World of the Sages: Where penitents stand

The Talmud tells us that the prophecies of reward described in the Bible refer to the boons that penitents will one day be fortunate to receive.

The Talmud tells us that the prophecies of reward described in the Bible refer to the boons that penitents will one day be fortunate to receive (B. Berachot 34b). As for the completely righteous who never sinned, the Talmud merely quotes a biblical verse: No eye except Yours, O Lord, has seen (Isaiah 64:3); the reward for the wholly virtuous is indescribable in human words, even in prophetic terms, for only the Almighty can imagine what is in store them. The Talmud immediately presents a dissenting view that suggests a different hierarchy: "In the place where penitents stand, the completely righteous do not stand," meaning that the level of remorseful sinners is so lofty, that even the wholly righteous do not merit to stand in the same heavenly section (Rashi, 11th century, France). What is the logic behind this surprising hierarchy? The first position can be expected, but how should we understand the suggestion that repentant sinners are greater than those who never sinned? Elsewhere our sages tell us that the iniquities of a sinner who repents are considered as merits in the eyes of the Almighty (B. Yoma 86b). In this way a repentant sinner can spiritually leapfrog a righteous person. Alternatively, wrongdoers who have tasted the allure of sin are faced with a greater challenge in resisting temptation, while the perfectly righteous who have never become accustomed to sin are not caught in its magnetism. Thus penitents have exerted greater effort in overcoming their evil tendencies (Maimonides, 12th century, Cairo). To buttress this unexpected hierarchy, the Talmud cites a biblical verse: Peace, peace to the distant and to the near (Isaiah 57:19): First the Almighty extends greetings to the distant - meaning the repentant sinner - and only then does God turn to the righteous who has always been near the divine. The Talmud proceeds to defend the original position saying that the verse could be read: Peace, peace to the distant - from sin, meaning the righteous - and to the near - to sin but who have now distanced themselves from sin, meaning penitent transgressors. Thus priority is given to those who have never fallen in sin. Despite concluding with an endorsement of the original suggestion that the righteous take precedence over penitents, it appears that our narrative has accepted the alternative hierarchy: Where penitents stand, even the wholly righteous do not stand. In reading this passage, a number of hassidic masters focused on the posture used to describe the relative positions of the righteous and the penitent - standing - to highlight the difference between a remorseful wrongdoer and one who has never sinned. Thus Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapira of Munkatsh (1871-1937) explained that a remorseful sinner has already withstood a challenge, for a true penitent is one who had the opportunity to sin again but is able to resist the temptation. Penitents, therefore, know that they will be able to stand up to the attraction and enticement of sin. The righteous, however, who have never been similarly challenged, do not know if they would be able to confront and defy the lure of sin. In this manner, where penitents stand firm, the righteous are not guaranteed that they could stand without yielding. Another approach focusing on the term the standing posture used in the talmudic passage was offered by Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Chortkov (1854-1934). A righteous person must be constantly on the move, trying to reach higher levels of spiritual accomplishment. Such a virtuous paragon continually seeks to grow and hence never contemplates standing in place. Repentant sinners who also seek to develop need not move in order to attain levels of spirituality; such penitents can stay where they are for they have much to repair: In the very place they stand, they can come close to the divine by fixing all that they have damaged. Indeed repentance is unique in that it can be achieved in a flash of sincere remorse. In fact, the Talmud tells us of one a man who betroths a woman saying that the betrothal is conditional on his having repented and being a righteous person. In such a case, the Talmud rules that the betrothal is valid, for perhaps at that instant, at that very place where the potential groom stands, he resolutely decided to repent (B. Kiddushin 49b). Thus while remorseful sinners stand and achieve levels of spirituality, the righteous cannot afford to rest in one place and must progress toward the highest possible level of spiritual attainment. Perhaps Rabbi Yisrael of Chortkov was drawing on a more esoteric explanation of his uncle, Rabbi Avraham Ya'acov Friedman of Sadigura (1820-1883). This approach draws on the hassidic-kabbalistic doctrine that in each situation we are charged with elevating the sparks of godliness entrapped in the physical reality. Contrite sinners have already walked the paths of filth, and the grime that they have rolled in has stuck to their souls. Their repentance is fully effective if they once again find themselves in those same places and, instead of lolling in the muck, they stand tall and elevate the hidden sparks of holiness. The righteous, however, have nothing to find in those muddy places. They have no reason to stand there, for their duty is not to elevate the sparks from such dirt. Thus where repentant sinners stand to elevate divine sparks, the righteous do not stand. Returning to the talmudic passage, the sinner has a potential that goes beyond that of the righteous person. The question remains: Will the sinner realize this latent power? Once the beloved hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1810) grabbed a known sinner by the lapels and to the surprise of onlookers he brusquely said: "I am jealous of you!" Even the sinner was shocked by his assailant declaration. Seeing the astonishment on the face of the sinner, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak loosened his grip and explained: "Once you repent, all your crimes will be considered virtues and then your merits will be innumerable." The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.