Pirkei De’Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 43) states: Bar Azzan said: Come and see the power of repentance from Reish Lakish. Originally, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish was a Torah scholar who studied Torah under Rabbi Oshaya, one of the leaders of the generation. Later, he joined a group of bandits and followed in their paths until he eventually became their leader (“Reish Lakish” means “leader of the bandits” in Aramaic). This means that there was a point during Rabbi Shimon be Lakish’s life when he was the leader of an organized crime ring.
These bandits would rob anyone who crossed their path. Sometime later, Reish Lakish met Rabbi Yochanan; after some conversation, Reish Lakish acquiesced to Rabbi Yochanan’s request and he decided to repent and study Torah. He left all of his evil friends and returned to the path of the G-d of his forefathers. He truly repented fully by mending his ways, fasting and praying, frequenting the Bet Midrash day and night, and studying Torah with all his might for the rest of his life. Reish Lakish would also perform great acts of kindness and gave much charity to the poor. From the moment he met Rabbi Yochanan, Reish Lakish never reverted to his previous evil ways. Indeed, he became one of the most notable Sages of the Talmud whose Torah thoughts are studied and analyzed throughout the tractates of the Talmud.
When Reish Lakish and his former bandit colleagues all passed away, it was decreed in Heaven that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish would be given his share in the World to Come while his cohorts were sentenced to the dismal abyss. The bandits claimed to Hashem, “Is it fair that just because Reish Lakish studied Torah he deserves a share in the World to Come? He was a bandit just like us! Why will he proceed to the World to Come while we continue to the purgatory?” Hashem replied, “Your friend, Reish Lakish, repented fully during his lifetime and dedicated his life to Torah while you did not.” They exclaimed, “Master of the Universe, allow us to perform Teshuva now!” Hashem replied, “Repentance is only beneficial until one’s death. This is similar to one who sets sail at sea and must prepare food on dry land for the sea voyage. If he does not, he will not be able to find any food at sea. Indeed, the verse states, ‘Remember your Creator during the days of your youth until the sun does not become dim and the light and moon and stars.’”
Approximately forty years ago, Mesivta Tifereth Yerushalyim, the American Torah institution under the leadership of Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, found itself in dire financial straits. A close follower of the great Gaon, a wealthy Syrian Jew, organized a fundraising dinner in his home to help out the Yeshiva. Some of the wealthiest Syrian Jews in New York were invited to this dinner.
These invitees arrived at their friend’s home and began eating. Soon thereafter, Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, luminary of the generation, arrived as well. The host accompanied Rav Moshe to the head of the table where the latter spoke briefly after which envelopes were handed out to all those in attendance. It was understood that everyone was expected to stuff the envelopes with cash or a check in support of the struggling Yeshiva.
The affluent businessmen in attendance did not personally know Hagaon Feinstein and they did not quite understand his message as he spoke with an Ashkenazi accent, thus, they were not quite so impressed by his presence. They therefore each placed only a paltry sum of money in the envelopes, one or two hundred dollars each, and they then returned the envelopes to the host to be handed over to the Rav. The host, understanding what was happening, stood up and addressed his friends: “With the permission of the Rav, I will address you in Arabic because I want to speak a language we can all understand. Gentlemen, it is truly shameful that such a great sage is sitting in our midst asking for help and we give only such a trivial sum of money! This is a disgrace and I will not have it! We are done with the envelopes! I will now be publicly announcing how much each of you are donating!” He then proceeded to go around the table and he ended up collecting a respectable sum of money which was then handed over to Rav Feinstein’s aides.
Let us ponder the above incident. Hagaon Harav Feinstein has already passed on and most of the businessmen who attended that meeting are likewise no longer among the living. When these individuals arrived for judgment before Hashem, they were certainly not punished as they were fine, upstanding people who loved and supported Torah and raised their children in the path of the Torah. Nevertheless, by that point, they were certainly aware of the tremendous stature of the man who sat at the head of the table that fateful night at their friend’s house. They new how unfortunate it was that these moments were wasted; they had the opportunity to come to the aid of this venerated sage! How unfortunate it was that they did not give everything they could to honor the Torah of this great Gaon and righteous man! By the time they realized they had a unique opportunity to bring joy and satisfaction to the leader of the generation, it was too late.
This is how the Evil Inclination operates. Every individual has many opportunities that come his way to merit a portion in the World to Come. It is our job to capitalize on these opportunities and not let them slip through our fingers!