Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik
by R. Aharon Ziegler
The Gemara Avodah Zara (18a) relates that when R’ Chananya ben Tradyon was burned at the stake by the Romans, pieces of wool soaked in water were placed over his chest to prolong his agony. The Roman executioner, intensely moved by his suffering, asked R’ Chananya whether he could be guaranteed a place in the World to Come if he removed the wool so as to hasten R’ Chananya’s death. When R’ Chananya answered affirmatively, the executioner not only acted accordingly, but he also jumped into the flames as well. At that point, a voice came from Heaven and proclaimed that both R’ Chananya and the executioner would enter the World to Come.
In response to this Heavenly verdict, R’ Yehudah HaNasi cried, marveling at how some individuals merit the World to Come only after a lifetime of effort, while others acquire such reward after only a brief effort. Furthermore, Rav Soloveitchik emphasized that the executioner not only earned a share in the World to Come, but achieved the same level as did R’ Chananya in this regard.
Why did R’ Yehudah HaNasi have such an emotional reaction to the afterlife destiny of the executioner? The answer, said the Rav, is that although prior to this incident R’ Yehudah HaNasi had certainly understood the power of Teshuvah, but he had NOT previously appreciated the power of HIRHUR TESHUVAH, the” awakening “ of Teshuvah. If Teshuvah is indeed a multistep process, which involves a HAKARAT HA’CHET, recognition and admitting to having done something wrong, B-Feeling remorse about it, C- and resolve not the repeat the sin again, then how can an individual possibly be considered righteous after only a moment of thought? To which Rav Soloveitchik answered, that only through HIRHUR TESHUVAH, which is spontaneous, instinctive and sudden. In one second, an individual can live the jarring experience of awakening from spiritual slumber.
(source: Before HaShem, p.7)