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Growing old and dying are a normal part of life.

For some people though, the realization time is running out can result in them pursuing God in a last minute act of desperation.

Hypothetically speaking, does coming to God near death not weigh as positively against you as coming to him when times are good?

Scenario:

A man is Hiloni (a secular Jew) and spent his entire life living a secular life. At a doctor's visit he finds out he has cancer and he only has so much time left (say months) to get his affairs in order.

This man becomes religious during the last months of his life.

We are taught that fearing God is a good thing. Having fear of God is a positive character trait in Judaism. Is that the same as this scenario though? What I mean is in this scenario could it not be considered the person is "placing his last bet" in hopes he still gets counted even after living a non-observant life?

How does Judaism rationalize this situation?

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  • sefaria.org/Judges.11.7?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en "Why are you coming to me now, when you are in trouble?"
    – MichoelR
    Sep 22 at 23:57
  • If I recall there's a Tosfos (or Daas Zekeinim) someplace about donating "gold, silver, and copper." Gold is returning to God when everything's okay in life; silver when there are problems, and copper on death's door.
    – Shalom
    Sep 23 at 3:54

3 Answers 3

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From the Rambam's laws of Teshuva:

[Who has reached] complete Teshuvah? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his Teshuvah alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength.
For example, a person engaged in illicit sexual relations with a woman. Afterwards, they met in privacy, in the same country, while his love for her and physical power still persisted, and nevertheless, he abstained and did not transgress. This is a complete Baal-Teshuvah. This was implied by King Solomon in his statement [Ecclesiastes 12:1] "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, [before the bad days come and the years draw near when you will say: `I have no desire for them.'"]
If he does not repent until his old age, at a time when he is incapable of doing what he did before, even though this is not a high level of repentance, he is a Baal-Teshuvah.
Even if he transgressed throughout his entire life and repented on the day of his death and died in repentance, all his sins are forgiven as [Ecclesiastes, op. cit.:2] continues: "Before the sun, the light, the moon, or the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain..." - This refers to the day of death. Thus, we can infer that if one remembers his Creator and repents before he dies, he is forgiven.

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Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona, Shaarei Teshuvah, Second Gate, XXXIII:

‘...When one grows old and his evil inclination grows weak, he is not rewarded for repentance as for perfecting his heart in his youth. Our Sages of blessed memory have said, ‘“Happy is the man who feareth the Lord” (Ps. 112:1) - when he is yet a man’ (Avodah Zarah 19a), and they have said that when a thief has nothing to steal he fancies himself upright (Sanhedrin 22a).’

Also Second Gate, XXXIV:

‘... During old age, when one’s senses lose their intensity, one cannot summon up enough strength to blaze new trails in his heart and to put forth thoughts with which to war against the evil inclination, to acquire virtues and to toil and to labour in Torah and good deeds, as it is written, ‘Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you shall say: “I have no pleasure in them” (Koheleth 12:1). A man should therefore be quick in securing shelter for his soul, as David, May peace be upon him, said, “I made haste, and delayed not, to observe Thy commandments” (Ps. 119:60).’

Hope that helps :)

P.S. I am a non-Jew seeking conversion (I am in conversation with my local Beis Din). I was trying to help out here, but please let me know if I am overstepping any bounds in teaching / posting these things.

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If the teshuva is genuine, not only is it regarded as being a proper teshuva, but in some instances, it is regarded as being even more praiseworthy as the person has changed the habits of a lifetime to become a better Jew.

In fact, there is a story that is related that helps to bring this idea out.

Yosi ben Yoezer Ish Tzreida (יוסי בן יועזר איש צרדה) - as mentioned in Pirkei Avos 1:4 lived during the Greek era and was being led to his execution. His nephew Yokim Ish Tzeruros (יקים איש צרורות) was a Jewish renegade who switched to the Greek side, and he went to watch his uncle's impending death. Seeing this as a good opportunity to goad his uncle and prove that he had made the right life decisions, he sneered, "Look at you now!". Gazing at his nephew, Yosi ben Yoezer responded swiftly, noting, "If this is the reward for a רשע (an evil person) (i.e. his nephew was riding on a stallion), how much greater is the reward for a צדיק (a righteous person) in the next world!". יקים איש צרורות countered, "Is there a greater tzaddik than you?!" to which יוסי בן יועזר answered, "If this is the punishment (i.e. a great torture) for a צדיק, how much greater is the punishment for a רשע!"

This exchange had a profound impact on יקים איש צרורות who reasoned that due to his ill behaviour he was guilty of the death penalty according to halacha. He consequently built a contraption that would kill him simultaneously with all four of the death penalty methods.

This served as such a כפרה (atonement) that a moment before יוסי בן יועזר was killed he saw a vision of his nephew and he related that my nephew entered עולם הבא (the Next World) one moment before me.

(Sources: See Bereishis Rabbah 65:22 - "נִתְנַמְנֵם יוֹסֵי בֶּן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵידָה וְרָאָה מִטָּתוֹ פָּרְחָה בָּאֲוִיר, אָמַר בְּשָׁעָה קַלָּה קְדָמַנִּי זֶה לְגַן עֵדֶן". Also related by the Rishon Rabbi Yisrael ben Yosef Alnaqua in his Menoras HaMaor. Refer as well to this modern commentary here.)

Indeed, on this note refer to Pirkei Avos 4:17:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, יָפָה שָׁעָה אַחַת בִּתְשׁוּבָה וּמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, מִכָּל חַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. וְיָפָה שָׁעָה אַחַת שֶׁל קוֹרַת רוּחַ בָּעוֹלָם הַבָּא, מִכָּל חַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה

He used to say: more precious is one hour in repentance and good deeds in this world, than all the life of the world to come; And more precious is one hour of the tranquility of the world to come, than all the life of this world.

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  • OP's question related to the difference between old vs. young. The nephew here sounds young.
    – N.T.
    Sep 24 at 0:24
  • @N.T. you're very quick to downvote! Just because he's a nephew does not mean he has to be young?! In fact, there are many a nephew who are actually older than their uncles...If you know by scriptural proof that he was young then you would have good reason to discredit the answer...
    – Dov
    Sep 24 at 19:52
  • Burden of proof is on you to show he was not young, and that this is a relevant answer. Especially because your answer seems to conflict with Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah.
    – N.T.
    Sep 25 at 3:15

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