He Who Has Sinned Can Teach
November 12, 2010
Editor’s Note: Will Gotkin is a graduate of The George Washington University and is currently at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.
In his book, Rebbes and Chassidim: What they said what they meant, Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D. quotes the following from King Solomon: “It is better to hear the rebuke of a wise man than one who hears the song of simpletons” (Ecclesiastes 7:5). Twerski writes that Rabbi Bunim of Pschis’che pointed out that this translation of the verse is inaccurate. Instead Rabbi Bunim says that it should be read: “It is better to hear the rebuke of a wise man who has heard the song of simpletons.” Rabbi Bunim explained that when a person who has spent his entire life studying Torah, praying, and pursuing spirituality preaches this as the correct lifestyle others may roll their eyes and say things like “Of course. What can you expect from someone who has never experienced the pleasures of life?” However, suppose someone who has indulged in earthly pleasures has come to realize their futility (Note: The Torah does not advocate an ascetic lifestyle, but it does teach us to utilize everything we do in the physical world for a spiritual purpose, including physical pleasures). This individual can say “I’ve been there and it’s all worthless!” Such a person is more likely to be heard.
A person who has not always been observant of Torah and mitzvos will likely find more of a listening ear among those who are non-observant than a person who has always been a practicing Jew. Perhaps this is one reason why the Talmud teaches that in the place of a baalteshuvah (one who has become observant), those who have been totally righteous their entire lives cannot stand.
This should be an encouraging message to all those who wish to deepen their commitment to Judaism. Our sins of the past should not make us ashamed. Rather, they should give us a sense of pride for how far we have come and remind us that we have the potential to make a big impact on our fellow Jews and the world.
Tzaddikim (those who have been righteous their entire life) can only serve Hashem within the realm of the permitted. However, the baalteshuvah can turn past sins into merits. He or she can serve Hashem in ways those who have always been righteous cannot. I mentioned in a previous article that the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that one who experiences spiritual darkness returns to Hashem with an intensity much greater than that of a tzaddik. Such a person thereby elevates the negative acts they have committed, since their misdeeds become fuel for their return (See “A Perfectly Imperfect World”).
On a personal note, I have recently started my 8-month journey at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, Israel. Many of the bochurim (students) are baalei teshuvim, myself included. It is an exciting and inspiring place and I can only hope that I will be able to take the knowledge I gain out of this experience with me and use it to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will Gotkin.