Are Baalei Teshuvah Really That Great?
Rabbi Gil Student
Who is Greater?
Someone who overcomes sin and returns to full observance, a baal teshuvah, has utilized for good the greatest human trait — choice, free will. The Gemara (Berachos 34b) praises a baal teshuvah
as being even greater than a tzaddik. Yet, this statement seems like too much praise. Can a tzaddik, someone who does everything right his whole life, hold a lesser status than someone who stumbles and then corrects course?
The full passage contains a debate between R. Yochanan and R. Abahu. R. Yochanan says that the prophets described reward and comfort only for those who repented, for baal teshuvah. However, the reward for the righteous, for people who never sin, is so great that it is unknown even to the prophets. R. Abahu disagrees with the underlying concept that tzaddikim receive greater reward than baal teshuvah. He says: “In the place where baal teshuvah stand, even complete tzaddikim do not stand.”
Rishonim offer different interpretations of this passage but here I would like to discuss a few of the explanations offered by some of the early Acharonim of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Teshuvah, ch. 4) takes the passage at face value. He explains that according to R. Yochanan, a baal teshuvah is still defined by sin because that is the path he left. A tzaddik who has no connection to sin is higher than a baal teshuvah. R. Abahu would counter that baalei teshuvah must cleanse themselves of sin in order to achieve atonement. After a full course of repentance, a baal teshuvah is even more pure than a tzaddik. Therefore, R. Abahu says that a baal teshuvah is higher than a tzaddik.
Which Tzaddik is Better?
Other commentators distinguish between different types of people mentioned in the passage. Mabit (Beis Elokim, Teshuvah, ch. 4) distinguishes between someone who is righteous without any desire to sin and someone who overcomes his desire with minor slips. The latter reaches the highest level. He battles and conquers his desires every day. The debate between R. Yochanan and R. Abahu is regarding the righteous with no desire to sin, no yetzer hara. Does his consistent purity offer him a higher status, even if he was born that way? According to R. Abahu, a baal teshuvah who succumbs to his yetzer hara and then defeats it reaches higher than someone with an inherently righteous nature because he earned his place. R. Yochanan sees the natural tzaddik as higher and more worthy of reward than the baal teshuvah.
In contrast, Radbaz (Responsa, vol. 2, no. 832) explains that R. Abahu and R. Yochanan agree but discuss different types of baalei teshuvah. R. Abahu’s baalei teshuvah are the righteous people who slip but immediately repent out of love for G-d. They are greater than the pure righteous because they tasted sin and overcame it. R. Yochanan’s baalei teshuvah refer to those who sinned greatly, were wicked, and then returned. They are the subject of the prophets’ rebuke and comfort but do not surpass the righteous. Both Mabit and Radbaz believe that the righteous person who occasionally slips but repents is higher than the naturally-born tzaddik. Mabit believes that even the heavy sinner who repents is greater than a natural tzaddik.
Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggadah, Berachos 34b) takes a different path. He explains that both groups represent righteous people who have not sinned. However, those righteous people who desire to sin, and must overcome that desire, are considered baalei teshuvah for repenting from that sinful desire. The complete tzaddikim are those who lack the desire to sin. According to Maharsha, the debate in the Gemara is which type of tzaddik is better, one with a desire to sin or without (see Rambam, Shemonah Perakim, ch. 6).
Rama of Fano (Asarah Ma’amaros, Chikur Din 4:1) says that everyone is the greatest, each in their own way. He dedicates a chapter to identifying the unique characteristics of the completely righteous and baal teshuvah. Using terminology from Tehillim (34:15), Rama of Fano says that tzaddikim excel in doing good (aseh tov), which they have done consistently throughout their lives, while baal teshuvah excel in avoiding bad (sur me-ra), which becomes a focus when they improve their ways. Rama of Fano adds that both R. Yochanan who says that the righteous are on a higher level and R. Abahu who says that baal teshuvah are higher really agree and are merely discussing who is greater in different aspects of religious life — doing good and avoiding bad.
For nearly all people, the debate over which tzaddik is greater is completely theoretical. We are lucky if we once get a glimpse of a tzaddik from a distance. However, as a matter of Jewish thought, the discussion allows us to think about earned accomplishments and inherited traits. Each have value and play a role in setting our paths in life. We should not dismiss that which we cannot control because it is still important, nor should we dismiss that which is in our power and available to everyone. With G-d’s help, we build ourselves on our heritage and our past to create our future.