Question: Does the concept of repenting for one’s sins apply only to the Jewish nation or does it apply to the other nations of the world as well?
Answer: The Midrash Tanchuma (Parashat Nitzavim) states: “When the Jewish nation does Hashem’s will, Hashem is present for them to accept their Teshuva, as the verse states, ‘And from there you shall seek Hashem your G-d and you shall find him.’ A similar verse states, ‘Hashem shall turn His face to you.’ Although another verse states, ‘He shall not favor,’ nevertheless, if one does Teshuva, Hashem shall turn His face to this person and favor him and judge him favorably. Hashem does not favor everyone though, only to Israel, as the verse states, ‘Hashem shall turn his face to you’- and not to the nations of the world.”
It seems from the Midrash that that Teshuva is only beneficial for the Jewish nation and not for the other nations of the world. Maran zt”l explains this based on the Sefer Mesillat Yesharim which states that based on the letter of the law, one should not be able to achieve atonement for the sins one has performed, for indeed, how can one rectify a wrongdoing that has already been done? For instance, if one murders another person, how can one repent for this if the other person is already dead and the murderer will not be able to resurrect him?
Nevertheless, Hashem’s attribute of mercy allows repentance to help for sinners; this is truly a complete act of kindness on Hashem’s part that He considers one’s repentance as if one uprooted the action that one has done. This can indeed be inferred from the words of the aforementioned Midrash as well which expounds the verse of “Hashem shall turn His face to you” with regards to Teshuva. “Turning one’s face” or favoring someone is not based on the letter of the law; rather, it is the result of going beyond the letter of the law.
Based on this, we can understand why only the Jewish nation, who are the children of Hashem, merit Hashem’s special kindness which is beyond the letter of the law, for He wishes to show them mercy like a father does for a son. However, the other nations are only considered “servants” of Hashem and thus do not merit that repentance erases the impression of their sins.
Nevertheless, we must add that this that we have written that Teshuva does not help for the nations of the world, this only applies to their sins being completely erased; however, Teshuva will help them to be saved from suffering and punishment in this world as a result of their sins. Indeed, we find that the people of Nineveh (a city of wicked people in the times of the prophet Yonah) repented fully and merited that Hashem did not destroy them. However, simply repenting does not help them regarding a share in the World to Come. Nevertheless, if a non-Jew repents fully he takes the extraordinary step of converting to Judaism, he then is awarded the merit to repent fully. We find this concept regarding Nevuzzaradan, the wicked general of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon at the time of the destruction of the first Bet Hamikdash who slayed countless Jews, who repented fully for his actions which caused Hashem to be filled with compassion because of his Teshuva which came from the depths of his heart. He eventually converted and his descendants studied Torah as is recorded in the Midrash Eicha.
All this teaches us how much we must we must be careful and rejoice with the Mitzvah of Teshuva, for Hashem has bestowed us with an amazing gift by allowing us to repent for our sins. We must therefore utilize this gift and repent before Hashem and then Hashem will return us to Him, as the verse states, “Return to Me and I shall return to you.”