During this period, when our thoughts should be on teshuva (penitence), I want to quote an appropriate passage from this week's parsha. "When all these things befall you -- the blessing and the curse that I have set before you -- and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which the L-rd your G-d has banished you, and you return to the L-rd your G-d ... (Deut. 30:1-3, trans. JPS).
We may ask: what a strange place to do teshuva, among the non-Jewish nations to which we have been scattered. A more appropriate place for teshuva would seem to be Jerusalem, or even New York! In an attempt to explain this, let me quote from a midrash on Bereishis.
It concerns a certain Yosef Misisha , who was one of the "Misyavnim" (assimilationists) at the time of the Greek occupation of Israel. The Greek authorities decided that the Temple in Jerusalem should be desecrated, and, moreover, that this should be done in a dramatic way by getting a Jew to do their dirty work.
For this purpose they chose Yosef Misisha, and told him to go into the Temple, into the holiest part, and remove any of the holy objects he saw, for his own keeping. He agreed, entered the Holy Sanctuary, and seeing the Menora, decided that that would look good in his home. (Remember, this was the real thing, large, wrought in gold and decorated, not a "chanukia"!) So he removed the Menora from the Temple and took it home. This did not, however, satisfy the Greeks. They thought that the Temple Menora in a private house would not quite do it. After all, everyone had some kind of candelabrum in his home. Something else was needed to make the desecration really spectacular. So they told Yosef to go back into the Temple and remove something else to keep. But this time he refused, and he stuck to this refusal, even under torture, from which he died.
The same Midrash gives another story, about a certain Yakum Ish Tzroros, an assimilationist during the Roman occupation of Israel. His brother-in-law, R' Yosi ben Yoezer, was sentenced to death by the Roman authorities for teaching Torah, performing in this way a Kiddush HaShem. As R' Yosi was led into the town square for the execution, Yakum rode up and shouted at him: "Do you see now what happens to you for performing mitzvos?" R' Yosi shot back: "In that case, you can imagine what is going to happen to you for not performing mitzvos!" These words entered Yakum's soul "like a serpent's poison", and he immediately jumped off his horse and did teshuva.
What is the common theme of these two stories? In each story, the central figure stooped about as low as one can, and then did teshuva. In the first story, the person violently desecrated the Temple, and this experience apparently led him to teshuva and a refusal to repeat his sin. In the second story (leaving aside the issue of performing mitzvos versus assimilating), the person was humiliating someone who had been sentenced to death, and in spite of (or perhaps because of!) this disgusting behavior, he was receptive to his brother-in-law's rebuke.
It seems that when someone is in a low enough moral state, he may "bottom out", and derive inspiration from his situation, so as to rise to moral heights. As a matter of fact, one cannot do teshuva unless one has first sinned, by definition.
But we must be careful here! I am not suggesting that we should deliberately sin, in order to do teshuva afterwards! As a rule, the more one sins, the harder it is to extricate oneself from one's situation.
What I am suggesting is that in this period of teshuva, one should not become overly despondent by brooding over all one's sins. As these stories show, it may be possible to use one's sinful state as a springboard to a higher state.
This is perhaps the reason the Torah speaks of teshuva taking place while we are scattered about the nations of the world. We will repent not in spite of this situation, but actually because of it.
It is my prayer that by performing teshuva, we may all rise to moral heights.