Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Reuven's Teshuva: A Model for Life-Long Growth

"Reuven returned to the pit" (37:29). The Medrash (84:19) understands "returned" to mean repented (see Rashi). Hashem tells Reuven, "No one has ever repented. You are the first to repent. By your life, your descendant will be the first to call for general repentance, as it is written, 'Return, Yisroel, unto Hashem (Hoshea 14:2)'". Reuven was the first to repent without being confronted and chastised by Hashem, as Adam and Cain were before they repented. His teshuva was not from fear, but was the first repentance from love. This teshuva meahava reaches Hashem's throne of glory, as indicated in Hoshea's words, "unto (ad) Hashem (Yoma 86a)" (Medrash Hamevuar).

Hoshea continues, "return to (shuvu el) Hashem" (14:3). Perhaps "to" means towards Hashem. Even if one cannot return all the way unto Hashem and His throne of glory, he must, nonetheless, move closer to Him [1]. The plural "shuvu" may indicate that most teshuva is incomplete. The singular "shuva" may refer to the rare person who reaches all the way unto Hashem. Anticipated failure to reach the end of the road should not deter one from beginning the journey.

On Yom Kippur, even turning to face (lifnei) Hashem enables purification (Vayikra 16:30). In contrast to those whose backs are to Hashem, our eyes look to Hashem (Sukkah 51b). On Succos we rejoice that Hashem grants purity for minimal teshuva on Yom Kippur. However, we must continue to strive to return towards Hashem and even unto Him.


In a place where ba'alei teshuva stand, the originally righteous, tzadikim gemurim, cannot (Berachos 34b). Maharsha rejects the simple meaning, and interprets a ba'al teshuva as one who was tempted by sin and overcame the temptation. Thus a moshail b'rucho is greater than a chasid hame'uleh (Rambam, Shmone Perakim chap. 6).

The proof text, "shalom shalom larachok v'lakarov" (Yeshaya 57:19) may provide a different interpretation. A karov is one who is near to Hashem in comparison to a  complete ba'al teshuva who has reached all the way to Hashem and is considered greater.

Often, today's ba'alei teshuva observe laws too often neglected by others, who suffer by comparison. This is analogous to righteous converts, whose zeal in performing mitzvos is "difficult" for born Jews who are not so meticulous (Tosafos Kiddushin 71a).

"When does a ba'al teshuva become an indistinguishable part of the tsibbur? When he begins to talk in shul!" This recently printed comment illustrates the extraordinary single mindedness associated with ba'alei teshuva. This includes a refusal to succumb to the failings of most originally observant Jews.

In the shema, we are all commanded to love Hashem with all our hearts, souls, and powers (Devarim 6:5). Such love is able to overcome all other loves - of others, of life, and of money (Rashi). Only by repenting, from non-observance or imperfect observance, with love, me'ahava, can one reach this level.

The second paragraph of the shema is in plural form and omits "m'odechem". The community at large, even if serving Hashem, cannot reach the level of loving Hashem totally (Tanchuma, Noach, 2). A ba'al teshuva, unburdened by the accepted foibles of the tzibbur, is sometimes able to rise above "tzaddikim gemurim".

Perhaps "gemurim" connotes completed, one who has finished his spiritual development. Although a tzaddik gamur may be close to Hashem, a ba'al teshuva, who is constantly striving for perfection, can surpass him.

Since no one is perfect, all of us should aim to be ba'alei teshuva. After all, Reuven repented for only one indiscretion. Yet, since he did so out of love, his example, and the articulation of his descendant Hoshea, continue to inspire teshuva forever.

The colloquial usage of ba'al teshuva, limited to one who repents from non-observance, is unfortunate. It reflects insufficient desire by observant Jews to transcend their completed state of righteousness, formed, and limited, by communal norms. A great rov mistakenly assumed that a questioner was from a non-observant background. The individual protested, "Rebbe, I am not a ba'al teshuva." The rov responded, "Why not?" Indeed.


1. The Malbim interprets el as closer than ad. Ad is teshuva from fear, as the end of the pasuk - for you have stumbled through your iniquity - is understood (Yoma 86b). If Medrash Hamevuor is correct, the opening phrase calls for preemptive teshuva from love, by which one can reach Hashem and His throne. The subsequent phrase, which chastises iniquitous stumblers, refers to teshuva miyirah. If el is less far reaching than ad, the next pasuk (14:3) refers to this lesser form of teshuva.

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