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    I. Who Is Greater?

    Is it better to be good all your life or to turn your life around? Someone who overcomes sin and returns to full observance, a ba’al teshuvah, has utilized for good the greatest human trait — choice, free will. The Gemara (Berachos 34b) praises a ba’al teshuvah as being even greater than a tzadik. Yet, this statement seems like too much praise. Can a tzadik, someone who does everything right his whole life, hold a lesser status than someone who stumbles and then corrects course? The full passage contains a debate between R. Yochanan and R. Abahu. R. Yochanan says that the prophets described reward and comfort only for those who repented, for ba’alei teshuvah. However, the reward for the righteous, for people who never sin, is so great that it is unknown even to the prophets. R. Abahu disagrees with the underlying concept that tzadikim receive greater reward than ba’alei teshuvah. He says: “In the place where ba’alei teshuvah stand, even complete tzadikim do not stand.” Rishonim offer different interpretations of this passage but here I would like to discuss a few of the explanations offered by some of the early Acharonim of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Teshuvah, ch. 4) takes the passage at face value. He explains that according to R. Yochanan, a ba’al teshuvah is still defined by sin because that is the path he left. A tzadik who has no connection to sin is higher than a ba’al teshuvah. R. Abahu would counter that ba’alei teshuvah must cleanse themselves of sin in order to achieve atonement. After a full course of repentance, a ba’al teshuvah is even more pure than a tzadik. Therefore, R. Abahu says that a ba’al teshuvah is higher than a tzadik.

    II. Which Tzadik Is Better?

    Other commentators distinguish between different types of people mentioned in the passage. Mabit (Beis Elokim, Teshuvah, ch. 4) distinguishes between someone who is righteous without any desire to sin and someone who overcomes his desire with minor slips. The latter reaches the highest level. He battles and conquers his desires every day. The debate between R. Yochanan and R. Abahu is regarding the righteous with no desire to sin, no yetzer ha-ra. Does his consistent purity offer him a higher status, even if he was born that way? According to R. Abahu, a ba’al teshuvah who succumbs to his yetzer ha-ra and then defeats it reaches higher than someone with an inherently righteous nature because he earned his place. R. Yochanan sees the natural tzadik as higher and more worthy of reward than the ba’al teshuvah. In contrast, Radbaz (Responsa, vol. 2, no. 832) explains that R. Abahu and R. Yochanan agree but discuss different types of ba’alei teshuvah. R. Abahu’s ba’alei teshuvah are the righteous people who slip but immediately repent out of love for G-d. They are greater than the pure righteous because they tasted sin and overcame it. R. Yochanan’s ba’alei teshuvah refer to those who sinned greatly, were wicked, and then returned. They are the subject of the prophets’ rebuke and comfort but do not surpass the righteous. Both Mabit and Radbaz believe that the righteous person who occasionally slips but repents is higher than the naturally-born tzadik. Mabit believes that even the heavy sinner who repents is greater than a natural tzadik. M a h a r s h a (Chiddushei A g g a d a h , B e r a c h o s 34b) takes a different path. He explains that both groups represent righteous people who have not sinned. However, those righteous people who desire to sin, and must overcome that desire, are considered ba’alei teshuvah for repenting from that sinful desire. The complete tzadikim are those who lack the desire to sin. According to Maharsha, the debate in the Gemara is which type of tzadik is better, one with a desire to sin or without (see Rambam, Shemonah Perakim, ch. 6).

    III. Different Achievements

    Rama of Fano (Asarah Ma’amaros, Chikur Din 4:1) says that everyone is the greatest, each in their own way. He dedicates a chapter to identifying the unique characteristics of the completely righteous and ba’alei teshuvah. Using terminology from Tehillim (34:15), Rama of Fano says that tzadikim excel in doing good (aseh tov), which they have done consistently throughout their lives, while ba’alei teshuvah excel in avoiding bad (sur me-ra), which becomes a focus when they improve their ways. Rama of Fano adds that both R. Yochanan who says that the righteous are on a higher level and R. Abahu who says that ba’alei teshuvah are higher really agree and are merely discussing who is greater in different aspects of religious life — doing good and avoiding bad. For nearly all people, the debate over which tzadik is greater is completely theoretical. We are lucky if we once get a glimpse of a tzadik from a distance. However, as a matter of Jewish thought, the discussion allows us to think about earned accomplishments and inherited traits. Each have value and play a role in setting our paths in life. We should not dismiss that which we cannot control because it is still important, nor should we dismiss that which is in our power and available to everyone. With G-d’s help, we build ourselves on our heritage and our past to create our future.