Bamokom Sheba’ali Teshuvah Omdim

Who is greater—the ba’al teshuva or the tzaddik? The Jew who
has sinned and repented, or the Jew who is pure and righteous? The Jew who has
returned to tradition from a secular background, or the one who came from an
observant family? Chazal tell us that the righteous cannot stand in a place
where ba’alei teshuva stand. According to the Rambam, this is the
decisive view of our Sages. Yet, it would not seem that way from Rashi in this
week’s parsha.

Yitzchak and Rivka both davened for children. The Torah
relates that G‑d answered Yitzchak, and Rivka became pregnant. Why was he
answered, and not her? “There’s no comparison” explains Rashi, “between the
prayer of a tzaddik born of a tzaddik (Yitzchak, son of Avraham) to that of a
tzaddik born of a rosha (Rivka, daughter of Lavan).” It appears that
Yitzchak’s prayers were more effective simply because his parents were frum and
Rivka’s weren’t.

This also stands in contradiction to a responsum of the Rosh,
in which he was asked the following question: There were two candidates to lead
the Rosh HaShana services. One came from a distinguished family, but was himself
undistinguished. The other was himself a distinguished person but whose
parentage was undistinguished. The Rosh ruled that the latter, who had more
merit of his own, should be chosen, because “what do we care about his fathers
when it comes to prayer?” This would appear to contradict the Rashi. (Now, we
could say that the difference is that both Yitzchak and Rivka were great
tzaddikim. However, the way the Rosh puts it, there seems to be no consideration
whatsoever for family merit.)

There’s a wonderful answer in Rabbi Aharon Krokotsky’s
M’sukim M’dvash: He writes that Rivka was not barren due to any physical defect.
Rather, as Chazal say, G‑d wanted to hear the prayers of the matriarchs, so He
placed them in situations in which they had to pray. As the Ohr HaChaim points
out, it says in the text that “they prayed, and she was barren.” It should have
been in the reverse order; since they were davening because she was barren, her
condition should have been mentioned first. But since, as Chazal say, it was
because of G‑d’s desire for her prayer that she was barren, prayer is the cause,
and is therefore mentioned first. Had it just been Rivka praying, and HaShem was
enjoying the prayers of the tzaddik ben rasha, He would have extended the
whole process, and she would have remained barren longer. But since Yitzchak was
also praying, and his supplication wasn’t as coveted, G‑d answered him, and she
got pregnant. So when Rashi says that there is no comparison between the prayers
of a tzaddik ben tzaddik and a tzaddik ben rasha, he actually
means that the latter is superior, and that it was Rivka’s prayers that won G‑d’s

One problem remains, however. In the time of Chazal the
halacha was that different grades of reshoyim were not allowed to be
buried together. For example, someone who was executed by stoning wasn’t buried
next to someone executed by strangulation, which is considered a less severe
penalty. It would follow, then, that a tzaddik should not be buried adjacent to
a ba’al teshuvah, since the latter is acknowledged to be on a higher
level. Yet, there is no such stipulation in Jewish law.

But why is the ba’al teshuvah greater? Because he
overcomes so much more. For someone who grew up with Shabbos, there is usually
little or no temptation to smoke or drive or watch television. But for a person
from a non-observant background, those same temptations may loom very large (at
least in the beginning). As a result, his Shabbos observance is deemed greater.
(And even though we have a principle that someone who performs a Torah
commandment voluntarily is not rewarded as much as one who does so out of
obligation, the ba’al teshuvah, by definiton, is someone who has already
accepted the obligation.)

But that’s qualitative. Quantitatively, the person who is
“frum from birth” has many more Shabbosos to his credit. So, if we consider any
given moment, it is true that the ba’al teshuvah wins. That’s the meaning of the
words: b’makom sh’ba’alei teshuvah omdim—where they stand, at any given
moment—even the totally righteous must move aside. Over time, however, the
cumulative merits of the tzaddikim even things out. That’s why they can be
buried next to one another.

Or, in other words, ba’alei teshuvah are greater when
they are standing; but not when they’re lying down, six feet under.

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