Great is Teshuvah, Which Ascends unto the Throne of Glory
Concerning Resh Lakish, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 84a) recounts that when he saw Rabbi Yochanan bathing in the Jordan River, he dived into the water and swam after him. Rabbi Yochanan then said to him, “Your strength should be used for the Torah” (that is, he had the strength necessary to support the yolk of Torah). He added, “If you repent [for he was the head of a group of armed robbers] I will give you my sister in marriage.” Resh Lakish accepted to repent, and from that moment on, he found it impossible to swim in the Jordan River against the current. Later, he began to study with Rabbi Yochanan. One day, they came upon a question concerning when, in the manufacturing process, swords and knives become susceptible to impurity. Needless to say, they disagreed on the answer. Contrary to Rabbi Yochanan, Resh Lakish believed it to be from the point at which “they have been dipped in water.” Rabbi Yochanan told him, “It is true that you were a robber, You should therefore be familiar with all the instruments of robbery!” To this Resh Lakish replied, “How have you benefited me? There I was called ‘Master’ and here I am called ‘Master’!” Rabbi Yochanan responded: “What good have I done you? I have brought you under the wings of the Shechinah!”
I read a book that asked many questions on this passage, ones that were in fact very surprising and difficult to understand. At first glance, it is impossible to conceive that a tongue as holy as the one of Resh Lakish could utter the words, “There I was called ‘Master’ and here I am called ‘Master’,” exactly as if there was no difference between the two situations! Rashi’s explanation (in which he states that “I was called ‘Master’” refers to when Resh Lakish was a leader of armed robbers) does not diminish our astonishment. Is there no difference between being the leader of armed robbers and a Rav in Israel? This question concerns not only the word “Master” by itself, but by what it refers to: First of all, he was a murderer, then he became a great Rav! Rabbeinu Tam explains that beforehand, Resh Lakish knew a great many things, but that he had rejected the yolk of mitzvot to the point that he stopped studying anything and eventually devoted himself to crime. From this perspective, “There I was called ‘Master’” refers to the time before he became a criminal, to when he had diligently studied. Yet the difficulty of the story remains. The Maharsha explains that Resh Lakish’s response to Rabbi Yochanan indicates that the latter had offended him by saying that he (Resh Lakish) should know about the weapons that armed robbers use, and Resh Lakish responded by saying that even before he was a criminal, he knew that dipping swords or knives in water completed their manufacturing process (hence rendering them susceptible to impurity from that point on). Rashi also believes that Resh Lakish was hurt by Rabbi Yochanan referring to him as an armed robber. Consequently, even according to the opinion of Tosaphot, we find this difficult to understand. For in admitting that Resh Lakish had known many things before becoming an armed robber, it still remains that he had abandoned everything and that Rabbi Yochanan had brought him back to Torah and placed him under the wings of the Shechinah, which indeed greatly benefited him. What, therefore, does “there I was called ‘Master’” mean?
In my humble opinion, we can explain this by the following. We begin by examining the verse that states, “And a man’s holy things shall be his. What a man gives to the priest shall be his” (Numbers 5:10). We know that man was created with great strength in order to serve his Creator, for he possesses 248 members and 365 tendons that together correspond to the 613 mitzvot (Makkot 23a). The more a person invests himself in Torah, the more light he merits, which allows him to conquer his desires. However, if he unfortunately transgresses and falls into sin, this causes a Kelipah to come and envelope his body, surrounding him in great darkness (Zohar II:243a). Therefore, if he completely returns to G-d with all his heart and takes upon himself the yolk of Torah and the kingdom of Heaven, he will rid himself of the Kelipah that envelopes his 248 members and 365 tendons.
Since, in fact, it is written, “And a man’s holy things shall be his,” and not simply “A man’s holy things shall be his,” the letter & (“and”, having a numerical value of 6) teaches us that we are speaking of the type of man created on the sixth day (Genesis 1:27), a man in a state of holiness and purity, like fine flour, whom G-d touched with His mouth, as it is written, “And he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). And since “the breath of a person comes from his innermost being,” G-d breathed into man His own breath in order to make him holy and pure so that all his 248 members and 365 tendons spiritually correspond to the 613 mitzvot. In this situation, those holy things which a man possesses belong to himself. However if he lowers himself to the level of a man, simply, and he sins, he can thereafter give all this holiness over to the priest, who symbolizes G-d (meaning that after the man sinned, he completely repented), and it henceforth belongs to the priest. G-d gives it back to him, accepts his repentance, and erases all sins, a process that calls to mind the verse that states, “If your sins are like scarlet, they will become white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).
We see from here the power of Teshuvah, which stems from the effort that we put into studying Torah and into purifying and sanctifying our entire body. It is as if there had been a rebirth, as if we had never sinned. Resh Lakish said, “Great is Teshuvah, thanks to which deliberate sins become merits” (Yoma 86b). Thus the body returns to the initial state of holiness that it possessed when it was created on the sixth day.
All this will allow us to perfectly understand the discussion between Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan. When the former saw the latter in the river, he mistook him for a woman and immediately jumped into the water. Yet when he noticed that it was really a man, he then had the opportunity to rob him, for Resh Lakish was a leader of thieves. Instead of this, he preferred to begin a conversation with him, which means that, having recognized his sin, Resh Lakish understood just to what levels he had stooped in chasing after a man that he had mistaken for a woman, which led him to consider repentance. Perceiving his thoughts, Rabbi Yochanan took advantage of the situation to bring him back to Torah study and repentance. This is what the discussion between them was about.
Resh Lakish believed that the thoughts he had of doing Teshuvah – in noting just how low he had sunk – had emanated from him, even before Rabbi Yochanan had spoken to him. Proof of them stems from the fact that no one has ever seen a leader of armed robbers radically change his life after just a single conversation. This is why he told Rabbi Yochanan, “There I was called ‘Master’ and here I am called ‘Master’,” meaning that even if he was the leader of a band of armed robbers when he met him, from the moment he considered repenting, Heaven called him “Master”. This is because it is possible to acquire the world to come in an instant (Avodah Zarah 10b). Consequently, when he took upon himself the yolk of the Torah and repentance, and had also sanctified himself, he was no longer able to swim in the Jordan River against the current, for Torah exhausts the strength of a man (Sanhedrin 26b). From Heaven he was called “Master” even when he was still a thief, because he had taken upon himself to study Torah without any self-interest involved. However when Rabbi Yochanan proposed that he marry his sister as a reward for studying, this constituted a great test for him, that of studying Torah out of self-interest! What service, then, did Rabbi Yochanan do for him? How was that useful for him? It wasn’t because of Rabbi Yochanan that Resh Lakish had returned to G-d. Therefore he owed him absolutely nothing.
However, Rabbi Yochanan believed that Resh Lakish had repented because of him, since Rabbi Yochanan was the reason that he chased after him (since Resh Lakish thought he was a woman), and it was that event which led him to consider Teshuvah. Consequently, this changed nothing if he had been called “Master”, since in the end it was Rabbi Yochanan who was the source of Resh Lakish’s about-face. And as Rabbi Yochanan had, for the remainder of his life, believed that he was the one responsible for bringing Resh Lakish back to Torah, when he later heard in the course of their discussion that it wasn’t because of him that Resh Lakish had repented – that Resh Lakish had taken this step beforehand – he also understood that Resh Lakish was angry that he (Rabbi Yochanan) had introduced into his Teshuvah an element of self-interest, and he bore a grudge at Resh Lakish because the latter was angry at him. And it was this grudge that led to Resh Lakish’s death.
Actually, the Gemara says that at the moment when Resh Lakish fell ill, his wife (Rabbi Yochanan’s sister) came to find him in order to ask that he have pity on her husband. Rabbi Yochanan responded to her by quoting the verse that states, “Leave your orphans; I will sustain [them]” (Jeremiah 49:11), thus refusing to intercede on behalf of his brother-in-law (Bava Metzia 84a). In effect, the wife of Resh Lakish also thought that he had repented and taken upon himself to study Torah in a selfless way, and not because he wanted marry her, for she knew that he exemplified the verse that teaches, “And a man’s holy things shall be his,” meaning that his entire Teshuvah was done solely with the goal of sanctifying his 248 members and 365 tendons, and to become pleasing to his Creator (“What a man gives to the priest shall be his”).
It is also told that Rabbi Yochanan greatly suffered after Resh Lakish’s death, for he could find no disciple that was like him. He was sent Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat, and whatever Rabbi Yochanan told him, he would bring a proof to support that view. Rabbi Yochanan told him, “Do you want to be like [Resh] Lakish? He would ask me 24 questions and I would give him 24 answers, but not you.” In the end, Rabbi Yochanan lost his mind, and so the Sages implored G-d for mercy on his behalf and he left this world. He had thus suffered enormously for the loss of Resh Lakish, for he had understood that his entire Teshuvah had been done without any ulterior motive, not because he had wanted to marry Rabbi Yochanan’s sister. Rabbi Yochanan knew that Resh Lakish was the living embodiment of the principle: “And a man’s holy things shall be his,” in purity and holiness. (Incidentally, this alludes to the fact that, on the numerical level, the value of the words in “And a man’s holy things shall be his,” added to the number of words in that expression, is equal to the numerical value of “Rabban Shimon ben Lakish”). Great is Teshuvah, for it ascends unto the Throne of Glory.