Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya (in Eiruvin 53b) tells that once as he was traveling, he followed a path that extended through a field. He was observed by a young girl, who turned to him and asked, incredulously, “Rabbi, is this not a field?” The girl questioned how the rabbi could walk through somebody’s property. Rabbi Yehoshua explained that he followed a “derekh kevusha,” a paved path, which he had naturally presumed served as a public thoroughfare. Since there was a clearly-paved path running through the field, there was no reason for him to consider it private property.
The girl brazenly retorted, “Listim kemotekha kivshuha” – “Thieves like you paved it!” Meaning, this path became a trail only because insensitive people began walking there, trespassing through somebody’s property. The girl considered Rabbi Yehoshua a “thief” because although the path had already been formed, he had no right to walk through somebody’s field. Rabbi Yehoshua kept silent, having no response to this young girl’s harsh criticism.
The Chid”a, in his Petach Einayim, explains that Rabbi Yehoshua here alludes to the more common phenomenon of people following wrongful paths simply because they have already been treaded upon by many others. So often, we blindly assume that a path is legitimate since we see or hear of other people following that course. Improper modes of speech and behavior, or watered-down standards of religious observance, become acceptable in our eyes because they have become common and widespread. Rabbi Yehoshua here teaches that one of the impediments to repentance and self-growth is this tendency to follow the treaded path even if it leads in the wrong direction, to assume that wrongful behavior which has become common may be considered acceptable. Teshuva requires the courage and fortitude to turn away from improper paths even when we see many other people treading along that path, and to adhere to our principles and values even when the people around us aren’t.