The Advantage of the Baal Teshuva
Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )
In Its discussion of the various offerings, the Torah describes the Guilt (Asham) and Sin (Chataat) offerings with the exalted term of Holy of Holy offerings (Kodesh Kedoshim). In contrast, the Peace (Shelamim) offerings are described with the term of Lighter Holy offerings (Kodshim kalim), which indicates a lower level of holiness. The Abarbanel1 asks why do the Asham and Chataat merit a higher title than the seemingly equally holy Shelamim?
He answers that the Asham and Chataat offerings are given by people who have sinned and want to atone for their sins. Thus, these are returnees to God (Baalei teshuva) whose offerings are especially dear to God. In contrast, the Shelamim offerings is brought by righteous people, who have not sinned, hence it is on a lower level. This idea is expressed in the Talmud that teaches that a perfectly righteous person (Tzaddik gamur) cannot stand in the same place as a Baal Teshuva2. Accordingly, explains the Abarbanel, the offerings of a Baal teshuva attain a higher degree of holiness than those of a perfectly righteous person, and merit to be called Kodesh Kedoshim.
What is the reason that a Baal Teshuva is considered to be on a higher level than a righteous person? The simple answer given is that he has to overcome his negative inclination far more than the perfectly righteous person, and so he deserves more merit for this, based on the idea of ‘lefum tsaara agrah’ – according to the difficulty is the reward.
The Pri Megadim3 offers another interesting approach. He notes that the Gemara4 tells us that when a person does teshuva out of love, his past sins are transformed into Mitzvot. Consequently, all of his past actions, whether they be Mitzvot or sins, become Mitzvot. The explanation of this idea may be that the awareness of his past sins will give extra motivation to the Baal Teshuva to succeed in the future. In addition, it will imbue in him a deeper hatred of sin, since he has first-hand experience of the damage it does. A perfectly righteous person does not have these benefits, in that only his past mitzvot are mitzvot, but there are no sins that can be turned into mitzvot, and it is hard for him to develop the same hatred of sins which he has never stumbled in.
Rabbi Yochanan Zweig5 offers an additional difference between a Baal teshuva and perfectly righteous person, with a novel explanation to answer two questions of the Ra’avad on the Rambam in Hilchot Avoda Zara6. The Rambam describes how, at the time of Abraham’s birth, Idol worship was rampant. Almost all of the world, with the exception of Shem, Eiver and their students, were polytheistic. The young Abraham began to question this belief system and concluded by recognizing that there must be one Creator who is all powerful and all good – the Rambam states that Abraham reached this recognition at the age of 40. From this time on, he actively promoted the idea of Ethical Monotheism, and succeeded in influencing many people to change.
The Ra’avad asks two questions on the Rambam’s account. First, he quotes what appears to be an opposing teaching of Chazal that Avraham actually recognized his Creator at age 3. This is derived by the Gemara7 from the numeric value of the word “Ekev” (172) in the expression “Ekev asher shama Avraham b’Koli”8 - “Since Avraham listened to My Voice”. The Sages say that Abraham was faithful to the Word of God for 172 out of his 175 years, meaning since he was 3 years old. Secondly, the Ra’avad says that the Rambam’s description seems to ignore the presence of Shem and Eiver, who were older than Abraham and were teaching Torah in their yeshivot. Why then, according to the Rambam, was only Abraham successful in changing the world’s theological outlook9?
Rabbi Zweig addresses these two problems with an analogy to someone who wants to convince someone to give up smoking. If he himself, is not a smoker, then the smoker will likely ignore him. He can provide the most eloquent and graphic arguments why the smoker should quit, but because he does not know the “pleasure” of inhaling a cigarette, the smoker will likely not be convinced that he truly understands the challenges involved in giving up such an addictive habit. In contrast, a person who was a smoker and smoked all his life and then broke his addiction to nicotine, will be far more successful persuading a current smoker that it is worth the effort to “kick the habit”.
Just like a former smoker is more effective in getting another smoker to give up smoking, so too a former idol worshipper will be much more effective than someone who never worshipped idols, at creating a new religion and getting other idolaters to abandon their erroneous beliefs, and accept the idea of monotheism. In a similar vein, a Baal teshuva can often be more successful in getting another person to see the “Light” than a person who was “Frum From Birth”. As Rabbi Yissachar Frand expresses it:
To someone who is “Frum from birth,” the free spirit asks “What do you know? You have never experienced the pleasures of eating shell fish! You have never experienced the pleasures that life has to offer! What do you know about a life style that brings one satisfaction and happiness?” Someone who has “been there; done that” and can say with conviction “This is a much better life” is someone to whom the free-spirited person will be willing to listen.
Shem and Eiver had never tasted idol worship, whereas Abraham had - he was able to take the first forty years of his life of theological error and idol worship and turn them into a positive experience so that he could not relate to other people and enable them to see the truth.
This also answers the contradiction with regard to what age Abraham found God. It is true that he only recognized the Creator at age 40, but since he transposed his whole life experience to have a spiritually positive impact on others, it can truthfully be said that for 172 years of his life he “hearkened to the words of his Creator”. Retroactively from age 40, he turned all of his life’s experiences from the time he first gained intelligence which is age 3, into a spiritually positive experience. It is viewed as if he found G-d age 3, because he retroactively used the years between 3 and 40 to help him convince others of the falsehood of Idol worship due to his experience of its failing.
These ideas apply to everyone nowadays, even someone who was born into observance. This is because the Baal teshuva described by the Sages is anyone who has ever sinned and then done teshuva, whereas the perfectly righteous person has never sinned at all. Everyone in this generation is in the category of Baal teshuva, so they can utilize the areas in which they have stumbled, in a positive manner. This can be to serve as a motivator to avoid future sin, and to use their experiences to help others. May we all merit to use our past for the good.
1. Cited in Tallelei Orot, Vayikra, 6:10, p.115.
2. Brachot, 34b. There is an opinion in the Gemara that disputes this opinion, but the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva, 7:4) follows it.
3. Teivat Gomeh.
4. Yoma, 86b.
5. Cited by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
6. Rambam, Hilchot Avoda Zarah, 1:3, Ra’avad ibid.
7. Nedarim, 32a.
8. Bereishis, 26:5.
9. See Kesef Mishneh, ibid for an answer to this question, which has been elaborated upon at length in other Divrei Torah. Rav Zweig offers a different approach.