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Tzaddik — The Baal Teshuvah

Tzaddik — The Baal Teshuvah


A man living in California once came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for yechidus (a private audience). He was afflicted with an incurable case of psoriasis and came to ask the Rebbe for help. He told the Rebbe, “I’ve heard great things about you. I’ve heard that you perform miracles and I came to ask you to perform a miracle for me. As for my background, I went through the Holocaust. I don’t pray to G‑d and I don’t believe in G‑d. But I do believe in tzaddikim (completely righteous people). My father was a Bobover chassid and always went to his Rebbe for blessings, so I’ve always believed in the power of tzaddikim.”

The Rebbe replied that a tzaddik has no power of his own. A tzaddik is merely an extension of G‑d here in this world to help people, which he does by tapping into G‑d’s powers. “If you don’t believe in G‑d, you cannot believe in me.”

The man waved his hand, “Eh! I still believe in tzaddikim.” So the Rebbe told him to take off his shirt and undershirt and stand up. The Rebbe got up from his chair. He took his two hands and put them on the man’s right arm and slid them from top to bottom, upon which the psoriasis disap­peared. The Rebbe repeated the action with the man’s left arm and again the man’s scales receded. Then the Rebbe took his two hands and applied them to the man’s chest and back. The psoriasis fell away. The Rebbe told his visitor that he normally did not perform revealed miracles. Generally, Heav­enly assistance would appear in a more concealed manner. But there are always exceptions to the rule. He hoped that from that day on, the man would once again believe in G‑d and begin living a life of Torah and mitzvos.1


Tzaddik is the eighteenth letter of the alef-beis.

The design of a tzaddik is a yud on top of the letter nun.2 One interpretation of the nun is that it stands for ona’ah, deceit and fraud. By nature, most of us have the misconception that it is the physical world that is the source of ultimate truth and pleasure. But the yud, or Divine intellect, is added to the nun to teach us that the material world is ephemeral, and not the source of consummate goodness and joy. Therefore there must be something truer and more G‑dly upon which to focus. This heightened intention is the essence of the tzaddik.

The Zohar recounts that when G‑d wanted to create the world, every letter of the alef-beis came before Him and said, “G‑d, create the world with me.” The tav came first, and then the shin, and so on. Then the tzaddik appeared before G‑d and said, “G‑d, create the world with me. I am the tzaddik, the righteous one.” So G‑d responded, “Yes, but because you are righteous you must be hidden. Therefore, I cannot create the world with you.”

Chassidus asks why this is so. If the tzaddik is righteous, why wouldn’t G‑d have wanted to use it to create the world? Every creature in the world would then be upright and pure.Rather than living in a realm of immorality, theft and deceit, we would live in a world that is safe, peaceful and G‑dly. What would be wrong with that?

The answer is that it would be too easy. G‑d’s intention is that we should be born into an incomplete physical world and strive to perfect it. With the G‑dliness that flows from the yud, we can strengthen our ability to overcome the nun, the pleas­ures of the corporeal world. The tzaddik must therefore be concealed in Creation so that one strives for righteousness on his own.


The numerical equivalent of the letter tzaddik is ninety. In Ethics of Our Fathers3 it says: “When one reaches the age of ninety, one is bent over (lashuach).” On a physical level, this means that at ninety, a man is infirm and bowed with weak­ness. On a spiritual plane, it represents the concept of humility. When one reaches ninety, he has become so spiritual and humble that he bends over for G‑d. He is no longer an inde­pendent character but an extension of G‑d Himself.

At the age of ninety, one has achieved a heightened level of prayer. He has the ability to feel a direct connection to G‑d when he prays. Additionally, it is explained in the Midrash Shmuel4 that the word lashuach means “to pray constantly.” That connection is the foundation of a tzaddik. A tzaddik exists not for his own benefit, but to serve as an offshoot of G‑d. We go to tzaddikim to pray on our behalf because we know that the prayers of the tzaddik will be answered.5


The name tzaddik means “righteous one,” a leader and teacher of a generation. We also know that many tzaddikim are called Rebbe. This tradition began with Moses, the first Rebbe of the Jewish people. Another famous tzaddik known as “Rebbe” is Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah. There is a Rebbe in every generation, a tzaddik who is that era’s spiritual leader.

What is the concept of a Rebbe? “Rebbe,” רבי, is an acronym for Rosh B’nei Yisrael, “the head of the Jewish people.”6 What is a head? The head of a body is its control center. It gives life, nourishment, and direction to the rest of the body. It also feels the pain, desires and needs of every aspect of its body.

A Rebbe, then, is both literally and figuratively the head of the Jewish community. When a person has a dilemma, what should he or she do? Perhaps the problem is whether or not to visit Israel, buy a house, or marry a certain man or woman. That person goes to visit the Rebbe. Just as the head houses the eyes, the Rebbe is the eyes of his community. He has the ability to see things that the lone questioning individual cannot.7

A Rebbe’s ability to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people is not magic. It is a natural and organic outgrowth of his right­eousness. Just as it is perfectly normal for the head to feel and respond to the needs of the whole body, it is natural for the Rebbe to feel and respond to the needs of his people.

What sources support the premise that a Jew can get closer to G‑d through communication with a Rebbe? Moreover, doesn’t Judaism frown on “intermediaries” between man and G‑d? The answer lies in the mitzvah u’ledavka bo,8 which means to cleave to G‑d. The Rambam,9 based on the words of the Talmud, asks, “How is it possible that one should cleave to G‑d? G‑d is fire and we are physical. One who touches fire will burn.” The Sages answer,“‘To cleave unto Him’ means that we should cleave to wise men and to their disciples,” i.e., tzad­dikim. We cleave through connection with a tzaddik, who is one with G‑d. Furthermore, believing in tzaddikim is based on a verse in Exodus said every day in our morning prayers:10 “[The Jews] believed in G‑d and Moses His servant.”11 The Mechilta12 queries, “Why is it important to tell us that the Jewish people believed in Moses His servant? How can we equate our faith in Moses with our belief in G‑d?” The answer is, without faith in Moses, or the Moses of every generation, there cannot be belief in G‑d.

G‑d puts tzaddikim in this world to testify to the fact that He exists.13 By virtue of our connection to these righteous people and our belief in them, we are provided with a channel to connect with G‑d.

The letter tzaddik has two forms. There is the bent tzaddik which occurs at the beginning or middle of a word. Then there is the straight tzaddik which occurs at the end of a word. What is the significance of each? The straight tzaddik represents the baal teshuvah, one who has worked to improve his connection to G‑d and returned to his essential holy nature. The bent tzaddik is born righteous, but has not yet reached the level of a baal teshuvah. As we are told, even a complete tzaddik cannot stand in the place of a baal teshuvah.14 A baal teshuvah stands higher.

What does this mean? How is it possible that a baal teshuvah—one who has sinned all his life and then decides to change—stands higher than a tzaddik? There are two reasons. The first is that the one who has transgressed has already tasted cheese­burgers and lobster, and relished them. Now he must wrest himself from their grip. It is similar to the difficulty experi­enced by a long-time smoker who now wants to quit. There might be a certain temptation on the part of one who has never smoked to try a cigarette. But having never smoked, it is much easier for him to control the temptation. One who has already experienced its physical pleasure, however, might be hooked. It is very difficult to extirpate that aspect from his life, and it requires tremendous strength and commitment. Thus a baal teshuvah who was born to a non-religious home, who never learned anything about Judaism, and lives according to the secular ways of the world creates an elevated connection to G‑d when he decides to change. G‑d says, “You, My dear child, stand higher than the tzaddik.”

The second reason the baal teshuvah stands higher than the tzaddik is that the wrongdoings of the baal teshuvah are con­verted into mitzvos. Once his past sins have been renounced, they are actually credited as positive command­ments.15

How is this possible? The answer to that question requires a discussion of the method by which neutral and impure entities are spiritually elevated.There are two arenas in the physical world: the realm of the neutral and the realm of the impure. The realm of the neutral contains things that are capable of being elevated to holiness, like kosher food, Shabbos candles, and an esrog (citron) for the lulav. Those things that are com­pletely impure (i.e., pork, forbidden relationships) cannot be elevated and are therefore prohibited.

As an example of how the neutral realm can be affected, let’s say that I take an apple or a piece of kosher chicken and make a blessing on it before eating it. What’s my ultimate purpose in eating? Not to satisfy or gratify my selfish personal needs, but to acquire the strength to serve G‑d. Making a blessing before one eats empowers the individual to elevate the food. In so doing, the neutral realm of the food has been elevated to the level of spirituality.

Conversely, consider the fact that I’m eating simply because I’m ravenous. I just want to fill my stomach, and G‑d is the last thing on my mind. In this instance, I’m taking the neutral arena and drawing it down into the three levels of impurity. This arena of impurity denotes not only that which is prohibited—pork, shrimp, non-kosher meat and so forth—but that which is neutral and debased through improper action or intention.

Now, how do I elevate that which is impure by nature—that which is unable to be elevated under normal circumstances? By resisting it. For example, you’re walking down the street and see a hot dog stand. You have a desire to eat a hot dog even though they are not kosher. The moment you say, “No, I won’t eat one,” you’ve performed a mitzvah. You get credit for a mitzvah by not eating it, by curbing your desire. This is the meaning of fulfilling a negative commandment. Nevertheless, while the credit for fulfilling a negative (passive) command­ment is similar to performing a positive (active) one, it is not quite identical.16

Now, to return to the original question, let’s say you’ve transgressed a negative commandment (e.g., done or eaten something prohibited). How do you transform the penalties associated with violating a negative commandment into the rewards generated by performance of a positive command­ment? This is accomplished by the decision to do teshuvah. You say, “G‑d, I’m sorry for the past. I want to return to You. I will never sin again.” At that moment, all the accumulated sins become positive commandments.17

Perhaps by knowing this someone could say, “Great. Now I can go down to the hot dog stand, eat a few frankfurters, and make up for it by doing teshuvah later.” Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Anyone who says, “I will intentionally sin and then return to G‑d later” is not given the opportunity to repent.18 A person can’t engage in the teshuvah process in a deceptive, self-serving manner. The essence of the baal teshu­vah’s return is the pure desire to rectify a previous wrong and return to his intrinsic connection to G‑d. Can the one who sins in the present with the idea that he’ll repent later, in fact repent? If he is stubborn, yes. Nothing can stand in the way of teshuvah, and even for the worst sins in the Torah a person can repent. But in general, if one sins in order to repent, he will not be given the opportunity to do teshuvah.

It states in the Zohar19 that when Mashiach comes to the world, he will cause all the tzaddikim to do teshuvah. This means that Mashiach will bring a heightened awareness even to that person who has served G‑d perfectly every day of his life. This is the bent tzaddik. This tzaddik will be blessed with an even greater desire and urgency to perform mitzvos than he previously possessed. He will have the ability to go beyond his nature and do more than he did yesterday. Thus the bent tzad­dik will also acquire the qualities of the baal teshuvah, the straight tzaddik.

When a child is born, he is administered an oath, “Be a tzad­dik and do not be wicked.”20 From birth, every individual has the ability to become a tzaddik.21 If one constantly recalls the existence of this oath, he or she can undoubtedly bring it from potential into reality.

  From the tape series “Mashiach, the Crown of Creation,” tape #3. Story told by Rabbi Immanuel Schochet.
  Zohar III, p. 180b; Sefer HaArachim Chabad, Osios, letter tzaddik, p. 315.
  5:22, according to Rashi’s commentary on the mishnah.
  Even though one prays directly to G‑d, one’s prayers can sometimes be rejected due to one’s sins and ego. But the prayers of a tzaddik, which are refined and untainted, can pierce through all the heavenly gates.
  Degel Machne Ephraim, Parshas Yisro; also see Sefer HaMaamarim 5710, p. 254; Toras Menachem 5713, vol. III, p. 144.
  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) said in the name of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), “Even misnagdim (non-Chassidic Jews) need a Rebbe; however, the problem with the misnagdim is that they are too critical, and as a result do not find one (The Rav, vol. 1, p. 159, op. cit.).
  Deuteronomy 11:22.
  Positive Commandment #6.
  Siddur Tehillat Hashem, p. 39, 164.
  Exodus 14:31.
  On the above verse.
  See Sefer HaIkarim, book 3, chs. 8, 12.
  Rambam’s Code of Jewish Law: Laws of Teshuvah 7:4.
  There are three basic ways to acquire merit through the commandments: The first comprises the 248 positive, or active, commandments (i.e., doing something that has been commanded). The second includes the 365 negative, or passive, commandments (i.e., refraining from doing something prohibited). The third is the transformation of a negative commandment into a positive one (through the process of teshuvah or repentance).
  Resisting a negative commandment is considered “as if” you’ve done a positive commandment, whereas doing teshuvah (i.e., regretting something you did wrong and resolving not to do it again) is considered an actual positive commandment. See Kiddushin 39b; Makkos 23b. See also Likkutei Sichos, vol. 1, p. 203.
  Yoma 86b.

          It is interesting to note that while resisting something prohibited gives the person credit for a positive mitzvah, there is a way that completely impure things can be elevated to holiness: Let’s say a non-observant youngster had a weakness for ham sandwiches. Years later, when he did teshuvah, the ham, having become part of his body, became elevated along with the rest of him in the teshuvah process. In this way, something completely impure was able to be elevated. A tzaddik, on the other hand, would never even think of going near unkosher food, let alone indulge in it. So a baal teshuvah can actually elevate more elements of creation than the tzaddik. This of course does not give one license to say, “I will sin and then do teshuvah,” as is explained in the following paragraph.

  Ibid. 85b.
  III, p. 153b.
  Niddah 30b.
  Sefer HaSichos 5751, vol. 2, p. 533, Parshas Emor. See translation in Sichos in English, vol. 48, p. 159, where it states: “One might object and point out that in Tanya itself it is written that not every individual can necessarily become a tzaddik, and that one does not have complete free choice in this area. However, since a Jew has the essence of G‑d within him, ultimately even this is within his reach. Furthermore, after all the purification, etc., of the Jewish people over the course of time, now every Jew is able to reach the level of tzaddik—similar to the way things will be in the Messianic Age.
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Anonymous Pittsburgh, PA April 8, 2014

apologies/a correction The reference in previous comment was to "rebbe" as "rosh bnei yisroel" and a question as to why this wouldn't be "lebbe" / similar as "levav bnei yisroel". Reply

Anonymous Pittsburgh, PA April 8, 2014

rebbe -- feeling all the pains and desires I have heard a similar description of Israel, in connection with which we are called the "heart" of the nations.

Seemingly, "heart" and "head" are not synonymous.

Why rebbe and not libi/levavi? Reply

Anonymous pretoria, South africa June 16, 2009

Final Tzadik-Baal Teshuvah Great explanations of the Alef Beis!
But if the baal teshuvah is greater than the tzadik, why is he always second-class, at the end of the word? Reply

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