Q. One of the Star Wars movies shows the evil character Darth Vader saving his son’s life at the expense of his own, apparently turning away from the evil path he had followed for much of his life. In Judaism, how effective is death-bed repentance?
A. Star Wars creator George Lucas probably had no intention that his film series would give rise to such theological conundrums, but this is still a good question.
As far as Judaism is concerned, repentance is always effective. The Torah says, “If you return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice… God will then accept your repentance and have compassion upon you” (Deut. 30: 2-3).
The process of repentance is analysed by Maimonides in his Hilchot T’shuvah (Laws of Repentance). It involves: (1) the sinner abandoning his ways, (2) sincere regret, (3) confession before God, and (4) resolving in heart and mind not to repeat the sin.
However, if it is a sin committed against another person, the sinner must seek the other person’s forgiveness; in such a case it is not enough to talk to God alone.
Obviously, as Rabbenu Yonah writes in his Sha’arei T’shuvah, “the choiciest repentance is that of one’s youth, when one subdues his evil inclination while he is yet in possession of his energies” (1:9).
Death-bed repentance is, however, still acceptable; the Talmud says (Kidd. 40b), “Even if one is a complete evildoer all his days and repents at the end, no wickedness shall be recorded against him, as it says, ‘As for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not stumble because of it in the day that he turns from his wickedness’ (Ezek. 33:12)”.
It is summed up succinctly in the Yom Kippur service, which says, Ad yom moto t’chakkeh lo lit’shuvah – “To the day of one’s death God waits for a person to repent”.