This essay has been bubbling, like a stew, in the heat of my brain for few weeks already but I couldn’t sit and write it out. It is simply too big to put it into a short essay. As my self-imposed deadline for writing something about teshuvah was fast approaching, I felt some resistance from within me, so I couldn’t do it. Today I understand that it was nothing more than my usual yetzer hara — evil inclination.
This morning, at my daily shiur (lecture with my chavrusa/learning partner) we came to the place where the Gemara is teaching its famous teaching — No tzaddik gamor can exist in the place of the baal teshuvah. Not even the perfectly righteous can be valued as highly as the one who is coming back to G-d.
If I wouldn’t believe in siyata d’Shamaya (guidance of Heaven), I would wonder why we came across this baraisa on the day before Erev Rosh HaShanah. But I do believe.
B’ezras Hashem I will come back to this topic again, but now let me share with you these few words that you can still use before Yom HaKadosh — the Day of Atonement, the week after Shabbos Shuvah.
The world was created for teshuvah, according to Chazal. aven’tHavHaveavesay III’ve said in many of my essays that the reason for Creation is our bechirah — free choice. It certainly is the ikur — the main point — to create mankind. What then do we do with Chazal’s statement that teshuvah is the reason for Creation? For many of you it is clear and understandable, but let me attempt to make it even simpler to help you grasp the idea.
There are two kinds of choices. One kind I would call choice of maintenance, or passive choice. This is the choice of a person who was born with a certain level of kedushah (holiness) as a result of his environment and inborn character, among other factors. In the span of his life he maintains this level, sometimes even with great effort as his yetzer pulls him to failure. Nevertheless, he wins his battle and leaves this world with the great accomplishment of maintaining what he got. This is the tzaddik gamor — a man of perfection.
On the other hand, there is the Jew born into a family that is remote from keeping the standards of the Torah, but who realizes the Torah’s value. With great effort, he climbs up, passing multiple shaarey teshuvah (gates of repentance, or steps of return) and he ends his life with great spiritual accomplishments. We call such person a “baal teshuvah” and his choices are active choices, as he must conquer areas of evil that are part of his upbringing and nature. There is no question that his effort has more value than the maintenance of holiness of the tzaddik gamor, at certain moments in his life he adds this quality of maintenance to the quality of return.
In the classic writings of Chazal there is, however, another category of people also called “baal teshuvah”: A person who failed in his Yiddishkeit (the way of Jewish life) but realized his mistakes and with great pain comes back to what he left before. Because he realizes his lowly position and yet has a great love of G-d, this man’s attachment to Him is even greater than it ever was before. Certainly his dveikus (connection to Hashem) is greater than that of the tzaddik gamor and perhaps even greater than the baal teshuvah. One of the maamar Chazal that even children who grew up in a Torah environment know, is the mushal of rope.
The rope of the mitzvah is hanging all the way from Heaven down to our earthly reality; this rope is connecting us with a higher reality, at the same time marking the distance from there. Sometimes however this mitzvah rope is broken, lo aleinu, and we lose this connection. It can be fixed, with the power of teshuvah (return) we can tie the rope again and reestablish our connection with Hashem. But we know what happened with the rope that had to be fixed by tying it together — it became shorter. And that’s precisely is what is happening with our spiritual distance from G-d. Not only the place where the rope is tied becomes the strongest part of the rope, but we are closer to G-d as result of the teshuvah.
Someone can make a simple calculation to break the rope and fix it as many time as possible. Smart, no? Not at all. There is no way to know if we will be able to jump so high to be able to reach the other end of the rope. There is no guarantee that teshuvah will happen and this is the secret of teshuvah — it bring us closer but we cannot, we must not, put ourselves in a position to lose the connection in order to make it better. The first man tried this and the result was tragic for all of us, but this is already a different story.
But there is fourth category as well. Someone who for various reasons or teritzim — excuses — chooses not to do ratzon Hashem — the will of Almighty — and has begun to walk the path of evil. Where can this path lead him ultimately? We saw this at the beginning of this past summer.
A person was born and raised as frum, a devoted Jew, and at some point in his life — probably in a slow process — began to shake off the yoke of Torah. Ultimately he became a chaye ruach, a wild beast who in the end killed a child. A boy whom we treasured so much in our Jewish society, a boy who as the Gemara describes supports the existence of the world with his learning — Torah learning is the very foundation of world. The formerly frum man killed, dismembered, and stuffed parts of the body in his refrigerator, perhaps in preparation for even more hideous act. I can’t even think further.
I will not go so far as to accuse of all demented individuals who might have such inclinations as this chaye ruach did, but this single example shows how far the path of destruction can go.
In the second part of the same summer, we heard about something that is almost the opposite of the first event.
Two streets from where I live, a man, a baal teshuvah, attempted to save the life of a young boy and in the process of jumping in to do that, he sacrificed his own life. For many years Reb Reichenberg z”l was walking the path of return to his heritage, the path of his forefathers, the path of the ultimate good of Torah.
His reward for this effort is incredible! I know many of you will think that I have gone mad at this moment. He lost his life. How can I call this a reward?
No, he gained life, and he won it in the best possible way!
There is a halachic principle expressed in the Talmud that if there are two people walking in the desert and one of them has an amount of water enough for only one of them to survive, he should drink it himself rather than share it with his companion. If he were to share the water, it could possibly bring death to both of them, since neither would have enough water to survive. This teaches us that value of our life is the highest principle, as only in this life can we exercise our bechiros — free choices. That’s the value of life as it is expressed by Chazal (Michtav MeEliyahu).
Halachically, it is our life that should be most important to us; that’s the law. But there is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Law represents din (judgment) but since the world cannot be sustained only by the letter of the law, so we cannot limit ourselves only to this aspect. It would be enough for us if we would be able to be perfectly righteous but we are not. We cannot perform all the commandants of our Creator, and according to din we should therefore be annihilated.
Another Divine middah, attribute, was necessary to add to the spiritual fabric of the creation, namely chessed or Heavenly love. According to the principle of justice, due to our constant failures, we deserve the punishment of being eradicated. However, with the attribute of chessed consequently allowing our mistakes and rebellion to be forgiven, our continued existence becomes possible.
It is necessary to say that even the quality of din, which this world was created with, originates in the quality of chessed, but since we are touching deeper level of teachings of Torah that are not so familiar to me in a broader sense, I cannot explain more than this.
The word “chassid” , for the person who claims to be such, comes from the word “chessed.” As with everything else, we should emulate G-d.
A chassid is a person who at least from time to time acts above the letter of the law. Let’s say there is sign on the road indicating the presence of children playing. One driver on this road would slow down his car to exactly the speed as the sign says, exactly where it is posted. The chassid would slow down much before the sign, just by seeing the children or knowing that there is a playground. He would slow to a speed even lower than that which the sign instructs, just being aware that the nature of children is to run unexpectedly into the street, without watching. The law would serve him only to indicate a playground where children cannot be seen.
This is how chessed works in the area of service to G-d called bein Adam l’chaveiro — between man and his fellow man. In the area of service to G-d called bein Adam l’Makom — the submission of a person to the will of G-d, totally unrelated to his fellow man — this above example cannot be used.
The Orach Chaim in his sefer, Rishon L’Tzion, on page 103, teaches us a similar lesson. He says that yes there is such a principle to favor our life before the other people’s lives, but it is permissible to save the other’s life in an act of chessed, even if it can cost us our own life.
The life of our brother, Reb Reichenberg, was taken precisely in a moment of such chessed!
There is another principle that comes from Chazal.
When Ishmael was almost dying in the desert, the malachim (angels) were asking Hashem to let him die, as in the future his descendents would bring harm to the children of Yitzchok on their way to galus (exile). The Midrash describes how Hashem asked the angels, “Who is he now, a tzaddik or rasha – righteous or evil?”
“He is a tzaddik,” answered the malachim.
“Then I must help him to survive,”’ said the Creator of life.
This teaches us that person is judged at the current stage of his life.
Reb Reichenberg ended his trial of life at a moment of highest devotion to the values of the Torah — attempting to save the life of his fellow Jew. It happens to be that as in the story from just few weeks before, this was also the life of child — a boy whose breath could have supported the existence of the world for little longer.
The way and the moment of petirah of our brother, Reb Reichenberg, was the most that we could wish for ourselves. The opportunity given to him to leave this world performing an ultimate act of chessed is his reward for years of spiritual effort and climbing to the heights of what a human, what a Yid, can do for his fellow man, and for the sanctification of the Name — a Kiddush Hashem.
Most of us will not be privileged with such an opportunity, and as we go through our lives we must look for other opportunities to sanctify His Name, to do the will of our Creator as expressed in the revelation of the Torah, and to perform acts of chessed.
At this time of the year, all of us Yidden have an opportunity to taste the flavor of what it is to be like the one of the baalei teshuvah. With the help of our machzor and the special atmosphere of these days of teshuvah, we can return from our evil ways, we can feel the chessed and rachamim, love and compassion, of our Father and King.
I wanted to thank for ideas contained in this essay to Rabbi Shechter and my Chavruso Reb Menachem and my Rav ( Hashem should bless them) for clarifying certain issues necessary to write this essay.