"There is no time to indulge in details. However, if I survive this ordeal I might get into details….We...are under siege...We have decided that we should fight to death. Our morale is high, but the city is under siege and no supplies can come in. The enemy...is over 30,000 while…[we] are only 800 and are shrinking as a result of the air strikes. The American air force bombs us even if someone fires a [single] bullet."
"The reason I stopped this communication was because our internet service was cut off after the attack...We were fighting for weeks, many people were killed and injured. The battle was won by [the enemy]...We fled the city towards the desert which was disastrous due to the conditions we faced afterwards. The US bombing took its toll on us, and killed about 200 more of us. We fled into the desert and I am not sure if God was testing us or punishing us…”
"Some of us reached [safety], others did not. But the same mistakes that were made… [before] are being made here all over again. In that I mean the mistreatment of population, disregard to proper strategies and the spread of injustice. If ever want our situation to change, we should start rethinking of our actions and mistakes and revision should be considered at the highest levels."
"I am writing this account because I see our end is near.” "What we see here today is everything else except for God’s conditions and instructions. We see injustice rule us, we see aggression and murder take place everywhere around us…."But let’s suppose that the mistakes [I have committed] had to do with murder, what should I do? And if it had to do with violations of the law, what should I do so I face God with [a] clean conscience? Would my repentance for these actions be enough for God to forgive me if I am a member of this group?"
These words were written this Summer by an anonymous man. He had been fighting for ISIS for years. He saw that they were about to lose Mosul. He was about to lose his home, his family, his cause. In his last days he took it upon himself to write to a scholar of Islamic law in Jordan to ask the ultimate question: “Can I ever repent for the sins which I have done?” The man, whose correspondence abruptly cut off weeks ago was presumably killed in the American air strikes which helped retake Mosul from IS.
In many ways this man is probably very unlike you or I. We have the privilege to live in a country in which we possess freedom and security. We do not worry that we will be killed in never-ending civil war. We do not worry that our families will be wiped out in genocidal attacks. We will, God-willing, never face the choices that this man did. We will, God-willing, never have to make the difficult decisions that he did.
We may struggle to sympathize with an ISIS fighter. After all, we too have seen the atrocities that ISIS has committed in the name of religion. Yet, for today at least, let’s put aside everything we think we know about the conflict in Iraq and Syria, everything we think we know about ISIS and its motives and the people who make up its ranks. Today, as we contemplate our own lives and make an effort to do our own teshuva, let’s consider his.
Are there sins which are too great to be forgiven? Can taking another’s life ever be rectified? Can we ever atone for the damage we have done to others, to ourselves, to our world? What are the limits of teshuva?
As usual, Judaism is not of one voice on this question. Partially, it depends on what you believe teshuva is. Maimonides suggests that the way to do teshuva is to confess one’s sin and to ensure that, if placed in the same situation once again, you would not commit the same sin a second time. Another medieval sage, R’ Elazar of Worms, believes that teshuva requires something more physical. He requires that we cause ourselves pain, equivalent to the amount that we caused through our sin.
The question also surfaces in the very earthly realm of our own courts. Our Sages had to decide: if someone who has committed a crime confesses, honestly repents, feels remorse, and wants to atone - do we still punish them for the crime? Rashi believes that true repentance on the part of a criminal means that we do not punish them at all, or at least, we issue a lesser sentence. Others, (Noda biYehuda) take issue with this - believing that such a leniency prevents punishment from being a deterrent, for the criminal knows that they can always repent later.
One solution to this debate, and to the question of our ISIS fighter to that Jordanian imam, comes from one of my favorite rabbis, the Maharal of Prague. The Maharal, in his own writing on teshuva, argues that a human court has no role in deciding who sincerely repents and who doesn’t. He writes:
The aspect of teshuva is in the erasing of a person's mistakes and in their return to God with all their heart. Don't be shocked that a person is able to do teshuva after they've sinned -- even though in a human court, when one commits a capital crime, even if they repent and show remorse, they are still executed nonetheless. This is because a human court and the Heavenly Court are not equal at all, because the Heavenly Court knows for certain who has done good and who has done evil.
Thus, if a person did teshuva and rectified their deeds they are judged favorably by the Heavenly Court...for teshuva belongs only to God, for God alone is the one who receives those who return -- thus we find true teshuva only in the Heavenly Court and never in a human court. (Netivot Olam, Netiv haTeshuva, Chapter 2)
The job of of a human court is to punish a crime, not to determine someone’s sincerity in their confession or their remorse. However, the Maharal points out, God is not subject to the whims and insecurities of a human court. God knows the heart of every person - knows if their repentance is sincere, and accepts them no matter what the circumstance.
Teshuva, then, is not something that can ever be adequately measured between people. We can judge if we feel someone is remorseful, we can forgive them and move on - but the only true judge is the One whose court we stand in today.
I don’t know if that imam ever responded to the man who wrote to him. That man is dead today, less than a month after his letter arrived in Jordan. The question of his repentance before a human court is moot - but perhaps the question that he asked, Would my repentance for these actions be enough for God to forgive me? is still a valid one.
God forgives us, providing our teshuva, is sincere, no matter what we have done. I imagine that no one here today carries with them the sins of our anonymous ISIS fighter, but the lesson remains the same. The lesson is the same one which R’ Moses ibn Ezra stated in the 14th century: “There is no sin so light that it may be overlooked, and no sin so heavy that it cannot be repented for.” No matter what we have done, no matter who we are, no matter how small and vulnerable and insignificant we may feel sometimes, if we honestly do teshuva, we can rest assured that God will forgive us, in life or in death, even if we cannot forgive one another.
Our ISIS fighter knew his end was near. He watched the destruction of his entire life, and he took part in destroying others' lives. Our end may not be near, but we nonetheless should not stop for an instant in seeking God’s forgiveness for our sins. In that spirit, and in the memory of the anonymous man whose confession we have just heard, let us take today and every day as an opportunity to return, to repent, and to restore ourselves with God’s help.