One morning recently, when I walked out of our bungalow in Camp Dora Golding, I noticed that the garbage can that was always there was gone. I called the maintenance director, Effy Lew, to ask if he had perhaps moved it to another location, but he said he knew nothing about it. It was strange for a garbage can to just disappear. Later that day, Effy brought us a new garbage can.
A couple of days later, when my wife went to the back of our bungalow near the woods, she noticed our long-lost garbage can. She was about to move it back to its place, when she noticed that there were a few frogs jumping around inside. The mystery was solved. Our almost-seven-year-old twins had been searching for a new home in which to sequester the frogs they had pulled out of the camp lake. The garbage can was a perfect place.
When Michoel realized that we knew about his frogs and were letting them go at night, he and his friends found a container where they would hide in different places near the woods.
Before we left camp to return home last week, my wife gave me the noble task of setting the frogs free from their container. In the bustle of packing and loading the cars, however, I forgot. I called Effy Lew and asked him if he could do the honors.
He agreed and sent me a video of the touching ceremony. When he opened the cover of the container, most of the frogs (yes, there were a bunch) jumped away immediately. But there was one frog that lingered and just sat at the edge of the container.
It reminded me of the parable from the Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 7), quoted by Rabbeinu Yonah at the beginning of Shaarei T’shuvah:
A group of prisoners in jail dug a hole and escaped. When the jail warden came in the morning, he saw one prisoner standing next to the hole and immediately realized that everyone else had escaped. He smacked the lone prisoner with a stick and said to him, “You foolish person. The hole was dug before you. Why didn’t you hurry to save yourself along with everyone else?”
The commentaries wonder why the lone prisoner is depicted as being foolish. Isn’t it possible that he doesn’t want to escape and get himself into bigger trouble? After all, didn’t he originally end up in jail for committing a crime?
Rav Kook (Igros HaRa’ayah 135) explains that if the hole in the cell was not immediately filled and there were no consequences imposed on the diggers, that demonstrated that the jail guards were aware of the hole and were instructed not to stop them. It was clear that the king had purposely left them a means to escape, and they would not be penalized for doing so.
Yosef Ometz suggests that it was the king himself who commissioned that the hole be dug. When the one prisoner remained in jail, he brazenly rejected the overture of the king to allow him to escape and reintegrate into society.
The “hole” and escape route of t’shuvah is provided for by Hashem, as it were. If we do not avail ourselves of the incredible opportunity that we have to do t’shuvah, it is a more egregious affront to Hashem than the original sin committed.
Sometimes we think that t’shuvah is b’dieved. We need to do t’shuvah because we are pathetic, uncontrollable beings. But Chazal (Midrash, T’hilim 90) teach that t’shuvah preceded creation. T’shuvah isn’t plan B, but part of the original plan for creation. The world was created with a built-in system of rectification called t’shuvah.
Some of the greatest and most inspiring personalities in Jewish history have been baalei t’shuvah of note. Yechoniah, the next to last king of Yehudah before the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash, was a notoriously wicked king. While imprisoned by N’vuchadnetzar, in a moment of potential despair, Yechoniah decided to do t’shuvah. He outlived N’vuchadnetzar and was eventually freed from prison where he became a leader of the Jewish community in Bavel. The Rambam (Hilchos T’shuvah 7:6) lists Yechoniah haMelech as one of the symbols of the extent of the poignancy of t’shuvah.
Similarly, Reish Lakish, the great Amora, is legendary for his many intense disputes with his brother-in-law, the great Rav Yochanan. Reish Lakish began his career as the notorious leader of a group of bandits who molested people. When Rav Yochanan first encountered Reish Lakish and suggested that Reish Lakish use his strength for Torah, Reish Lakish responded that Rav Yochanan should use his good looks to court women (Bava M’tzia 84a). Yet, Reish Lakish is one of the greatest personalities mentioned in the Gemara. In fact, Reish Lakish himself is the one who teaches us about the transformative power of t’shuvah (see Yoma 86b).
I’m happy to report that after a few prompts, that last frog did indeed take advantage of his newfound freedom and made a clean getaway. I am also happy to report that none of the escaped frogs have allowed themselves to be re-caught by prowling seven-year-olds since they have been freed. It seems their t’shuvah is complete, and they have learned from their captivity to be more careful.
That’s at least until those prowling children return, G-d willing, next summer.