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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Do people really change?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 78


Kayin was angry.  Hashem had accepted his brother’s offering and spurned his.  In a fit of rage, he jumps up and murders Hevel.  Suddenly, the Almighty appears and inquires as to his dead brother’s whereabouts.
“Am I brother’s keeper?” he famously responds.  At that point, Hashem pours out His wrath upon Kayin for his heinous crime.   Realizing the horror of his actions, he appeals to G-d to forgive him and effect atonement upon his soul.  Sure enough, his Father in Heaven forgives him.

But that’s not sufficient for Kayin. 
“I need protection!” he exclaims, “Anyone who sees me will attempt to avenge my brother’s death!”
Our Sages tell us that G-d agreed and provided a watchdog to accompany Kayin everywhere he would go for his safety and security. 

But why did Kayin need protection after he had done teshuva?  Who would attempt to kill him after he had repented?

Concerning the cohen, the Torah states, “A woman who is a harlot or a chalal, they may not marry.”
Rabbi Yehuda says: The daughter of a male convert is forbidden to marry a cohen, just like the daughter of a male chalal.  And it stands to reason: If a chalal – born of a chalal father and Israelite mother, which is a permissible relationship – came from kosher (Jewish) seed and yet his daughter may not marry a cohen; then, a convert who derived from non-Jewish seed, does it not follow that his daughter should be similarly forbidden to marry a cohen?
The Gemara responds: As opposed to a convert, a chalal was formed in sin (since a cohen may not cohabit with a divorcee). 

Not to be confused with Muslim meat, a chalal is the offspring of a cohen’s improper relationship, (such as with a divorcee).  While a chalal loses his father’s priestly status, he may still marry a regular Israelite woman.  However, chalal status is passed on from one generation to the next, and his daughter likewise carries the chalal gene and may not marry a cohen.  Or, let’s say he had a son; that son is a chalal and his daughter may not marry a cohen. 

Despite Rabbi Yehuda’s thoughts on the matter, the Gemara points out that a convert may not be compared to a chalal.  The daughter of a convert may indeed marry a cohen.  A chalal was formed in sin, since his parents were not allowed to be together.  By contrast, a convert’s parents might not have been Jewish, but they were certainly allowed to be together.  And therefore, his formation was in a permissible setting.

On a spiritual level, of course, the true formation of the convert doesn’t take place at physical conception, it takes place at the moment of conversion.  At that point, our Sages tell us, he is like a newborn!  That’s the deeper meaning of the Gemara’s insistence that unlike the chalal, the convert is formed, not just in a permissible setting, but in a purer than pure setting!   He is not simply formed; he is transformed!  Following the conversion, he is an entirely new entity!

The truth is, even if you were born Jewish, all is not lost!  The convert’s experience is instructive to every sincere penitent.  You too could experience transformation.  The Talmud tells us that when one undergoes genuine teshuva (repentance), he actually transforms all his sins into merits.  That’s how powerful teshuva can be!  In other words, the pork that he ate yesterday is now no longer a sin; it’s a mitzvah!

That is the meaning of our Sages’ dictum, “In the place that baalei teshuvah (penitents) stand, even the utterly righteous do not stand.”  Why?  Because the person who never sinned can never get the mitzvah of eating pork!  Of course, it is absolutely forbidden to sin in the first place, but if you did, you have immense potential for achieving spiritual greatness!   You could become an entirely new being!

The bigger problem lies with the rest of us.  When you transform yourself, will we continue to judge you as if you were the same person as yesterday?  Or will we accept the new you and treat you with the reverence and respect you deserve?  It’s forbidden to bring up their past to a convert or a baal teshuva.  Why? It’s not a lesson about them and their sensitivity; it’s a lesson about us and our inability to accept this new incarnation that stands before us.

Sadly, over the last couple of years, there’s been a spate of Jewish leaders found guilty of minor wrongdoings, and, in some cases, major crimes.  Let’s say one of these individuals does their time in jail and uses the period wisely, reflecting on their criminal activity, doing teshuva, and making restitution to their victims.  When they are set free, how will we treat them?  Will we continue to judge them by their past actions or will we pass the test of our faith and believe that a person can do a complete teshuva and transform themselves into an entirely new being?

That’s what Kayin was afraid of.  He knew that Hashem could accept his teshuva, but he was worried that his fellow human beings would never judge him favourably.  Yes, he had been a murderer.  But he had done teshuva.  And Hashem had forgiven him.   If you were to have met him, would you have been able to leave the past in the past and judge him as a transformed entity?

In fact, the most powerful example of genuine transformation offered in the Talmud is the case of a wicked individual who hands a ring to a woman and says, “Behold you are married to me on condition that I am completely righteous.”  What’s the law in such a situation?  Our Sages rule that they are married, because we assume that at that moment, in his heart of hearts, he transformed his life and decided to start fresh! 

Did such a case ever exist?  Probably not.  But the message is clear: No matter what you know about a person’s behaviour, you must deal with them believing that yesterday – or even five minutes ago – they made the decision to transform themselves for the better! 


People can change.  People do change.  When that happens – and even when that doesn’t happen – may you merit judging every individual in the most favourable light imaginable!