R’ Abahu said (Berachot 34b): מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִין שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב לָרָחוֹק בְּרֵישָׁא וַהֲדַר לַקָּרוֹב (In the place ba’alei teshuvah stand, complete tzaddikim cannot stand, as it says [Yeshayah 57:19], ‘Shalom, shalom to him who is far away and to him who is near’, ‘to him who is far away’ is mentioned first, ‘to him who is near’ is mentioned afterward).
This statement seems very counterintuitive if not completely bewildering. How can the level of a ba’al teshuvah exceed the level of a complete tzaddik? What is this ‘place’ upon which the ba’al teshuvah stands that the complete tzaddik can’t stand? The typical answer is that since a complete tzaddik never had a taste for sin and his attraction to it is essentially non-existent, it is no great achievement for him to continue living righteously and to refrain from sinning. However, this is not the case for a ba’al teshuvah, who may have spent the vast majority of his life deeply entrenched in sin, G‑d forbid. He may have fallen to unspeakable levels of impurity [טוּמאָה, tumah]; therefore, when he decides to turn his life around, he has an enormous battle on his hands because the forces of tumah that have held sway over him for so long don’t easily give up their hold. For such an individual to escape their influence and free himself in order to live according to the ways of Hashem is an astonishing and commendable achievement. In this sense, he is greater than the complete tzaddik who never had such temptations in the first place nor sank to such depths.
But there is more to it than that, so let’s explore the issue a little deeper.
R’ Nachman teaches (Likutei Moharan 14:5): שֶׁיְּשַׁבֵּר גַּאֲוָתוֹ מֵאַרְבַּע בְּחִינוֹת שִׁפְלוּת כִּי צָרִיךְ הָאָדָם לְהַקְטִין אֶת עַצְמוֹ לִפְנֵי גְּדוֹלִים מִמֶּנּוּ וְלִפְנֵי בְּנֵי־אָדָם כְּעֶרְכּוֹ וְלִפְנֵי קְטַנִּים מִמֶּנּוּ וְלִפְעָמִים שֶׁהוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ קָטָן שֶׁבִּקְּטַנִּים וְצָרִיךְ לְהַקְטִין אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּנֶגֶד מַדְרֵגַת עַצְמוֹ וִידַמֶּה בְּעֵינָיו שֶׁהוּא לְמַטָּה מִמַּדְרֵגָתוֹ (A person must break his arrogance based on the four levels of lowliness [shiflut], for a person needs to diminish himself before those greater than he, and before his peers, and before those less than he, and sometimes he himself is less than even the ones less than he and then he needs to diminish himself relative to his own level and view himself as if he is on a level lower than his actual level). It is not enough to know this teaching. It must be internalized to the point where we not only know it, but actually feel it, i.e. to really feel in our hearts that others are actually greater than we are.
To make matters even more difficult, included in the category of people who are ‘less than he’ is, of course, the רשע [rasha, wicked person]. So, how is it even possible to feel in your heart that you are less than a rasha?
Ideally, we have to search. R’ Nachman teaches (L.M. 282): דַּע כִּי צָרִיךְ לָדוּן אֶת כָּל אָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת וַאֲפִלּוּ מִי שֶׁהוּא רָשָׁע גָּמוּר צָרִיךְ לְחַפֵּשׂ וְלִמְצֹא בּוֹ אֵיזֶה מְעַט טוֹב שֶׁבְּאוֹתוֹ הַמְּעַט אֵינוֹ רָשָׁע (Know that it is necessary to judge the whole person for merit, and even with someone who is a complete rasha it is necessary to search and to find in him some good point, that in that little point he is not a rasha). It goes without saying for most of us that when we encounter a rasha, we don’t automatically see his good points. Searching takes effort. It doesn’t happen on its own. If we’re not looking we won’t find it. So, how can we find at least one of his good points?
We could start by working at purifying ourselves. As the Baal Shem Tov taught (Bereshit 127): כי האיש אשר הוא נקי לגמרי ולא פגם כלל מעולם אפילו כל שהוא אי אפשר לו לראות רע בשום אדם או שישמע מרע שיעשה שום אדם כי לא יזמין לו השם יתברך לראות רע או לשמוע שום רע ולכן כשרואה האדם איזה איש שעושה רע או שמספרים לפניו מאיזה איש שעשה רע ידע בבירור שיש בו שמץ מנהו מאותו הדבר עצמו ואף אם הוא צדיק מכל מקום יש בו קצת דקצת מאותו ענין והזמין לו השם יתברך ראייה זהו או שמיעה זו כדי שישים אל לבו לשוב ולתקן הפגם ההוא (It is impossible for a person who is completely clean and without any flaw whatsoever to see or hear about evil in anyone, because Hashem will not invite him to see or hear any evil; therefore, when a person sees someone doing an evil thing or if he is told about it, he should know beyond any doubt that there is in himself a stain of that very same evil, and even if he is a tzaddik there must be a minute trace of that sin, and Hashem invited him through this seeing or hearing to deeply consider it in order for him to repent of it and fix the flaw). That turns the table just a little bit, doesn’t it? Seeing a flaw in someone else is supposed to remind us that we possess the exact same flaw, but it’s not easy to keep this in mind all the time. For that, we need da’at, the presence of mind in the moment to understand exactly what is happening, why it is happening, and what our course of action must be.
And a key to having that kind of da’at is to internalize a well known truth (L.M. 49:4): כִּי כָּל אֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל הוּא חֵלֶק אֱלוֹקַּ מִמַּעַל וְעִקַּר הָאֱלֹקוּת בַּלֵּב וְהָאֱלֹקוּת שֶׁבְּלֵב אִישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִי הוּא בְּחִינַת אֵין סוֹף (For every Jew is a part of G-d above [chelek Eloka mima’al], and the essence of godliness is in the heart, and godliness that is in the heart of a Jew is an aspect of the Ein Sof). Even a rasha, if he is a Jew, is holy. He is a chelek of Eloka mima’al—literally. And that part is the spark of kedushah that is supremely and infinitely good. It may be covered with layer upon layer of mud and filth, much like a diamond that fell into a cesspool, but all that needs to happen is for the mud and filth to be washed away with clean water. The holy spark itself is untainted, as we say during Shacharit: אֱלֹקַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא (G‑d, the soul that you gave me is pure). If we keep this in mind, then we can understand what David ha-Melech meant when he said (Tehillim 37:10): וְעוֹד מְעַט וְאֵין רָשָׁע וְהִתְבּוֹנַנְתָּ עַל־מְקוֹמוֹ וְאֵינֶנּוּ (In just a little while, there won’t be a rasha, and you will consider his place but he won’t be there). Where will he be? Will he have been annihilated by Hashem? Is that how the rasha disappears? No, he ceases to be there because he did teshuvah and he’s no longer a rasha! So in reality, there’s no such thing as a complete and total rasha. Therefore, for this reason it is absolutely forbidden for any of us to call any other Jew a rasha.
How come he was the one who sank to such depths? It is because his soul is so lofty. Yes, read that again. The highest souls, when they descend, are the ones that descend to the lowest depths. But they are not just souls that descend to the depths of tumah, they are also souls capable of ascending again together with the fallen sparks of kedushah that fell there. It’s just that they haven’t yet risen together with the sparks of kedushah they interacted with while down there. They have to complete their mission to rescue and elevate them to the lofty heights where they rightly belong.
This is illustrated by the story of R’ Meir and the hooligans in his neighborhood who caused him no amount of distress (see Berachot 10a). He initially prayed for Hashem to have mercy upon them that they would die, but then his wife, Berurya, explained to him that the wicked ceasing to exist didn’t meant that they would die, but rather that they would do teshuvah. Thereupon, R’ Meir prayed for them to do teshuvah, and they did teshuvah! Likewise, the responsibility for the rasha rests in our hands. Perhaps if we prayed for him with greater sincerity and self-sacrifice, he wouldn’t be a rasha anymore, and he will have begun his ascent.
But how can it be that our prayers cause someone else to do teshuvah? Doesn’t this nullify the free will of that other person? This is the secret of the unity that we experienced when we arrived at Har Sinai. As Rashi famously states on Shemot 19:2: כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד (like one man with one heart). If only we had eyes to see the awesome reality of the Nation of Yisrael! It is one spiritual organism, one spiritual body. In other words, we are all connected, directly or indirectly. Therefore, just as a man has only one heart, he has only one head. When we pray for the rasha, he is actually praying for himself. He just doesn’t know it yet.
It is as R’ Nachman teaches (L.M. 25:3): וְדַע שֶׁאֵין שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אָדָם שָׁוִין זֶה לָזֶה כִּי כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת הֵם זֶה לְמַעְלָה מִזֶּה…נִמְצָא כְּשֶׁאֶחָד רוֹצֶה לַעֲלוֹת מִמַּדְרֵגָתוֹ לְמַדְרֵגָה עֶלְיוֹנָה אֲזַי הוֹלֵךְ וְנֶעְתָּק הָאָדָם הָעוֹמֵד בַּמַּדְרֵגָה הָעֶלְיוֹנָה וְהוֹלֵךְ וְנֶעְתָּק לַמַּדְרֵגָה הַיּוֹתֵר עֶלְיוֹנָה כִּי אִי אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים בְּמַדְרֵגָה אַחַת (Know, that no two people are the same, because all souls are [on different levels] one above the other…therefore, when one wants to ascend from his level to a higher level, the one who is already at that level must move on to a higher level because it is impossible that two people coexist at the same level [at the same time]). When we look and find some good point in even the lowest-of-the-lows, we place that individual on the כף זכות [khaf zechut], the pan of merit on the heavenly scales. As such, he is now able to do teshuvah because he has been freed from the כף חובה [khaf chovah], the pan on the other side of the heavenly scales that has been weighed down by the abundance of judgments passed on account of his many transgressions.
Now pause and think for a moment what is actually taking place here. Even if he is at the bottom of the barrel, the lowest rung of the ladder, the most soiled soul in all Am Yisrael, G‑d forbid, the moment he does teshuvah, even the tiniest little bit, even just a thought of teshuvah, he moves up—he went from having no thought of teshuvah to having at least a momentary thought of teshuvah. That’s an aliyah. However, someone is already there at that higher level, so that second person is forced to move up to get out of his way. But wait a minute, someone else is already at that level as well, so he has to move up to make room for the second person, and so on, and so on, and so on, all the way up to the top of the entire structure, to the greatest tzaddik in the nation! The entire body gets elevated. That is the lofty greatness of the rasha. When he does teshuvah, he causes an aliyah in every Jew. No one else, not even the greatest tzaddikim have that specific merit. And that’s the place where the ba’al teshuvah stands that not even the complete tzaddik can stand.
So we must not stand in contempt of the rasha because, in reality, there is no such person. In a little while, we will contemplate his place, but he won’t be there. He will have moved up, and in his moving up, we will have moved up as well. Therefore, we will all owe him an eternal debt of gratitude. More than that, he may even overtake us someday.