So who are you, really?

Friday, 21 May, 2021 - 6:32 am

One of the most impressive ba’alei teshuva (returnees to Judaism) in our history is the Talmudic sage, Reish Lakish.

There is, of course, Rabbi Akiva, mentioned so often for having made a huge change in his life – until age 40 he didn’t know how to read, and only then began his journey and became Rabbi Akiva. But Reish Lakish is a different story.

This was a person who grew up in a Torah-centered home, who knew about Torah and mitzvot, and yet became a highway robber; in fact, a notorious leader of highway robbers. That is, until he met Rabbi Yochanan who caused him to do teshuva, whereupon he became one of the greatest of Amora’im (Talmudic sages); the Gemara is full of his sayings.

Perhaps that is why he is the one who made one of the most meaningful and essential statements regarding the close connection between a Jew and his Creator – and maybe even more than that – a statement that redefines a human being’s essence: “Reish Lakish says, a person does not transgress unless a ruach shtut (which can be loosely translated as ‘momentary insanity’, or ‘spirit of folly’) enters him.”

When a person transgresses one of the mitzvot, chas veshalom, performing a forbidden action, naturally we tend to define him according to his deed. And not only we do so; he too defines himself according to his bad deed. But then Reish Lakish, who lived in all the worlds fully – from a chief of robbers to one of the foremost Talmudic sages – comes and says, “Stop. Your deed does not define you. You remain who you are. It’s just that a spirit of folly entered you and derailed you from the right path.”

And not only that: Reish Lakish brings proof for what he says from a passuk in this week’s parasha, parashat Naso. “Any man whose wife shall go astray”. From the fact that the Torah wrote the word tiste (“astray”) with a sin (shin) and not with a samech, Reish Lakish learned that we are talking here about a ruach shtut – also with a shin. This is a case of a woman who is suspected of not being faithful to her husband – which is not a small or light transgression; it’s a heavy transgression, a most significant wrongdoing, and it is from this pasuk that Reish Lakish learned that it is caused by a “spirit of folly”.

Perhaps Reish Lakish is teaching us that in order for us to repent and do teshuva we have to first remember not to define our essence according to a bad deed we have done. Because knowing that deep inside, in one’s essence, a Jew is still a good and pure person, hosting a holy soul – and though the actions may be dirty and bad, they are not the person himself, but something external, attached to him – grants one the hope and the power to get up and return to the source, to whom he really is, to what he really is: holy, pure and refined.

That is what Rabbi Yochanan said to him when he saw him when he was still a highway robber: “Your strength is suitable for Torah.” Instead of rebuking him, Rabbi Yochanan ignored the robber’s external aspects and said to him: I can see your essence; nothing has changed in your essence. Your essence is clean and pure, and suitable for Torah. And Reish Lakish pulled himself together and repented.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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