Dec 09 2012

Is it Better than to Sin and Repent Than to Never Have Sinned At ALL

Published by at 8:29 pm under Uncategorized

Jacob and Esau, brothers in flesh, adversaries in spirit. One a dweller of tents – a scholar; the other, a hunter of game. Our Rabbis tell us that their ideological struggle with one another can be traced back to when they were in the confines of the womb. Theirs was not merely a personal struggle, but a harbinger of events for future generations.

The Torah tells us in the portion of Toldot that the brothers were not alone in their differences. The Bible tells us “and Isaac loved Esau because he did eat of his venison, and Rebecca loved Jacob”. Was there family derision among the patriarchs? Was Isaac, the individual who nearly sacrificed himself on Mount Moriah, actually fooled by Esau’s “piety”? What was it about this wayward son that left him with hope for Esau’s future??

The Torah tells us that when Isaac announced that he was going to give his blessing to Esau, Rebecca dressed up Jacob to look and feel like his brother, as Isaac was blind, and could be fooled. Is it possible that this venerable Tzadik – righteous man, could be so easily deceived? Indeed, if one looks through the words of the Bible, Isaac seems to question the identity of the son claiming to be Esau, no less than six different times. The simplistic version of Isaac being fooled is one that we learn in Hebrew School, but for the sophisticated Jew, it calls for deeper explanation.

Among the many theories that our commentators espouse, is a reference to the philosophical debate of the sages, as to who is greater, a ” Tzadik Ben Tzadik” or a Tzadik Ben Rasha” That is to say, which individual has a greater spiritual capacity – A righteous person who was born into a righteous household, or a righteous person, who did not grow up in a righteous home, but “bucked the tide” and became a devout Jew. In our times, we would ask the question ” who has achieved more, the Baal Teshuva (person who takes on full observance) or the “FFB” – ” frum (fully observant ) from birth”. Surprisingly, there are valid arguments and much support for both of these positions, that are gleamed from various locations throughout the written and Oral Torah.

The Gemara in Berachot states that ” in the place that a  Baal Teshuva
stands, even a totally righteous person cannot stand”. The implication being,
that while a person who was born into a Torah lifestyle, knows of no other
way of life, it is somewhat easier for him / her to remain steadfast to his / her
faith, The Baal Teshuva, by contrast, who has tasted the pleasures and the
lack of restrictions that Judaism demands – when he/ she decides to take
the plunge and agrees to take on the Mitzvot of his/her own volition, this
is the most powerful display of commitment to the Almighty  that a Jew can demonstrate. It is for this reason that the Talmud proclaims, that the
Baal Teshuva stands alone, for he/she has taken a proactive stance in terms
of observance.

The other school of thought is actually predicated on a comment of Rashi,
found at the beginning of Toldot. The Torah tells us that Rebecca, as most
of the matriarchs were, (there is an explanation for this that hopefully we wil discuss one day) was barren, and that she and her husband Isaac,
poured their hearts out to the Lord.  The Torah goes on to say that the
Lord heard Isaac’s prayer, with the implication that it was his prayer and not Rebecca’s that was accepted in the heavens. The great commentator Rashi offers, that “the prayer of a righteous person who comes from a wicked
family, cannot be compared to a person who came from arighteous family.” Rashi, is in effect saying that an FFB, is actually at a higher level than a Baal Teshuva. In light of the persuasiveness of our former philosophy, this latter perspective requires much explanation.

What is it about a Baal Teshuva that makes him/her so special? As we mentioned earlier, it is because he/she made a conscious decision to accept a Torah lifestyle, and therefore have achieved more, in certain ways, than someone who was born and brought up this way. Indeed, it is often easy to spot the Ballei Teshuva. The excitement in their eyes when Shabbat has arrived, The way they conduct themselves during the prayer service, and the fashion, in general, in which they approach their Judaism with zest and zeal. They have this freshness about them, this look in their eyes, as they have finally found what they have been searching for and cherish it deeply.

Now, how about the FFB”? The one who has been brought up with this way of life from the beginning. The one who did not actively choose this lifestyle, but rather it was chosen for him/her. In this case, the ability to do Mitzvot with the zeal and freshness of the Baal Teshuva, is much more challenging to the FFB. As I often mention in my classes, I am thank God, at the point that I rarely forget to make a blessing when I eat. It is so ingrained in me from all my years in the Yeshiva, that it is almost automatic, I don’t give it a second thought. The flip side of this, of course, it that to the extent that it is automatic, unfortunately I am usually rattling off the blessing with little or no concentration as to what I am saying. A person, however, who is learning these blessings for the first time, will undoubtedly recite them more deliberately and with greater concentration, than someone to whom this has become in some ways an act of repetition.

But what if an individual, who was brought up in a righteous home, and is  therefore more likely to take observance for granted – what if that person does approach Mitzvot with the thirst and passion of the Baal Teshuva, so then, in effect says Rashi, that that person is at a higher level than the B.T. The reason being, is that the FFB has had to constantly struggle to keep his/her observance fresh, and has therefore accomplished worlds when being able to meet this challenge.

This was the case with Isaac our Patriarch. He was brought up in a righteous home, indeed, the first Jewish home of all time. Isaac’s greatness was not only who he was, but how he approached his heavenly service, like a newcomer to world of Mitzvot. This, says Rashi, is a greater achievement than the Baal Teshuva, and therefore his prayers, and not his wife’s are listened to first.

With these two opposing philosophies in mind, perhaps we can revisit our original question, regarding the Rebecca and Isaac’s differing view as to which son should receive his father’s blessing. This explanation was told to me by my 10th and 12th grade Rebbe, (He liked so much, that he taught us twice!) Rabbi Yitzchak Heimowitz, whom I hold in high esteem until today.

Rebecca looked at her husband Isaac. She saw how holy a person he was, he was someone who was cut down from the alter of God, and he was the second of the forefathers of our nation. Isaac, she reasoned, came from the greatest of homes, and he was therefore born into a certain way of living. But she saw that despite the fact that his observance could have been stale, he was someone who was careful and meticulous in his Heavenly service. This, she reasoned, was the greatest of traits, a trait that she identified in her son Jacob, who was also an FFB and clung to his observance with fervor. Because of Rebecca’s level of esteem for the piety of her husband, she was certain that the blessing should belong to Jacob.

Isaac, on the other hand, was enamored by his wife Rebecca. He was in awe of the piety she displayed, despite the fact that she came from a house of moral corruption. If such a person, who had the odds stacked against them, and turned it around to become his wife, then others who achieved similar obstacles could also rise to levels of greatness Isaac knew that Esau was terribly flawed, but he also recognized his hidden potential for leadership, the ambitious manner in which he carried out his activities, and his limitless capacity for doing the Mitzvah of honoring his parents. Isaac reasoned that if Esau could just overcome his challenges, as did his mother Rebecca, that he had the potential to be the leader and therefore receive the blessings. Upon learning that he had erred in his assessment, Isaac cries a bitter cry, for he realizes his miscalculation and is faced with the painful reality that his hopes for Esau are dashed.

In truth, it doesn’t really matter whether we were born into one situation or the other, nor does it matter what gifts and talents come to us naturally, or which we have to work harder to attain. The main goal of this world is to take that which is God given and to use it to serve him, in our own special and unique fashion. There are no guarantees in life, not for Esau or for Jacob. Either one can rise above the other, it’s a level playing field right from the start. Talents and inclinations can all be used for the positive or for the negative. There are no absolutes in the Jewish world, which is the wonderful trait that separates us from other religions. Our task is to channel our energies toward the good, and thereby sanctify the name of the Lord.

The Chofetz Chaim, a Torah giant who lived at the beginning of this century, was someone who was very careful about not speaking “Lashon Horah”, slanderous tongue. It is said that for the last 40 years of his life, he refrained from gossip. Upon hearing this, one might think that he was a very quiet person. After all, how social can one be and refrain from gossip? History tells us quite the opposite. He was a very gregarious man who quite frequently engaged in conversation. The key was that he chose about what to converse. Similarly, in our times we need not change our likes and pursuits, we simply need to direct them toward the service of God.

If the heinous Esau had the capacity for blessing, what message does that send to the Jews of today? Each of us is capable of unlocking our spiritual dimensions, as observance need not be an all or nothing proposition. We don’t need the background, we don’t need special skills. All we need to do is to make a proactive choice and realize that each and every Jew can reach the loftiest of heights.

Call us for a class, a private lesson, or just a chat, and together we will grow to our fullest potential!

Shabbat Shalom!