Rabbi David Walk
In Jewish law there are basically three categories of crimes or, if you prefer, sins. They are meizid or purposeful, shogeg or inadvertent, and on'es or beyond one's control. Obviously, this is an over simplification. Especially in shogeg there are many variations. There can be shogeg which is close to meizid, because you should have known what you were doing was wrong. And there is shogeg which is close to on'es, because the circumstances made it very hard to realize that your act was against the law. For our purposes we'll make believe (I love doing that) that a shogeg is a shogeg is a shogeg, with apologies to Gertrude Stein. This week is a perfect time to discuss this issue because shogeg features prominently in this week's Torah reading.
In chapter 15 of the book of Numbers we have a relatively long explanation of the process to be followed if one mistakenly transgressed against the Torah's legal system. There are two scenarios described. The first possibility is if the entire community made the mistake, and the second is if the error was committed by an individual. I'm fascinated by one verse in this section, namely: The entire congregation of the children of
To understand my problem you'd have to hear about many years of my youth, but in this case, it will suffice to hear the rabbinic explanation for this verse. When you read the verse it seems to mean that whenever everybody does something, that act moves from meizid (purposeful) into the category of shogeg. Psychologically, this makes some sense because, for many years I've been listening to students and offspring telling me 'but everybody's doing it.' This explanation seems perfectly good enough for them, and they can't fathom why it's insufficient for me. I grudgingly concede that there is some logic to that position, because it's hard to buck the tide of public opinion. However our Sages in the Mishneh (Horiot 5:2) explain that this verse only refers to a case where the community erred only because Sanhedrin or the high Jewish court issued an incorrect decision. The shogeg factor comes from the court's conclusion, not from social pressure.
I would like to point out to all my young students and children (none of whom read these articles) that a recent article in Psychology Today (March 23, 2011) listed caving in to social pressure as a negative factor for longevity. Live longer (and maybe prosper), by rejecting peer pressure to engage in unhealthful activities.
Now back to the shogeg issue. It makes sense to reject social factors in shogeg from the context of our Torah reading. At the beginning of this week's reading the Jews are punished severely for following the mob concerning the report of the ten pessimistic spies. If social pressure were enough to create a shogeg phenomenon, then the culpability of the Jews in the desert should have diminished, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Remember the anniversary of this mass transgression is Tisha B'av, which remains our national day of tragedy to this day.
So, how come we begin Yom Kippur with a fervent triple pronouncement of this verse? We don't have a Sanhedrin or universally accepted legal authority which could generate these national mistakes described in the verse. Kol Nidre itself was probably written in the eighth century many years after the last Sanhedrin closed its doors about 325 CE, and our verse was added even later. Therefore the technical sense of this verse is no longer applicable. What do we mean by the statement that we're all in the category of shogeg or mistake?
Perhaps, we're saying something radically different than the normative approach. Maybe we're saying to God and ourselves that at this moment we regret those actions which at the time we committed them we did on purpose. This regret changes the meizid into a shogeg, because of retroactive remorse. We're stating that if we knew then what we know now, we wouldn't have planned to perpetrate such a deed. This repentance doesn't eradicate the act, but transforms it into a lower category transgression. And how do I know that this is true of all the people assembled in the sanctuary every Yom Kippur? Because that's why we came. Our presence and our demeanor demonstrate our penitence.
This is a critical juncture in our spiritual growth. When we sincerely regret an action, two things must happen. First we must think like Reb Chayim of Volozhin (1749-1821), who said that everyone stumbles, our job is to minimize the falls. And, secondly, please, follow the advice of Mel Schwartz in A Shift of Mind, don't identify mistakes with failure. Generally, a mistake is a decision or an action that we fear we'll come to regret. Mistakes usually cause some degree of pain, loss, or struggle. Certainly we might agree that we don't care for the consequences and hence we call it a mistake. The irony is that these events that we try so hard to avoid are sometimes precisely what we need to experience. Ordinarily, growth doesn't occur without some of those challenging feelings we try so hard to avoid. In other words our dual job is to minimize the occurrence of mistakes and maximize the lessons gleaned from our mistakes.
It's okay to make a mistake; it's not alright to ignore its ramifications.
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