THE FIRST BLUSH OF SIN
Rabbi David Walk
King Solomon tells us that there is no human on earth who is so good that this person never sins (Proverbs 7:20). So, if sin is inevitable then perhaps I shouldn't be so concerned about avoiding transgressions. Does this idea diminish the severity of sin? Although I'd love to say yes, I'm sure I can't, and it will take the rest of this humble article to explain why not. Probably no parsha is better suited for discussing sin than this one, because no sin is more tragic than that of the Golden Calf which we recount again this Shabbat.
Let me further elucidate this thinking about the inevitability of sin. According to the mystical timetable for the sixth day of Creation (Sanhedrin 38b), Adam was created by noon, Eve by one in the afternoon, the sin took place in the tenth hour, and the expulsion from Paradise took place before candle lighting time. Talk about a busy erev Shabbat! What is the point of this Midrash? The fall of man was to be expected. So much for will power. The spiritual greatness of humanity was eternally compromised. The Midrash parallels that development with the events surrounding the epiphany at Mount Sinai. When the Jews proclaimed Na'aseh v'Nishman (we will do, and we will obey), after the transmission of the Ten Commandments, they removed that spiritual pollution which had affected humankind since the eviction from the Garden of Eden. Sadly, this pristine state only lasted forty days. With the sin of the Golden Calf, we Jews became stained again. But we still did better than Adam and Eve by thirty-nine and three quarter days. We still must answer the original question. Is the avoidance of sin so important if we know that we will fail? Let's try to analyze this conundrum.
There is a position that there is something beneficial from sinning. The experience of transgressing God's word is, of course, generally viewed as extremely negative, but if we learn from the experience the overall effect can be positive. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) used to say that there is a way that everything can be turned into good. We teachers (and some parents, too) are in the habit of telling our students who are fretting over a plethora of mistakes that it's all good if they just learn from the errors. This can be the explanation for the famous statement that even a complete Zadik can't stand in the place of a ba'al teshuva (penitent, ). The process of repentance can make us stronger and more resilient to life's vicissitudes. This is only true when the teshuva is sincere and the rebellious act left a bitter taste. We still must expend tremendous energy to avoid sinning, but occasionally we are improved for the experience.
Alternatively, committing a sin may have another positive effect. For instance, if one feels that performing a sin is like the end of the world or the worst thing that could possibly happen, it would be very hard for that person to do that act when it became a mitzvah. There are occasions when an act normally considered a sin has become a mitzvah. This would include driving on Shabbat to bring someone to the hospital or eating pork if it were a cure for a lethal condition. The Izhbitzer Rebbe (Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Leiner, 1801-1854) goes one step further. He proposes a controversial position called aveira lishma or a transgression for the sake of heaven. Once in a while, the only way to fulfill the will of God is by means of actions normally prohibited. This is based on a Talmudic statement that a sin for the right purpose is greater than a mitzvah for the wrong reason (Nazir 23a). A number of Bible stories fall into this category. Although there is no consensus on all of these cases, this category could include the story of Tamar and Yehudah, the conversion of Ruth, and Elijah's sacrifice on Mount Carmel in Haifa. The reality that people tend to commit sins allows this special circumstance to work.
But I would like to suggest another reason why even though sin is sadly to be expected, nevertheless we should expend huge reserves of spiritual energy to avoid them. In our Torah reading the Chidushei Harim (grandfather of the Sfat Emet) wonders why Moshe had to spend another forty days nd nights on Mont Sinai to receive the second Tablets. He had already learned the entire Torah in the first forty. He responds that Moshe had to relearn it all, because Torah looks different when you're a ba'al teshuva (penitent). Whoa! But Moshe didn't participate in the sin of the Golden Calf, so how did he become a ba'al teshuva? The grandson handles this question. The Sfat Emet suggests that Moshe had so much empathy for the Jewish nation that he felt their experience of sin and repentance. I'd like to shift this thinking a little bit. What if Moshe felt horrible because he blamed himself for their downfall? Then his teshuva is much more than just joining in their pain, but an intense personal pain, which he had to bear all alone.
Now I can put forward my thinking about the true severity of sin. It's true that my transgressions are to be anticipated. However, I must minimize my mistakes not only because of the deleterious affect on my psyche and soul, but because God forbid, I might influence another onto the wrong path. That's a burden far too heavy to carry around my neck. If I really care, if I really have empathy, I must strive to avoid reprehensible behavior, because someone I love may be watching. I can live with how I damage myself, but how can stand harming another's soul?
God created teshuva before the world came into being, because God loves us so much that the path to recovery was provided before God implanted free will into our frail selves. So, the fact that I will occasionally stumble is bearable. The corrective mechanism is in place for all who want to avail themselves of it. But the real tragedy is what I may do to another. So, we must model good habits all the time. Do good, avoid bad, and everyone is better off.
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