Seeing Life In the Distance

Imagine a life in which repentance—teshuvah—is not necessary; a life in which there is no distance to close between action and ideal.

According to the 3rd century sage, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, the promise of such a life was beyond even prophetic imagination. Ba’alei teshuvah, those who work readily at reflective turning and returning, could never really measure up to the completely righteous.

Every single prophet only gave prophesy concerning those who were ba’alei teshuvah. But concerning those who are completely righteous, never needing to repent, no prophet could even imagine it: Never have they been allowed to hear such a thing; no eye other than yours, O God, has envisioned it (Isaiah 64:3).

Rabbi Abbahu, a friendly rival of Rabbi Hiyya’s, disagreed.  He taught that it is the ba’alei teshuvah whose esteem is unimaginable:

The place where ba’alei teshuvah stand is a place where the completely righteous can never stand, as it is said: Peace, peace to the far and to the near (Isaiah 57:19).  This means that peace comes first to those who have been far away; only then to those who were always near.

(Click here for Talmud discussion in Hebrew and English)

Ba’alei teshuvah always discern a distance that must be closed between themselves and the world. Peace comes first to them, as they have been far away.

The wholly righteous have never been far away. They are always within themselves.

The 20th century poet, Yehuda Amichai, picked up Rabbi Abbahu’s theme:

Water cannot return in repentance.
To where would it return? To faucet, to source, to earth, to roots
to cloud, to sea, to my mouth?
Water cannot return in repentance.
Every place is seasons as of old, seas as of old,
every place is beginning and end, and beginning.

(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

Poor water! It is the essence of purity; yet, unable to return in repentance. Like the completely righteous, water is never far away from its beginning. Ba’alei teshuvah, on the other hand, see life in the distance. Theirs is a life of reflective, watery consciousness and they are vessels fit for the journey.


This entry was posted in Days of Awe, Poetry, Talmud. Bookmark the permalink.

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