By Rabbi Dovid Markel
An interesting explanation from R. Yosef Engel, on the concept (Berachot 34b) “In the place where Baalei Teshuvah stand, even the completely righteous are not able to stand.”
Besides for the general interest in the thought, it teaches us an interesting lesson in repentance and the impetus that repentance has to propel an individual towards an infinitely deeper appreciation for the very thing that he sinned in than he would have had were he never to have fell.
So, while a person cannot choose to sin saying (Mishna Yoma 8:9) “I will sin, and then repent,” an individual that has sinned can reach a state of tremendous appreciation for G-dliness that would have been impossible beforehand.
He elucidates (Shev D’Nechemta 3) that it is the very sin, that propels the individual to the greatest heights. For the “punishment” for sin is an appreciation of G-d’s greatness:
The Talmud (Bava Kamma 41b) remarks: “R. Akiva came and expounded: “You shall fear the (et) Lord your G-d”: The word “et” serves to include Torah scholars,” i.e., that one is commanded to fear them just as one fears G-d.
It was specifically R. Akiva that had such an intense appreciation for Torah Scholars and it was for this reason, that it was specifically him that understood that the “et” of fearing G-d is to include fear towards the Torah scholar.
To understand this we must first preface a diametrically opposite statement that R. Akiva uttered prior to his study of Torah. The Talmud (Pesachim 49b) states:
“R. Akiva said: When I was an ignoramus I said: Who will give me a Torah scholar so that I will bite him like a donkey? His students said to him: Master, say that you would bite him like a dog! He said to them: I specifically used that wording, as this one, (a donkey,) bites and breaks bones, and that one, (a dog,) bites but does not break bones.”
The transformation of R. Akiva was so intense that he metamorphosed from an individual that had utter detest towards the scholar, to an individual that put them almost on par with fear of G-d.
This can be understood through an allegory brought in the name of the Besht (Toldot Yaakov Yosef, with variations) on the verse (Tehillim 94:1) “O G-d of vengeance, O Lord; O G-d of vengeance show Yourself.”
There was once a king that visited a village and a certain villager disgraced the king. Afterwards he regretted his actions and apologized to the king.
The advisors declared that his regret is worthless on such a great offense, and he must surely be executed.
The king responded though that being that he regretted his actions he should not be executed. However, nevertheless if he receives no punishment there will be no order and therefore he must receive some punishment.
He commanded that he be brought to the capital, and ushered into the palace and its beautiful halls and chambers. For, when he beholds the splendor of the king – something that he before had no concept of – his heart will be full with regret and his hair stand up when he recalls how he had the audacity to disgrace such a great and honorable king. This pain should be the punishment of the peasant.
The meaning of the allegory is that when someone sins towards G-d, and regrets his sin, his punishment is that G-d reveals to him an understanding in His tremendous exalted greatness. This causes him to become embittered and cry bitterly over the extent of his sin.
This is the meaning of the statement “O G-d of vengeance, O Lord; O G-d of vengeance show Yourself.” that the punishment of an individual who regrets his actions is the revelation of G-dliness.
Accordingly can be understood two Talmudic statements. The Talmud (Berachot 34b) states: “In the place where Baalei Teshuvah stand, even the completely righteous are not able to stand.”
The reason is as stated above; normally there is no way for a simple peasant to behold G-d’s splendor. However, in order to elicit true repentance the Almighty will reveal to the penitent – to punish him – a revelation that is never revealed.
Additionally, this is the meaning of the Talmudic (Yoma 86a) statement: “Great is repentance, as it reaches the heavenly throne.” For it is specifically to the penitent who sees G-d’s glorious throne to cause him to regret his actions.
It was for this reason that it was specifically R. Akiva who declared that the word “et” of “You shall fear the (et) Lord your G-d,” serves to include Torah scholars.
Due to his initial hate of Torah scholars he eventually came to appreciate how truly awesome they are. Indeed, this appreciation was a derivative of his very sin. So while his colleagues were unable to learn anything from this “et,” R. Akiva found it meaningful and indicative of the tremendous fear that one should have towards the Torah scholar.