Rabbi Cordovero begins the Seventh Level of Mercy with a well-known teaching from the Talmud (Berakhot 34b): “in a place where penitents stand, not even the completely righteous may stand,” a statement that counterintuitively affirms the power of repentance. Not only is the penitent accepted back into Divine favor, the penitent is drawn still closer than before the transgression! Rabbi Cordovero derives the reason for this phenomenon from another Talmudic passage connected to the Hebrew letter he (pronounced “hey”), which is shaped like a kind of covered patio: roofed overhead, a wall to the right, a half-wall to the left, and open at the bottom (ה). The repentance process takes place when a person falls out the bottom of the he. It is impossible to climb back along the same path of descent; rather the penitent must ascend on the outside of the letter, finally entering through the tiny opening at the top left. This arduous process gives the penitent greater strength, and renders the penitent more beloved to God than even the completely righteous individual who has never fallen.
From the human perspective, the Seventh Level of Mercy addresses the damage done to a relationship through betrayal. Even after tearful apologies are spoken and accepted, the natural tendency is to hold back a certain degree of affection or respect as a result of prior harm, regardless of how intensely and sincerely the other may repent. The Seventh Level dictates that not only should the relationship be restored to its earlier strength, it should even be improved as a result of the commitment to renewal.
God does not behave as human beings behave. After someone angers another, forgiveness is usually partial and they do not love each other as they once did. When a person sins and repents, however, God holds him in even higher regard. This is as it is written: “the place where penitents stand, not even the completely righteous may stand.” The reason is explained in the Talmud regarding the Hebrew letter he (ה). Why is it shaped like a covered patio? This to teach us that anyone who wishes to leave this world may leave.
God created the world created with the letter he. God created it with a wide bottom facing the side of evil and sin, a side that cannot be free of materialism, the desire to do evil, and imperfection. This is like a covered patio. There is no protective fence below, just a great opening to the side of evil. If one wishes to leave this world—there are so many exits for such a person, and one cannot turn without encountering sin and transgression, an opening to the outside. There is also an upper opening, such that if a person returns, he or she will be accepted. One might ask, “Let the person return the same way?” The answer is “this would not help.”
The penitent cannot rely on standard defenses against sin as the righteous may. Since the righteous have not sinned, a light fence is sufficient for them. A sinner, on the other hand, needs robust and multiple fences, since the light fence has already been destroyed. If one were to approach this fence, it would easily be destroyed again by the evil inclination. Such a person needs to maintain maximum distance. Therefore it would be insufficient for this person to re-enter the patio in the way he exited. He must climb up and enter via the small opening, and suffering and self-denial will seal up the gaps. For this reason, “the place where penitents stand” is higher because they did not enter via the portal of the righteous to be with the righteous. Rather, they mortified themselves and rose up to the higher opening, practicing self-denial and separating from sin so much more than the righteous. Therefore they rise up and stand in the level of the he, the fifth chamber of he that is in the Garden of Eden. This is called “the roof of the he.” The righteous, meanwhile, are in the opening of the he, the entrance to the patio. Thus when a person repents, this brings the he back into its place, returning the Shekhinah to God. This return is not characterized by the earlier love alone, rather a far deeper love. This is the meaning of “He will again show mercy,” that God will invest greater mercy in the Jewish people, healing them and drawing them closer.
So too should people behave with one another. One should not retain the hatred from an earlier anger. Rather, when a person sees that someone desires love, the level of mercy should be increased and love should be deepened to an even greater degree than before. One should say, “behold, this person is to me as a penitent, and even the completely righteous cannot stand in his or her company.” One should draw the penitent close with the greatest of affection, even more than one would lavish on the completely righteous, who never gave offense.
Henry Abramson serves as Dean of the mighty Avenue J campus of Touro College. A specialist in Jewish history and thought, he is the author of several works, most recently Torah from the Years of Wrath 1939-1943: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh. His online lectures in Jewish history are available at henryabramson.com.
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