Rashi writes that the sin is that a stolen object is in his possession. If he does not seek to make restitution, he is compared to one who is holding a defiled object in his hand while seeking purification at the same time. The Pnei Moshe (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 2:1) explains a similar Gemara as referring to one who not only is in possession of stolen objects and seeks to perform mitzvot with them, but one who also is plagued with sin. Such an individual should not pray until he has divested himself of his sins.
This scenario seems comparable to our situation of a Sabbath desecrator leading services. He presumably has not repented his ways, and yet he seeks to lead the prayers!
Yet, we see the greatness of Rabbi Hodakov and Rabbi Hecht, whom we quoted earlier, who believe that we look at the person as he is while praying. At that moment there is no “defiled creature” in his hand – i.e., he is not performing any prohibitive Sabbath labor. To the contrary, he is praying to Hashem and seeking to benefit the neshamah of his dear departed relative.
Indeed, it would seem that the gaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Kol Ram Vol. I on Parashat Shelach, recorded and edited by Rabbi Avraham Fishelis) has the same view: we are to look at a person’s present condition. (Rav Moshe is writing in reference to the meraglim.) Surely we can be kind enough to give one the benefit of the doubt when he is engaged in a matter that is of great merit – a benefit for the departed soul and also a benefit to the congregation that he is now leading in prayer.
G-d rewards pious behavior even if it is only temporary. And we, through our actions in accepting a Jew for who he is, are afforded yet another opportunity to draw one of the fold back to the proper path of Torah and mitzvot observance.
(To be continued)