A Tale of Two Sinners

By Ido Hevroni

How repentance turns one's vices into virtues.

Life is bleak for released prisoner 24601. Since leaving prison, a yellow certificate of discharge has been his only companion. It is a mark of Cain, a reminder to him and a proclamation to others of his criminal past. He cannot bear the weight of this tainted identity. He changes his name to Father Madeleine. In time, he becomes an esteemed industrialist famed for his generosity, an upstanding member of the community. He no longer answers to the name Jean Valjean.
Prisoner 24601 appears to have set himself on the high road: “Having established himself at Montreuil-sur-mer, happy to feel his conscience saddened by the past and the last half of his existence giving the lie to the first, he lived peacefully, reassured and hopeful, with two remaining thoughts: To conceal his name and to sanctify his life; to escape men and to return to God.”1 And yet, the past still casts its long shadow over Father Madeleine. In one of the most powerful moments of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables, Madeleine must publicly acknowledge his true identity in order to save an innocent man from being wrongly convicted. Compelled by his conscience to take the witness stand, Madeleine declares: “I am Jean Valjean…. I have done my best. I have hidden under a name, I have become rich; I became a mayor. I wanted to live again among honest people. It seems this cannot be.”2
Despite having paid his debt to society, Jean Valjean remains a prisoner of his past. In this, Hugo’s fictional character exemplifies the plight of the baal tshuva, the Hebrew term for a person who has repented his misdeeds and changed his ways. Like the reformed ex-convict, the baal tshuva must contend with profound social challenges. To be sure, religion, law, and psychology all recognize that a person is capable of meeting these challenges and of positively, even radically, transforming his life. Yet it does not necessarily follow from this acknowledgment that society will accept him. One can hardly blame a community for its reluctance to entrust a public office to a former prisoner, and many parents are similarly averse to placing their children’s education in the hands of a teacher with a less than exemplary past—to take just two examples among many.
While the social challenges facing the baal tshuva are enormous, by far the greatest struggle takes place within his own soul. For the far-reaching change he desires to achieve may require him to denounce aspects of his past, repress certain memories, and even dissociate himself from people and places he once held dear. In other words, by opening a new spiritual chapter in his life, he has simultaneously cast all previous chapters in doubt. He may thus be wracked with uncertainty. He wonders how he can reconcile who he once was with who he intends to be. How can one person contain two different selves, one a sinner and the other redeemed? Must he deny his prior identity in order to create a new one? Or is it possible—even preferable—to carry his old self with him?
The dilemmas that plague the baal tshuva troubled our sages as well. On the one hand, as wholehearted believers in the possibility of personal improvement, they were awake to the promise of tshuva. On the other hand, they were all too aware of how difficult its practical realization is. Hence, the sages handled the spiritual and social predicament of the baal tshuva with particular care, as evidenced by the two rabbinic stories discussed here.
The first story, from Sifre Numbers, recounts the tale of a Gentile prostitute who abandons the world of sin, converts, and marries a Jewish yeshiva student. The second story is taken from the talmudic tractate Bava Metzia. It describes the life of Resh Lakish, a bandit in his youth who went on to become a famous scholar. As we will see, both of these stories demonstrate the complex ethical and psychological outlook inherent in the Jewish approach to repentance, expressed succinctly in the saying of Resh Lakish: “Tshuva is great, for it turns one’s vices into virtues.”3
We begin with the story of the prostitute who converts to Judaism following her encounter with a yeshiva student. The student, having heard rumors of her expensive services, travels halfway across the world to partake of them. He manages to overcome his lust at the last moment, however, and in so doing sparks the fire of religious awakening in the prostitute:
It happened that there was a certain man who was very careful about the commandment of fringes. He heard that there was a certain prostitute in the seaside cities who would receive four hundreds gold pieces as her fee. He sent her four hundred gold pieces, and she fixed a time for him [to visit her].
As soon as his time arrived he came and seated himself at the door of her house. Her maidservant entered and said to her: That man for whom you have fixed a time, he is sitting at the door of the house. She said to her: Let him enter.
As soon as he entered, she spread out seven silver cushions and one of gold for him, and she was upon the uppermost, and between each cushion there were supports of silver, and the uppermost one was of gold. And as soon as he approached to do the deed, his four fringes came forth and they appeared to him like four witnesses, and they slapped him across the face.
Immediately he withdrew and he sat upon the floor. She also withdrew and sat upon the floor.
She said to him: Agape of Rome!4 I will not let you go until you tell me what defect you have seen in me!
He said to her: By the temple service! I have not seen any defect in you, for there is no one with your beauty in all the world. But the Lord our God has ordered us to follow this one small commandment, and written concerning it, “I am the Lord your God… I am the Lord your God”—two times. “I am the Lord your God”: I am to pay reward; “I am the Lord your God”: I am to exact punishment.
She said to him: By the temple service! I will not let you go until you write for me your name, and the name of your city, and the name of the beit midrash where you study Tora. And he wrote for her his name, and the name of his city, and his teacher, and the name of the beit midrash where he studied Tora.
And she arose and distributed her wealth—one third to the government, one third to the poor, and one third she took with her, and she came and she stood within the beit midrash of R. Hiyya.
She said to him: Rabbi, convert me!
He said to her: Perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the students [of my beit midrash]. She showed him the note.
He said [to the student]: Arise! Take possession of what you have purchased. The beddings which she spread for you while prohibited to you, she will spread out for you with full permission.5
Much as we would expect, the story opens by focusing on the student, the “natural” hero of our tale. After his aborted encounter with the prostitute, however, he effectively disappears from the narrative. Now she becomes the main character and leads the story back to its point of origin—the beit midrash, the house of study. While the student’s role in the story is worthy of analysis in and of itself, I will concentrate here on the ethical and religious transformation undergone by the prostitute, a heroine not only by dint of circumstance but also on account of her independence and assertiveness in pursuing virtue.
Let us begin by examining the story’s basic plot. When the student first presents himself to the prostitute, she does not sense anything extraordinary about him. On the contrary, he is just another paying customer, so to speak. But then the student surprises the prostitute by rejecting her. The baffled prostitute assumes his rejection must be the result of a physical imperfection. She gets off the bed, sits beside him, and demands, “What defect have you seen in me?” It is now, when he and the prostitute are both literally and figuratively exposed to one another, that the student expounds upon the essence of his belief in God, reward, and punishment. His words shake her to the core. She sends him away but not before asking for his name, the city in which he lives, and the address of his yeshiva. Immediately thereafter, the prostitute discards of two-thirds of the cumulative wages of her sins. She then goes in search of the student, bringing with her the remaining money and the unused bedclothes she had prepared for him.6

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