Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • The Nation of Israel
To dedicate this lesson

On Loving Israel and Relating to Transgressors

The sages told R' Zeira that one should "reject with the left hand and embrace with the right." R' Zeira, however, preferred to focus on the sin, not the sinner. He believed that even a hard-core sinner has a virtuous seed hidden away in his soul.


Rabbi Oriel Twito

Tevet 5676
1. The Danger of Judging Favorably
2. Focusing on the Sin, Not the Sinner
3. Right Hand Stronger than Left
4. Emphasizing the Good in Evil People

The Danger of Judging Favorably
"Loving and defending Israel, on both a national and individual level, is not just an emotional task; it is a great Torah profession, a profound and encompassing discipline" (Rabbi A.I. Kook, Orot, Orot Yisrael 4:1), and it therefore calls for deep study and broad analysis.

However, it also has its emotional and practical sides. The true fruits of the analysis and study of loving the Jewish people appear not in the love of the righteous and the justice embodied in their actions, but in a positive view of wrongdoers and those who have accustomed themselves to undesirable behavior, and in the ability to come to their defense. The essential ingredient in loving the Jewish people lies in taking responsibility for the wicked as well, as Ramchal explains in "Messilat Yesharim":

"There is a second principle regarding the sort of intentions a pious person should harbor - the good of the generation . . . for the Almighty does not desire the destruction of the wicked. Rather, the pious are obligated to merit and atone for them, and this must find expression in [a pious person's] intention when serving God, and also in his actual prayer, i.e., he must pray for his generation, to atone for those who need atonement, to cause those who need repentance to repent . . . and to come to the defense of the entire generation . . . for the Almighty only loves those who love the nation of Israel, and the more a person loves the nation of Israel, the more God loves him."

However, favorable judgment of miscreants, and friendliness toward them, can also be dangerous. Wickedness becomes legitimate - in the eyes of the wicked at least - in light of the silence of the righteous. R' Zeira and the sages of his town disagreed over whether or not to embrace the town's hoodlums. The Talmud relates: "A number of hoodlums lived near R' Zeira, and he befriended them in order to cause them to repent. The sages were not happy with him [about this]. When R' Zeira died, the hoodlums said, 'Until now, R' Zeira . . . would implore divine mercy on our behalf. Who will implore mercy on our behalf now?' They reflected upon this and repented" (Sanhedrin 37a).

The term "hoodlums" (biryonim) denotes people who are wicked toward God and wicked toward people. Though the hoodlums who lived near R' Zeira did not bother R' Zeira himself - and perhaps did not bother the other sages either - they would harrow the residents of the town. And it goes without saying that their deeds did not find favor in the eyes of God.

Nevertheless, R' Zeira would embrace them and be friendly to them. He would see their deeds in a favorable light and give them the benefit of the doubt when judging their behavior toward other people and even toward God (this is apparent from the words of the hoodlums at the end of our story).

The amiability which characterized R' Zeira's relationship with these hoodlums triggered the dissatisfaction of the sages. They saw all the strength these trouble-makers were drawing from the seeming indifference of R' Zeira, his attempts at appeasement, and his friendliness toward them. They noticed that friendship and camaraderie in fact cause the wicked to feel comfortable, despite the injustices they perform.

The sages concluded that embracing the wicked unreservedly, while ignoring their injustices and wickedness, legitimizes such behavior. If it is possible to behave like a hooligan yet remain on intimate terms with the generation's great Torah scholars then such behavior must not be so bad. Disregard, on the one hand, and friendliness, on the other, vindicate the sin and allow the sinner to continue in his ways. At the end of our story it becomes apparent that the hoodlums acted as they did by virtue of R' Zeira's prayers: "Until now, R' Zeira . . . would implore divine mercy on our behalf. Who will implore mercy on our behalf now?"

Focusing on the Sin, Not the Sinner
The sages told R' Zeira that one should "always reject with the left hand and embrace with the right" (Sota 47b). R' Zeira, however, preferred to focus on the sin, not the sinner. He had faith that even a hard-core sinner, even a hoodlum who is wicked toward God and wicked toward people, has a very positive seed hidden away in his soul. One need only strengthen this seed for it to grow and eventually overpower all evil and hooliganism.

R' Zeira knew how to uncover this seed despite its many coverings, even in the soul of the miscreant and the sinner. He knew how to bring it to the level of a person's consciousness so that it change the course of his life. R' Zeira's practice of embracing the far-removed stemmed from his awareness of the value of every Jewish soul. It stemmed from his faith in the divine light that shines in every Jew, even when his actions conceal it. This light remains pure even when its own bearer denies its existence: "My Lord, the soul which you placed in me is pure" (morning prayers).

R' Zeira knew that the good would eventually prevail, if only we not ignore it or throw it out with the other negative traits. He did not ignore the evil and the wickedness, but he knew that it was the good that mattered most, even if it was presently rather small.

In the course of a study hall discussion, Reish Lakish taught that "even the empty [Jews] among you are as full of virtuous deeds as a pomegranate" (Sanhedrin 37b). R' Zeira went even further: "R' Zeira deduced it from the following verse: 'And he smelled the pleasant aroma of his garments' (Genesis 27:27) - read not 'garments' [b'gedav] but 'traitors' [bogdav]."

In other words, R' Zeira finds a pleasant scent not only in the "empty" ones, but even in those who betray the nation and its God. He knows that they are treacherous. He does not blur the difference between good and evil, between righteous and wicked. He does not blur the difference between one who is true to his nation and one who is not, but he understands that the path to rectification calls for emphasizing the good, and not just condemning evil.

R' Zeira's embracing the hoodlums does not stem from his ignoring their doings. It in fact stems from his ability to distinguish between righteousness and evil, between the righteous and the iniquitous. R' Zeira struggles to grab hold of that bit of good, to strengthen it and protect it so that it not be lost, because he believes in its ability to prevail.

R' Nachman of Breslau (Likutei Moharan, Torah 282), who follows the path of R' Zeira, explains this as follows: "Know, that you must judge every person favorably, and even if somebody is completely wicked, you must search and find a bit of good in him, a bit of good wherein he is not wicked. For, by finding a bit of good in him and judging him favorably, you cause him to actually be judged favorably, and you can bring him to repent." You have to know that he is "completely wicked," and you also have to find "a bit of good in him," even just a piece of thread by which to hoist him up.

R' Zeira understands that these hoodlums cannot be helped through rejection and estrangement. Rejecting an evil person causes him entrench himself in his evil and even add to it. Indeed, it is R' Zeira's uncompromising faith in the existence of this "bit of good" that eventually causes these people to repent.

The dispute between R' Zeira and the sages of his town provides us with a contrast of the two approaches to dealing with sinners. Without a doubt, the preferred path is a compromise between these two - i.e., pushing away with the left hand while drawing near with the right, embracing the evil person while openly and clearly rejecting his deeds. But which path should be preferred when the middle path is not an option? How should we deal with transgressors who are not willing to accept ambivalent treatment? It would appear that this was precisely the point over which R' Zeira and the sages of his town were at dispute.

This question is more relevant today than ever before. It seems that no generation has ever considered its own actions so upright, despite their inconsistency with the Torah, as does ours. Members of our generation interpret any negation of their actions as an attack upon their opinions, a rejection of who they are.

Right Hand Stronger than Left
The sages were of the opinion that even now we must continue spotlight the negative behavior of evil people, both in order to distance others from their ways and in the hopes that one day they themselves will understand the evil of their actions.

However, R' Zeira held that the rejection of a wicked person can also destroy the good kernel that exists in his soul, the good aspiration that is struggling to survive. He was of the opinion that it is possible to embrace the far-removed and the sinners while at the same time drawing a distinction between good and bad. The left hand rejects and the right hand embraces, but the right hand is stronger than the left, as "Anaf Yosef," Rabbi Chanokh Zundel, writes (Ein Yaakov Commentary, Sanhedrin 37a):

"Their master, R' Zeira, knew more than these rabbis, and he was aware of the Baraitha warning against such behavior [i.e., pushing a person away with two hands; rather, the left hand should push away while the right hand draws near (Sotah 47b)]. And this is especially true in recent generations when observant people do not have the strength needed to properly defend Judaism and sufficiently distance the hoodlums.

" . . . R' Zeira did not choose such means. Quite the contrary, complete rejection [causes a person to] totally separate himself. It is like adding fuel to the fire. Not only does this not extinguish it, it even adds to the flame. This is why the Baraitha warns, and R' Zeira too was cautious, that the left hand, which is the weaker hand, should push away, while the right hand, which possesses the strength to prevail, should be stretched out to draw near. In this manner they will abandon their sins and improve their ways."

Ultimately, R' Zeira did not merit seeing the fruits of his labor during his lifetime. Despite the fact that he befriended the hoodlums, they continued in their evil ways. In fact, it was his death, of all things, that brought about that which R' Zeira so longed for during his lifetime: "When R' Zeira died, the hoodlums said, 'Until now, R' Zeira . . . would implore divine mercy on our behalf. Who will implore mercy on our behalf now?' They reflected upon this and repented"

The sense of orphanhood that beset the hoodlums with the passing of R' Zeira ignited within them the very desire to do good that R' Zeira had nurtured throughout his life. R' Zeira's loss was so strongly felt precisely because he had been so close. It seems reasonable to assume that if R' Zeira had adopted the approach of the sages, distancing the hoodlums, the hoodlums would not have noticed that there was nobody to pray for them even after his death.

The hoodlums repented not only because there was nobody to pray for mercy on their behalf, but because they now understood the value of the prayer and how necessary it was. More than this, they understood how necessary the personality of R' Zeira was. Suddenly, after his death, when they could no longer approach him, the hoodlums understood just how significant his personality was in their lives.

They understood, a little bit late, the essence of R' Zeira's teachings, i.e., that they too have a good spot inside of them, that they too desire to live upright lives and are capable of building new lives, that the good within them will prevail in the end. The prayer that R' Zeira voiced while alive was answered after his death.

Emphasizing the Good in Evil People
It would appear that our story and its message apply to our generation more so than any other. Our generation contains mixtures of light and darkness, good and bad, and sometimes even evil. The desire to reject the evil in an evil person and to draw a distinction between good and bad leads to an emphasis on the negative, sinful, and repulsive aspects of such a person.

This emphasis makes an impact and helps the righteous understand just how much evil these evil people do. However, the evil people themselves are not convinced. They continue to cling to their ways and influence others with their opinions. In order to help them it is not enough to emphasize the bad. Rather, one must follow in the footsteps of R' Zeira and reveal the positive that exists even within them. One must take firm hold of it and elevate it, and, in so doing, elevate them as well.

Our holy mentor, Rabbi A.I. Kook explained (Maamarei Raaya 1, p. 84) that the difference between Saul and David revolved around this very point. Regarding Saul it is written, "Wherever he turned he condemned" (First Samuel 14:47). His approach was to condemn evil people, to reveal their evilness to all. As a result of Saul's actions "the upright who heard would condemn the insurgents," (Maamarei Raaya, ibid.), but the insurgents themselves did not repent and would not abandon their wicked and blasphemous ways.

David, on the other hand, would "reveal also the good kernel amidst all of the evil," and by so doing he would uplift not only the righteous but also the wicked. "Then the enemies themselves become filled with goodness, and because they achieve a new level of enlightenment they make peace with the righteous who cling to the great collective good."

R' Zeira's behavior teaches us to be critical of flaws and differentiate between good and bad in order to take hold of the good and elevate it. This approach is echoed in the words of Rabbi Kook in his commentary to the prayerbook (Olat Raaya 2, pp. 6-7) on the verse "Your voice is beautiful my beloved and you are without flaw" (Song of Songs 4:7): "The great love we possess for our nation will not blind us from criticizing all of her flaws, but even after the freest criticism, we find her essence to be without flaw. Your voice is beautiful my beloved and you are without flaw."

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