Voices in Our Head
Chapter 7, Law 4
"One who has repented (lit., 'a master of repentance') should not imagine
that he is distant from the high level of the righteous because of the
transgressions and sins that he did. The matter is not so. Rather, he is
beloved and precious before the Creator -- as if he had never sinned before.
Not only that, but his reward is great, for he has tasted sin and separated
from it, conquering his evil inclination. The Sages said, 'The place that
repenters stand [before G-d in the World to Come], wholly righteous people
cannot stand.' Meaning, their level is greater than the level of the those
who never sinned before since they have conquered their evil inclinations
more than they."
The Rambam in this law makes a very beautiful point which as we'll see, is
very relevant to the overall theme of this chapter.
Before we look at the Rambam's point itself, I'd like to make a brief
observation regarding how he presents it. The Rambam does not simply make
his statement -- that one who repents is greater than one who has never
sinned (quoting from Talmud Brachos 34b). Rather, he presents it by
rejecting the alternative, by saying, "Don't think that you, the repenter,
are worse on account of your past. For no, as a matter of fact you are even
The Rambam appears to recognize that people do not tend to think this way,
that the repentant sinner is anything better than a come-from-behind
impersonator of the truly devout -- the uppity nouveau frum rather than the
real old money. He therefore makes a point of refuting such a notion. The
Rambam, who as we know generally spares very few words, is almost giving
such people a pep talk: Don't be down on yourselves. Don't feel that since
you've sinned before, you're always a little bit despicable in G-d's eyes.
Don't feel that with the baggage you're carrying you'll never catch up to
the truly great. Rather, here's what the Sages had to say about you: You
will lead the way in the World to Come. You're not worse; you're greater --
regardless of the condescending attitude others may have towards you. In
fact, the Sages stand in awe before the likes you, who have done what they
themselves have never done.
I was once at a graduation ceremony for newly-ordained rabbis from a ba'al
teshuva yeshiva (rabbinical college for people who hail from irreligious
homes -- who began their Torah study as adults with little or no
background). One of the speakers at the event, who is one of great rabbis of
this generation, said with awe and admiration that he saw these young men
grow and develop faster than he himself had ever grown in any period of his
life. Such people have taken enormous strides. To reject their pasts and
pick themselves up from almost nothing, to overcome their past temptations
and discard them all for the sake of G-d: Such are a very special class of
people. They may not always receive their due recognition in this world --
and they may in fact trail their contemporaries in accumulated knowledge and
never shake off the appearance of the advanced beginner. Yet when G-d's
final tallying take place in the True World, they will take the place they
truly deserve. And a lot of folks may well be surprised.
Let us now look at the Rambam's statement itself. He really makes two
points. The first is that such a person's sins are forgotten by G-d -- "as
if he had never sinned before." Thus, the repenter should not feel he is
still sinful. Teshuva (repentance) erases our past mistakes entirely. It is
as if they never occurred.
Secondly, the Rambam continues, such people are actually superior to those
who have never sinned. People innocent to the ways and temptations of this
world have a much easier time resisting sin. They never developed an
appetite for wicked behavior; sins exert no great pull over them. Repenters,
by contrast, have been there and done that. Their evil inclinations do not
need break any new ground with them -- but merely remind them of their past
thrills, tickling them with fantasies they only remember too well. And if
such people resist that urge, they are clearly greater than those who have
never fallen before.
Of course, it should be stated that the repenter who might resist sin but
still spends his time reminiscing about the "good old days," or who allows
himself to fantasize about those sins he no longer commits, is not
necessarily superior to one who has never sinned before. *If* he can truly
reject his past sinfulness, put it out of mind and reject it -- in fact
cringe at the memory of his past sinfulness, he has achieved more than the
one who has never sinned. But in honesty, that requires a long and arduous
journey. One who has merely reached the first step -- who refrains from
doing *acts* of sin but who hasn't really progressed far from his earlier
self, may in truth have a great way to go to surpass the truly righteous.
I would imagine that of the two points the Rambam makes, the first is much
easier to accept. If the Torah promises that G-d forgives our regretted past
mistakes, we can rest assured that they are no longer on our tab. We do not
have to feel G-d deplores us on account of them. Those sins are history.
The second point, however, I believe is psychologically much more difficult
to accept. The one who used to sin but now resists is greater than one who
never sinned before because he has greater temptations he must overcome.
Although the point sounds valid, it's a little hard to believe that such a
person is really higher. I'll bet Rabbi X doesn't lust after the same wicked
behaviors I've become accustomed to. I'm so much more filthy, so much closer
to evil than he. Sure, I'm resisting it, but it's impossible to feel I'm
really on his level. He wouldn't -- and doesn't -- even *dream of* the nasty
stuff I used to be involved in.
Well, first of all, you hardly know what's in Rabbi X's head, and how pure
you *imagine* him to be is hardly grounds for being so down on yourself. The
vast majority of us really are human. Your evil inclination might get more
graphic with you because of your past experiences, but no one is beyond
human temptation. As we all know too well (and hear on the news too often),
pious outer appearances are hardly an indication of how great and pure a
person truly is within.
However, there is something to consider here -- and it ties right in to the
theme of this chapter. As we've explained, Chapter 7 -- which seems to
reintroduce teshuva anew -- is not discussing teshuva as an obligation to
G-d, but as our own road to self-fulfillment. We also explained that
fulfillment really revolves around an issue more basic than the particular
good and bad deeds I have done. It's really a question of what kind of
person I am. Have I developed myself into a person who appreciates goodness
and spirituality? Am I deep down really a holy person, who wants G-d and His
Torah rather than my own smallness and selfishness? Will I have something in
common with G-d when my soul returns to heaven? Teshuva is about connecting
myself to whom I really am, to not just being a good person somewhere deep
down within me, but being fulfilled and true to myself through and through.
And this is where the repenter can really become down on himself. Say such a
person has rejected his past and begins serving G-d properly. But now he
wants to ask himself the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question: Who is he
really? Is he really a spiritual person? Has he really outgrown his past and
become close to G-d? Or do those fantasies which still haunt his
subconscious prove that his sins are really still a part of him -- a part of
whom *he* is? Has he accomplished the repentance of Chapter 7?
And such a person may become profoundly saddened by that question. How can
he pretend he is now a godly person if he is still hounded by memories of
his past? Who is he? Well, isn't he *really* the sum total of his thoughts?
Isn't he composed of all those little voices he hears in his head? Sure, he
may be behaving outwardly and even attempting to quell such bad thoughts as
they come. But aren't his thoughts *him*? Can he really be just as holy as
the truly pious if he is still plagued by such nasty thoughts? Would G-d
really want a relationship with someone as confused and racked with sinful
thoughts as he?
And this is where the Talmud steps in with another bombshell. Those nasty
thoughts that you don't want but cannot fully quell are not whom you are --
because that's not whom you *really* are. Your evil inclination may be
attempting to drag you down with memories of your past. But that is not you.
Sure, nobody is perfect and thoughts and fantasies are a part of every human
being's makeup. But thoughts which unwittingly enter my mind are not *me*.
They are just thoughts. And so long as I don't spend my time enjoying them,
they do not define who I am.
The Talmud states that under almost all circumstances, G-d does not punish
us for the bad thoughts we had which accompanied our sins (Kiddushin 39b).
For there are thoughts and there are thoughts. There are thoughts which
describe who *I* am, which I allow to entire my psyche and become a part of
my essence. And there are thoughts which really come from without, which
tickle me, even plague me, with fantasies of actions I would never commit,
but which are really not *me*. And when we truly ask ourselves whom we are
G-d will know which thoughts contributed to our true essence. We cannot
control that which pops into our minds, but we most certainly can be
selective regarding which thoughts we dwell upon and which ones we really
choose to make our own. And ultimately, that decision process determines in
G-d's eyes just whom we really are.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org