“The wicked will desire but not attain, a haven is beyond them, their hope becomes despair” (Iyov 11:20, based on how the commentators explain the expressions in this verse). The Midrash, quoted by Yalkut Shimoni (906), compares the wicked, who had the opportunity to do “t’shuva” and return to G-d by repenting but remained wicked instead, to a prisoner who had the opportunity to escape, but didn’t. The question is asked (I heard it from my nephew this past Sunday, during a eulogy for his father, R’ Yacov Eis, a”h, shortly before Sh’loshim) how not doing t’shuva can be compared to not escaping from prison if one is supposed to do t’shuva, but not supposed to escape from prison. Let’s take a closer look at how this Midrash is quoted so that we can further explore the question, and some possible answers.
“A parable (to not doing t’shuva) would be a group of bandits who rebelled against the king. He grabbed them and locked them up in prison. What did they do? They dug a tunnel and escaped. There was one there who did not escape. In the morning, the king found him, and said to him, ‘fool! The tunnel was right there in front of you, and you didn’t escape?’ So too does G-d say to the wicked; ‘t’shuva is right there in front of you and you don’t return?” If you were the king, and you found the one prisoner who did not escape still in the prison, would you appreciate his acceptance of the punishment and not escaping, or berate him for not running away when he had the chance? A very similar Midrash is found in Koheles Rabbah (7:16), but there, when the ruler finds the prisoner who did not escape he starts to hit him with a stick! Is that how to treat someone who followed the rules of the prison? If anything, the prisoner who did not escape is showing remorse for what he had done! Why is he belittled and/or punished for not escaping? Isn’t it the ones who did escape that deserve to be punished, not those who stayed?
At the eulogy, my nephew quoted his father, a”h, who gave a very insightful, and enlightening, answer. What if the tunnel was dug by the king, to help the prisoners escape, and yet one of them refused to use the escape route prepared by the king? Wouldn’t he be the one who deserved punishment? Bringing the parable back to reality, since Hashem gives us the opportunity to do t’shuva, imploring us to correct our past mistakes and return to Him, not doing t’shuva becomes a great sin in and of itself.
This is a very powerful thought, and would certainly explain why the prisoner who didn’t leave despite the king preparing an escape route for him was punished. However, as my nephew pointed out, the wording of the Midrash precludes this from being its intent, as it was either the gang of bandits who (working together) dug the tunnel (Yalkut Shimoni uses the plural “they dug”), or one of the bandits (Koheles Rabbah uses the singular “he dug”) who dug the tunnel that everyone else escaped through. So even though Yacov’s thought is very pertinent to our relationship with G-d, we still need to understand why, according to the Midrash, the one prisoner who didn’t escape was taken to task by the king.
Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’aray T’shuva 1:2) quotes this Midrash, and although there are some slight differences (such as the prison warden hitting the prisoner who didn’t escape, not the king), it is much closer to the version in Koheles Rabbah than to the one quoted by Yalkut Shimoni. From Rabbeinu Yonah’s context, a slightly different focus emerges.
“A sinner who delays doing t’shuva for his sin greatly increases the severity of the punishment for the sin every day (of the delay), for he knows that [G-d’s] anger rages against him, and that he has a haven to escape to (that will save from that anger) — and that haven is t’shuva — and [yet] he remains in his rebellious state and continues to do bad things, even though it is within his ability to leave that overturned state, [still] he is not frightened by [G-d’s] wrath and anger, therefore his wickedness is great.” Rabbeinu Yonah then says that our Sages, of blessed memory, provided us with a parable to illustrate this, and quotes/paraphrases the above-mentioned Midrash. It is clear that Rabbeinu Yonah understands the point of the Midrash to be more than just not returning to G-d, but not taking advantage of the opportunity to remove oneself from being in a terrible situation.
When the group of bandits rebelled against the king, catching them and putting them in prison accomplished several things. Besides punishing the bandits and keeping them off the street, it sent a message to others that there are consequences for being a bandit — being put in prison, usually a strong deterrent. However, when the one bandit chose to remain in prison, he sent a different message, that being in prison wasn’t so terrible. After all, if it was, he would have escaped from it when he had the chance. Therefore, the king (or the prison warden, who is responsible for making the conditions in prison so harsh that everyone will be afraid to be sent there) got upset with the prisoner who didn’t escape, since it undermined the deterrence a prison is supposed to provide. And just as remaining in prison indicated that it isn’t so bad in there, not doing t’shuva, thereby choosing to remain in a state of G-d being angry at him, indicates that the sinner doesn’t mind that G-d is so upset with him.
[Although the Midrash quoted in the Yalkut doesn’t mention the prisoner who stayed being hit, only that the king called him a fool, the Midrash being quoted is the Midrash Zuta on Koheles (7:16), which adds more of the king’s rebuke, “your friends who escaped, what can I do to them,” implying that even though he can’t punish them, he can and will punish him. His being a “fool” may be for not realizing that the king will take out his wrath he has because of their escape on him, or for not realizing that by staying he is also going to anger the king, for undermining the deterrence of prison. Even if Yalkut Shimoni understood the focus of the Midrash to be not escaping, equating it with not doing t’shuva, or that was the point it wanted to get across, from the fuller version of the Midrash, as well as from the version in Koheles Rabbah and how it is used by Rabbeinu Yonah, it is clear that the focus is not appreciating how terrible it is to be in a state of not having done t’shuva.]
Even though the point of the Midrash is how upset G-d is with those who aren’t concerned enough with being distant from him to do t’shuva, a point made by using a parable where the tunnel was not dug by the king, in real life both are very true. There is a tunnel through which we can escape from G-d’s wrath, and it would be bad enough if we didn’t use it no matter who dug it. But since it was G-d who dug the tunnel, providing us with the opportunity to remove His anger and imploring us to do so, it is that much more problematic if we don’t.