Stories from the Talmud about People who Repented

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30 Jun 2006

“Midrashim” about “Baalei Teshuvah,” People who Repented

Some of the “Midrashim” found in the Talmud about “Baalei Teshuvah,” People who Repented, are as follows:

“One who says, ‘I will sin, then repent; I will sin, then repent’ is not permitted to repent.”
(Masechet Yoma 85b)

Comment: The generosity of Hashem is infinite, but a person cannot play games with Him. If a person continues to sin, while intending at the end to erase all his sins through “Teshuvah,” Hashem withholds from such a person the possibility of Repenting.

“What is the definition of a ‘Baal Teshuvah?’ – Rabbi Yehudah said, ‘One who has the opportunity to do the same sin (implying that circumstances are such that his desire to do the sin is the same) and, this time, does not do it! He is a Baal Teshuvah!”
(Masechet Yoma 86b)

Comment: But, this is certainly not to imply that if such circumstances cannot be duplicated exactly, a person should not “do Teshuvah!” 99% of a “Baal Teshuvah” is infinitely better than a sinner!

“Rabbi Bar-Chanina Sava said in the name of Rav, ‘Anyone who does a sin, and is ashamed of it, all his sins are forgiven!”
(Masechet Berachot 12b)

Comment: Of course, the degree of shame must be true and deep and, naturally, the only One Who is able to evaluate this is the Judge of all the World, Who sees the innermost recesses of every living person.

“Rabbi Abahu said, ‘Where Baalei Teshuvah stand, People who have never sinned cannot stand!”
(Masechet Berachot 34b)

Comment: Rabbi Abahu’s understanding of the Psychology of Repentance is such that the true Baal Teshuvah reaches a level of righteousness not matched by someone who has never “sinned.”

Of course, there is no one who has, literally, “never sinned,” as Kohelet says “There is no one so righteous in the world who does only good, but has never sinned.” (Kohelet 7:20) Nobody is perfect. But the statement remains in force. According to Rabbi Abahu, those “sinners” who are able to muster up their spiritual resources to overcome their sins and return to Hashem have accomplished more than those who have rarely sinned.

The following is a very free translation of the following Midrash, but I believe it captures the basic idea:

“It was said concerning ‘Rabbi’ (the title of ‘Rabbi’ to be explained below) Eliezer ben Duradia that he had a great appetite for sin, and there was almost no sin in the world that he had not done. One day he heard of a sin that he had never done. It was located far away and was very expensive. He decided to do it with a friend, who would help with the expenses and be pleasant company on the way.

When they arrived at the location, they immediately made arrangements to do the sin. While they were doing it, his friend said that he thought that Eliezer, because of all the sins that he had done, would never be admitted into the “World-to-Come.”

Since he had never thought so far into the future, hearing this forecast of his fate was very shocking. He went to the mountains and asked them to intercede for him. They said that they had to be concerned about their own future, as it says ‘For the mountains and the hills will be moved.’ (Yeshayahu, 54:10)

He then went to the heavens and the earth and asked them to intercede for him. They responded that they also had to be concerned for their own future, as it says, ‘The heavens will disappear like smoke, and the earth will unravel like a garment.”

Until he realized that he was the only one responsible for his fate. He put his head between his knees and wept with such force that his soul left him.

A Heavenly Voice was heard, saying, ‘Rabbi Eliezer ben Duradia is prepared for entry into the World-to-Come.’

Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, the great Torah Sage who compiled the Mishnah, upon hearing of the above, cried and said, ‘Some acquire their share in the World-to-Come by many years of toil. Others acquire their share in one moment.’ And Rabbi Judah the Prince said, ‘Not only are they accepted, but they are given the title of ‘Rabbi.’ “(Masechet Avodah Zarah 17a)

“Our Rabbis taught, ‘A person should always push away the sinner with the left (generally, the weaker) hand, but hold him close with the right (generally, the stronger) hand. Not like Yehoshua ben Perachiah who pushed away his student with both hands.”
(Masechet Sotah 47a)

Comment: It is necessary to push away the “sinner,” to some extent; that is, to let him know that he has gone off the path, but never to reject him entirely, as that would violate the entire spirit of the Jewish Religion’s approach to Sin and the Acceptance of Repentance.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia was the teacher of Jesus and the Midrash describes the following fateful series of events which separated the latter from his Jewish origins.

“What was the incident involving Yehoshua ben Perachia? When Yanai the King killed out most of the Sages, two of the small number of survivors were Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia. Shimon was protected by his sister, the Queen; Yehoshua ben Perachia fled to Alexandria in Egypt and established a Yeshiva there.

When peace was established between Yanai and the surviving Sages, Shimon ben Shetach sent for Yehoshua to return. He sent the following message, ‘From Yerushalayim, the Holy City, to you, Alexandra of Egypt, my Sister! My husband is hidden in your precincts, while I am sitting abandoned.’ When he received this message, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia said, ‘There must be peace now.’

On his return, he and his students stayed at a certain inn, run by a woman, where he was shown great honor. Afterwards, he remarked, ‘Wasn’t that a nice innkeeper!’ His student, Jesus, responded by saying, ‘but master, her eyes are crooked!’

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia said, ‘Wicked person! Is this what you find important?!’ And he had him excommunicated. Each day, Jesus would come before his teacher, and ask to be forgiven. But his Repentance was not accepted.

On the day that Rabbi Yehoshua finally decided to accept Jesus’ repentance, when the latter came to ask forgiveness for what he had decided would be the final time, his master was praying. When he lifted his hand to cover his eyes, Jesus interpreted that gesture as yet another rejection, gave up, left, and went astray.

When later Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, ‘Return!’ Jesus responded, ‘Have you not taught us the principle that for someone who leads others astray, there is no possibility of Teshuvah!’
(Masechet Sotah 47a)

Comment: Thus, the origin of Christianity is attributed by the Talmud to the failure of one of the greatest Sages of the Jewish People to accept the Repentance of his student, when he should have.

“Anyone who leads the People towards righteousness, will not sin; and someone who leads the People towards sin will not be allowed to do Teshuvah.
What is the justice of this?

The one who led the People towards righteousness will not sin because how would it look if the teacher was in Gehinnom (the Jewish expression for the “place of punishment” reserved for the wicked, after death – not very pleasant, but probably no “pitchforks.” Also, the name of a valley outside of Jerusalem; actually, the valley is Gei-ben-Hinnom, undoubtedly related; perhaps the site of an ancient idol-worshipping cult), and the students in “Gan Eden” (the “Garden of Eden,” the Jewish expression for “Paradise,” the “place of reward” for the righteous)?! “

[Actually, with regard to these matters, the Jewish position is 100% Belief in “Reward and Punishment,” but, as to the specifics, we say, with King David, “no eye has seen it, O L-rd, but Yours.”]

Conversely, the one who led the People towards sin will not be permitted to repent because how would it look if the teacher was in “Gan Eden” and the students in Gehinnom?!
(Masechet Yoma 87a)

Comment: A leader of the Jewish People is held to a very high standard of responsibility. Not only must he be concerned about his own actions; he must lead his people in the right direction, as well, because his ultimate destiny becomes intertwined with theirs.

“Our Rabbis taught: ‘If someone stole a beam, built it into his house, and then decided to do ‘Teshuvah,’ and return the ‘beam’ in accordance with the verse obligating reformed bandits to return the stolen goods, as it says, ‘And he shall return the stolen object which he stole,’ how should he make the return?

Beit Shammai requires the thief to dismantle his house, retrieve the actual stolen beam, and return it.
Beit Hillel requires the thief only to return the value of the beam, in order to make it easier for the thief to do ‘Teshuvah.’ ”
(Masechet Gittin: 58a)

Comment: The “P’sak Din,” the decision of Jewish Law, and the actual practice, is in favor of Beit Hillel. Society plays a major role in helping the “sinner” return. In this case, the requirement of a thief to “Return the Stolen Item” is defined as requiring only the value, and not the item itself.

“Once a certain man wanted to ‘do Teshuvah.’ His wife said to him, ‘Fool! If you ‘do Teshuvah,’ even the belt which you are wearing will have to be returned.’
So the man changed his mind and did not ‘do Teshuvah!’ ”
(Masechet “Bava Kama,” “The First Gate:” 94b)

Comment: The Torah describes a man’s wife as a “helper-against him.” This expression, which seems to contain an internal contradiction (is she a helper or is she against him?) is interpreted by the Talmud as referring to two different husbands; that is, if he is deserving, she is a “helper;” otherwise, she is a negative influence.

In the selection above, the wife was clearly a negative influence, in that as a result of what she said, her husband was discouraged and decided not to “do Teshuvah.”

But the next Section deals with the story of Rabbi Akiva, one of the great heroes of Jewish History, whose wife played a major, if not an indispensable role, in the development of his greatness.