Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was once accosted by a highway robber known for his violence and acts of depravity. The thief grabbed Levi Yitzchak by his coat and dragged the rebbe from his coach. Pushing him up against the coach door, the man shouted, “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes,” the rebbe said calmly, “and I must admit to being envious of you as well.”
“You dare to jest at my expense?” the man screamed, his lips almost touching Reb Levi Yitzchak’s nose. “What do you mean — you envy me? What is there about me, a dangerous felon, that you, a sainted rabbi, should envy?”
“Our sages teach,” the rebbe said, “that God so loves the sinner that one who repents of his sins out of love of God has all of his wickedness counted as deeds of merit. Now take myself: My sins are few and minor, and whatever good God credits me with is not helped by these transgressions. But you! You are famous for wicked deeds. If you were to repent out of love for God, no one could match you in merit! And for this I envy you!”
That said, Reb Levi Yitzchak grabbed the robber by his lapels and begged him so compassionately to repent that the thief’s heart melted, and he returned to God right then and there.
The Hasidim teach that there are five kinds of people in the world: the Perfectly Evil Person, who acts without remorse; the Imperfectly Evil Person, who acts with remorse; the Perfectly Good Person, who acts without any sense of self or selfishness; the Imperfectly Good Person, who acts with some sense of self and selfishness; and the Beinoni, the Inbetweener, who experiences life as a battle between selfishness and selflessness.
The Perfectly Evil and Good persons receive no punishment or reward for their actions, for they are incapable of doing other than they do. The Imperfectly Evil and Good persons can experience consequences for their actions, for they know that what they do is either evil or good, but this knowing is so fleeting as to be almost imperceptible. It is the Inbetweener that truly wrestles with good and evil.
For this wrestling to be real, the capacity to sin must also be real. Evil is not an illusion but a force from God that needs direction. Evil is not to be eradicated but channeled toward the good. Only the Inbetweener can do this, for only the Inbetweener knows good and evil as real forces in her life.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is revealing a great truth to this violent thief: It is because of his intimate knowledge of evil that he is capable of turning toward the good. His sins need not be a stumbling block to redemption, but a catalyst for it.
The same is true of you. Do not think that your misdeeds prevent you from choosing good over evil. You can turn to God at any time, and when you do, your evil deeds will be seen as guideposts leading you to redemption, not fenceposts keeping you from it.