Maran zt”l was quite fond of the following story because it illustrates how great the level of one who distances himself from sin and repents fully before Hashem really is.
The Gemara (Shabbat 56b) states, “Rav said: There is no greater repentant person than King Yoshiyahu in his generation, as the verse states, ‘And before him there was no king like him who returned to Hashem with all his heart.’” Rav added, “However, there is an individual in our generation who is quite a great Ba’al Teshuva by the name of Abba, father of Rabbi Yirmeya bar Abba.” Rav Yosef adds, “There is another great Ba’al Teshuva in our generation by the name of Ukvan bar Nechemia who was also the Resh Galuta (i.e. Head of the Diaspora, a high-stature position and was considered the President of the Jewish nation residing in Babylon) also known as ‘Natan Tzutzita’ (a reference to the sparks of fire that emerged from his Teshuva).”
Rabbeinu Nissim bar Yaakov records the story behind Natan Tzutzita in his Sefer Ha’Ma’asiyot:
There was once a very wealthy man by the name of Natan. He laid eyes upon a woman by name of Hannah, who was married to another man, and he very much wanted to marry her. As a result of his extreme desire to marry Hannah, he became very weak and ill. He was told by his doctors that there was no hope for him unless he married this woman. The Sages of Israel ruled that Natan was to die from his illness rather than to marry this woman in a prohibited fashion, for this constituted the prohibition of adultery for which one must give up his life rather than transgress the sin.
At the time, Hannah’s husband was extremely destitute and many creditors would pressure him to repay his loans until they eventually had him thrown in prison. His wife would weave wool all day and night and with the money she earned from her labor, she would buy some bread and take it to her husband in prison for him to eat every day.
After a while of being incarcerated in prison, this man’s mental health took a turn for the worse and he wished to die rather than to live such a life. He told his wife, Hannah, “Please, go to Natan who is an extremely wealthy man and ask him for a loan so that you can get me out of jail.” Hannah told him, “Have you not heard that Natan is very ill because he so desires to marry me?!” Hannah became very angry at her husband and she left and went home.
Several days later, Hannah pitied her husband and she returned to the prison to visit him. At this point, he once again tearfully begged her to go take a loan from Natan so that she may extricate him from prison. Hannah had mercy on her husband and she prayed to Hashem that she not come to sin. She made her way to Natan’s home and she proceeded to request a loan from him so that she could release her husband from jail. Natan instructed his servants to give her the amount of money she requested.
Natan then told Hannah, “I have fulfilled your wishes as you requested of me. You are aware that I am very ill because of you. Now, fulfill my wishes!” Hannah replied, “I am in your hands and I cannot possibly oppose you. However, see here, my master, that you have a tremendous opportunity to acquire a share in the World to Come. Please do not do something that will cause you to lose all of your reward in the World to Come. You are full of Mitzvot like a pomegranate with all of your charity and good deeds and it is a shame for you to lose it all for something so fleeting! Think to yourself that you were on the verge of fulfilling your own desires but then you overcame your Evil Inclination, as the Mishnah states, ‘Who is the true hero? One who overcomes his desires.’ Then, you will fulfill the wishes of your Creator and you will be fortunate in this world and praiseworthy in the next!”
As soon as Natan heard Hannah’s words, he received a jolt of strength, leaped from his bed, and quashed his Evil Inclination. He prayed solemnly before Hashem and exclaimed, “Please Hashem, help me this one time to overcome my desires and guide me in the true and just path in Your eyes so that I may repent fully before you and I will not be ashamed in this world or humiliated in the next. Help me Hashem for the honor of your name!”
Sometime later, Rabbi Akiva was walking with his students and he paid attention to a man riding on a horse; the man’s head was adorned with a celestial light that shined forth like the sparkle of the Heavens. Rabbi Akiva asked one of his students, “Who is the man riding the horse?” The student replied, “That is Natan who wishes to take a married woman for himself!” Rabbi Akiva asked, “Do you see anything on his head?” The students replied, “No.” Rabbi Akiva summoned Natan and asked him, “My son, what have you done to merit this?” Natan then proceeded to tell Rabbi Akiva the entire incident, what Hannah told him, and how he repented fully before Hashem. Rabbi Akiva was truly happy and told him, “Fortunate are you in this world and praiseworthy in the next. Now my son, come to me and I shall teach you Torah so that you may inherit a share in the World to Come.” Natan then proceeded to study much Torah from Rabbi Akiva and he merited eternal life in the World of Truth, blessed be his memory.
Based on the above incident we can learn that although there is no Rabbi Akiva in our generation to tell us what spiritual level we are on, nevertheless, we must believe that through any action performed by an individual, especially repenting fully for a specific sin and distancing one’s self from that sin, one merits being on an extremely lofty spiritual level where a Heavenly light shines upon him and he shall merit entering the World to Come and the place where the righteous seek spiritual satisfaction in the future.