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Saturday, January 29, 2022
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In the process of teshuva there are many things that can get in the way. In addition to the Rambam’s list of 24 “mi’akvim es ha’teshuva,” spiritual blocks to teshuva, many practical and psychological blocks can also derail a sincere person’s teshuva efforts. One example that seems especially prominent today is the fear of hypocrisy. Friends or clients will often express their fear of improving their ways regarding one mitzvah, for fear that this improvement somehow “contradicts” their struggle in a different area. “How can I put on tefillin this morning,” they wonder, “if I was up late last night doing things I should not have been?” “Is there a point to my learning Torah if I seem unable to stop speaking lashon hara?” This attitude may feel correct in our cultural climate, in which hypocrisy, or being seen as a “flip-flopper,” is one of a politician’s greatest nightmares. Nevertheless, multiple sources indicate this attitude is not consistent with Torah sources and values.

The Gemara in Berachos (22a) relates a story in the context of the impurity resulting from a seminal emission. The Gemara addresses whether a full mikvah immersion is needed for purification, or perhaps a lower standard would suffice. In defending the stringent practice of requiring a full mikvah immersion, the Gemara relates:

מעשה באחד שתבע אשה לדבר עבירה. אמרה לו: ריקא! יש לך ארבעים סאה שאתה טובל בהן? מיד פירש

There was an incident involving one who solicited a woman to commit a sinful act. She said to him: “Good-for-nothing. Do you have forty se’a in which to immerse and purify yourself afterward?” He immediately desisted.

The story contains an obvious, almost comical flaw in the subject’s logic. The man was so concerned about using the mikvah after a seminal emission, so much so that he was able to hold his desire in check. But the rule requiring mikvah after seminal emission was only instituted by Ezra; how could he not have been concerned about the more egregious sin of sexual impropriety that he was prepared to commit? Rashi therefore suggests that the woman was single, and the prohibition would have only been rabbinic.1 Perhaps the answer is more simple: Since he was human, his behaviors did not completely align. Even though he was prepared to give in to the tremendous temptation of adultery (or some form thereof), he was still careful to avoid remaining impure from his seminal emission. Therefore, this woman identified his area of strength, ritual purity, even when he was prepared to break over a weakness.

Another mishna in Pesachim (120b) relates that the rabbis instituted a stringency so that two problematic sacrifices, pigul and nosar2, in addition to being forbidden, also create tumah for those who touch it. The Gemara analyzes the reason for this rabbinic enactment and explains that the reason they made pigul impurify those who touch it was to disincentivize kohanim from intentionally making sacrifices into pigul. The rabbis feared that a kohen could be upset at someone and intentionally sabotage his korban by making it pigul; therefore, they made pigul impure to scare kohanim away from doing so. Again, Tosfos (Pesachim 85a) note the obvious inconsistency, wondering why this kohen, who had no problem violating a Torah prohibition in making this sacrifice into pigul, is now going to be scared off by a rabbinic impurity! Tosfos answer that people took laws of purity seriously, more so than other, even more stringent laws.

In fact, Tosfos reference a gemara in Yoma (23a) describing a horrible incident in which one kohen stabbed another kohen to death while racing to perform the service in the Beis Hamikdash. The Gemara relates that even when the deceased kohen’s father came to mourn, he noted that his son was not yet fully dead and they should quickly remove the knife from his body so it would not become impure through contact with a corpse. From here the Gemara deduces that the people of that generation were more concerned with purity than they were with murder.

To be sure, Tosfos is not suggesting that this was ideal, as is almost explicit in Yoma. However, Tosfos make an astute observation about human nature. Whether the man who needed a mikvah, or the kohanim more concerned with impurity than they were pigul or even murder, human behavior is not always logical and consistent.

Explaining a mishna at the end of Yoma, the Lubavitcher Rebbe offers a powerful insight that provides a perspective that can help understand these other gemaras as well. The well-known mishna at the end of Maseches Yoma concludes with Rabbi Akiva’s hopeful words:

אמר רבי עקיבא אשריכם ישראל לפני מי אתם מטהרין ומי מטהר אתכם אביכם שבשמים...מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקדוש ברוך הוא מטהר את ישראל

Rabbi Akiva said: How fortunate are you, Israel; before Whom are you purified, and Who purifies you? It is your Father in Heaven… Just as a ritual bath purifies the impure, so too, the Holy One, Blessed be He, purifies Israel.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likutei Sichos #17) highlights the extra words in the mishna, “את הטמאים,” “the impure,” as the mishna simply could have said that a mikvah is metaher, purifies. To introduce his explanation, the Rebbe points to a >ishna in Berachos (3:6). The mishna teaches that a person with a moderate level of tumah (e.g., a zav or niddah, who require a seven-day purification process) who experiences a seminal discharge, a milder form of impurity, still requires immersion in the mikvah to purify their milder impurity, despite the fact that they will remain in their state of more severe impurity (based on Rambam’s commentary to the mishna and Rashi’s commentary to the gemara 21b).

Based on this, the Lubavitcher Rebbe understands Rabbi Akiva’s edict in a similar, inspiring way. מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים, “Just as a mikvah purifies the impure” refers specifically to the people identified in the mishna who remain impure. Even though they remain impure after their immersion, the mikvah still works in bringing about some measure of purification. So too, Hashem purifies the Jewish people even when they remain partially impure at the end of the process.

What emerges from the Rebbe’s words is the concept of “half-teshuva,” a person’s ability to become pure from some of their sins despite remaining impure in other areas. This is not hypocrisy but a natural part of human growth. Instead of shying away from or feeling embarrassed about our inconsistencies, we should lean in to making whatever progress we can while returning to our areas of weakness when possible.

Perhaps with this mindset we can gain insight into a perplexing Rambam as well. To open his second perek of Hilchos Teshuva, the Rambam outlines the definition of “complete teshuva,” teshuva gemura:

אי זו היא תשובה גמורה, זה שבא לידו דבר שעבר בו ואפשר בידו לעשותו ופירש ולא עשה מפני התשובה, לא מיראה ולא מכשלון כח, כיצד הרי שבא על אשה בעבירה ולאחר זמן נתייחד עמה והוא עומד באהבתו בה ובכח גופו ובמדינה שעבר בה ופירש ולא עבר זהו בעל תשובה גמורה

An example of the ideal teshuva, the perfect case, is a person who, after sinning with a certain woman, is again able to be secluded with her in the same place, with his same desire and passion, yet withstand the test of sinning again. This sounds mostly inspiring, but one critical question remains: If this is the picture of ideal teshuva, how can this man have secluded himself with this woman again? First of all, there is a prohibition to be secluded with any prohibited woman (yichud). Second, beyond the letter of the law, if this man is the picture of complete teshuva, should he not be avoiding the triggers that led him to sin in the first place? Wouldn’t “complete teshuva” be running away from this woman and never getting an opportunity for seclusion?3

My brother-in-law, Rav Donny Besser, suggests that the Rambam specifically chose this example to highlight this crucial point about the teshuva process. Specifically through this example, the Rambam highlights that a person can achieve teshuva gemura in one area while simultaneously remaining deficient in another area. A person can give into the initial temptation yet be completely forgiven for his illicit act with this woman, while still struggling with the prohibition of yichud. Yes he is a tamei regarding yichud, but a tahor regarding avoiding adultery.

Although a novel approach, this seems to fit nicely with the words of our recent poskim as well. Rav Moshe Feinstein (YD 2:33) was asked about someone going to do something inappropriate,4 and whether they should remove their yarmulke when doing the behavior lest an onlooker mistakenly believe that this behavior is permitted. Rav Moshe responded vehemently that one has nothing to do with the other, and a person must always wear a yarmulke. In fact, someone who sees him without a yarmulke can mistakenly assume that not only is his specific behavior permissible, but evidently, so is not wearing a yarmulke. In explaining his position, Rav Moshe writes:

ואדרבה החיוב לראות על כל אדם אף על עוברי עבירה שיקיימו מה שאפשר ללמדם שיקיימו אף שאין יכולים להשפיע עליהם שיקיימו כל התורה

In other words, a person has to keep whatever mitzvos he can and always do his best. If this man is comfortable wearing a yarmulke but struggling with sexual impropriety, let him at least continue to perform the mitzvah that he can while striving to grow in the other areas. He may be tamei regarding his sexual behaviors, but why make him tamei regarding his wearing of a yarmulke as well.

This ruling of Rav Moshe conforms with this notion of embracing hypocrisy and is consistent with a story told about him as well. Rav Pam once asked Rav Moshe for advice about managing a student in the yeshiva (Torah V’Da’as) who was living with his non-religious parents. Rav Pam asked Rav Moshe how this boy’s teachers should handle his situation, and, for example, let him know that he really should not eat in his own home because of kashrus concerns. Rav Moshe replied (in Yiddish): “Only a convert needs to accept the entire Torah all at once.” Just as he paskened for the man doing inappropriate things with a yarmulke, Rav Moshe advised Rav Pam about this boy’s need to strive and grow in every area possible, without worrying that his learning and davening is hypocritical if he’s still eating cheeseburgers in his home.

A person may believe that his imperfections and inconsistencies are antithetical to his teshuva; in fact, they are an integral part of the teshuva process. Most people are unable to completely change their lives in one instance; it takes many steps over many years. One of the worst things a person can do to sabotage that journey is to fear that the steps forward contradict the steps not yet taken. Instead of focusing on the negative, and what is still lacking, a person should focus on what he has and can continue to achieve. By taking small steps toward growth, and working on things within his grasp, a person can make many beautiful and meaningful changes to his life.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Muschel is the director of guidance at JEC High School in Elizabeth. He also has a private practice in Clifton, where he specializes in dating, marriage and relationship issues. He can be reached at [email protected]


1 See Rav Yosef Engel’s Gilyonei Ha’shas, who understands the woman’s remark differently, although he cites a similar story from a Yerushalmi that is even more explicit in this flawed way of thinking, and ultimately, like Tosfos below, references the gemara in Yoma.

2 Pigul is the prohibition of bringing a sacrifice with a specific improper thought, such as the kohen slaughtering the animal while intending to eat the sacrifice at the wrong time; nosar is leaving over part of a sacrifice past its allotted time frame (usually 12-48 hours).

3 This question has been raised by many of the commentaries on the Rambam, as well as on the gemara in Yoma (86a) upon which his words are based. See Rav Shlomo Kluger’s glosses to Shulchan Aruch (OC 607:2) for a practical, yet problematic solution (see Rav Elya Baruch Finkel’s Pose’ach Sha’ar #8 note 3). See also the fascinating understanding of the Kli Yakar (Bamidbar 19:21) to this passage as well as the strong disagreement from the Tzlach (Derashos, Derash #1)

4 Rav Moshe does not explicitly say what aveirah the person is referring to, but references mixed dancing and “pritzus,” implying perhaps the person was asking about going to a bar or club.

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