asks why the Torah does not mention his name, since it was because of him that a harsh decree was pronounced, and harm only occurs through someone who is already guilty (Sanhedrin 8a). He replies that the Holy One, blessed be He, has no desire to shame anyone, hence for all the more reason is the offender’s name not written in the Torah, where his shame would remain forever.
From everything that has been said, we note that there is no place for despair in a person’s heart. On the contrary, he should recognize and appreciate his situation if he is a Ben Torah, for he receives the Torah anew each day, as it is written, “That it should be new in your eyes each day” (Pesikta Zutah Va’etchanan 6:6). In fact, when a person sleeps, his soul leaves him and he is considered as dead (Berachot 57b). The soul rises toward the Heavens (Zohar 1:92a, 121b), and when he awakes in the morning he is considered as a new being, as in the verse that states: “They are new every morning, great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23). He should therefore purify himself because he was considered as dead. This is why, after we have recited the blessings for the Torah as well as the morning blessings, we immediately begin to study it, for we owe our entire existence in this world to the Torah. Now if we want to be able to study immediately upon rising in the morning, we should also go to sleep after having studied Torah, not after having occupied ourselves with trivialities, as it is written, “And you shall speak of them … when you lie down and when you arise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). At that moment we will be connected to Torah, whether it be in lying down or arising.
Since Parsha Nasso comes right after the holiday of Shavuot, a time when a man finds himself at the height of his greatness, we have the statement, “Take a census of [or “elevate”] the sons of Gershon as well” (Numbers 4:22). He becomes the leader of all the sons of Gershon by dominating the Kelipah and the forces of darkness, which are driven away (megurashim) by G-d after the giving of the Torah. A person must therefore prepare himself before and during the holiday, because for all Jews it is a day whose influence extends throughout the whole of the year, a day in which a Jew truly receives the Torah as it was given on Mount Sinai. In itself, it purifies matter to the extent that he is transformed into a spiritual being. The Jew becomes master of the Kelipah, which then falls into his hands and between his ten fingers, but only if he takes upon himself the yoke of Torah. Now the doors of Torah and repentance are never closed, and this is the moment to return to G-d and to elevate oneself in wisdom and the fear of Heaven.