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Anxiety over Sin, and Optimism towards Teshuvah
Each Culture Has Its Own Response to Sin
For many years I served as an evaluation officer in the Israeli prison system. My job was to interview criminals and determine if they could be rehabilitated. When I felt that this was possible, I would advise the judge to not punish the criminal but to send him for rehabilitation.
I dealt with all sorts of criminals, including murderers, muggers, and thieves. For a while, I served as the administrator of this service and was responsible for appearing in court to present appeals. Secular newspaper columnists would often criticize me, expressing wonder that a “Haredi” could set free such criminals. It bothered them that a Haredi, who represents the Torah, could defend criminals who committed crimes that the Torah forbids.
Once there was even a session of the Knesset in which the Minister of Welfare received a formal complaint against me, that “Hoffman advises freeing criminals who committed such heinous crimes.”
Lectures at Kibbutzim
Sometimes I was invited to speak at the secular kibbutzim of Shomer HaTza’ir. I consulted with Rav Yechezkel Sarna, who advised me to go and speak. “You will not be able to convince them to do teshuvah,” he explained, “but when they hear you speak on matters they can relate to, it will raise your esteem in their eyes, which will cause them to soften their hatred towards us, at least to some extent. That is very important.”
On one occasion, I spoke to them on the subject of “Criminals and Crime.” In the audience were authors and journalists who viewed themselves as part of a trend towards a modern and original Israeli school of thought, which was not influenced by the “Galus-based” Torah tradition.
I told them that there was no such thing as a completely new school of thought, uninfluenced by previous traditions. There was no substance to their claim of being completely original. Everyone is influenced by their surroundings and by the traditions that existed before them. “You can call yourselves original and claim that you have broken free of Galus-Judaism to start a Modern Israeli school of thought, but the truth is that anyone who writes is influenced by some form of tradition,” I told them.
A school of thought might be influenced by Islam or by Buddhism from the Far East. If someone spent years in a Christian country, he will be influenced by the Christian outlook. If a person has lived for years within a Jewish tradition, even if he never even met his Shabbos-observant grandfather, he has absorbed Jewish values, whether he knows it or not. A person’s behavior, his way of reacting, and his manner of creative expression are all absorbed from the culture that surrounds him.
They were offended and starting arguing with me. Then I told them to take any book they wanted, and without showing me who the author was, I would tell them after a few pages what culture he was from: Christian, Muslim, Indian, Buddhist, or Jewish. I passed the test perfectly and left them stunned.
“How did you know?” they asked.
I explained to them the differences between different cultures and their models of behavior and reaction. For example, each culture has its own distinct response to sin. Many novels include some kind of inner conflict, in which a person did something wrong, like stealing or killing. He could not control his desire, did something he knew was wrong, and then regretted it. He feels terrible and is disappointed in himself.
In novels from Christian countries, a person overwhelmed by guilt usually responds with suicide. He feels lost, his conscience weighs heavily upon him, and he feels that he has nothing to live for. Death is his only escape.
Everyone feels bad when they do something they know is wrong. The question is how they react to this feeling. It is not unreasonable, from the Christian outlook, that if a person is overwhelmed by a terrible feeling of guilt from which they know no peace, the only path of escape is death.
People react differently to the same emotional stimuli, depending on their personality. Here we will bring two examples: reaction to fear and reaction to anger.
Reaction to Fear
If a group of people were to sit together and an Arab would walk into the room brandishing a knife, how would they react? One might jump out of a window to escape. Another would throw a chair at him. A third person might hide under the table. A fourth might be paralyzed by fear. Yet another would shout for help.
They all experienced fear, to one extent or another, but each one responded in his own way, based on the makeup of his personality. This depends on the character traits with which they were born, and the influences that shaped their growth.
Reaction to Anger
In Sefer HaMitzvos (317), the Rambam comments on the prohibition against cursing the deaf. He describes in detail how a person’s yetzer for revenge is aroused and how people react to it until they calm down. The example he gives is of a person who is insulted and whose anger is aroused due to the insult.
The first stage is how he relates to the insult. The level at which he takes offense depends on how he perceives the offense in his imagination, whether he inflates it out of proportion or takes it lightly.
The second stage is how he calms down from the offense. A person might feel that he must kill the offender in order to calm his wounded spirit. Another might suffice with hitting him, or damaging his property, or talking lashon ha’ra about him, or cursing him. That is how the soul calms itself after having been aroused by an insult.
In other words, it is possible that two people can experience the same exact insult, but react differently to it. The difference will depend on how their imagination interprets the level of the insult, and on what they need to do in order to regain emotional equilibrium.
The Torah forbids cursing a deaf person, even though he cannot hear the curse and does not care. Still, the person who cursed him should have risen above his wounded feelings and not allowed himself to react in such a negative way. He should have found a positive way of releasing his anger, such as by listening to music or eating good food; he should not have reacted in the negative form of trying to harm him through a curse.
Hashem’s Answer to
“Let the Soul of the Sinner Die”
The Midrash shows us that the notion of cleansing sin through pain or even death is theoretically legitimate, but that is not Hashem’s plan for His creation.
Wisdom was asked, “How should a sinner be punished?”
“Evil shall pursue the sinner” (Mishlei 13:21), it answered.
Then, Prophecy was asked the same question.
“The soul that sins shall die” (Yechezkel 18:4), it answered.
Then, the Torah was asked.
“Let him offer a sacrifice and atone,” it answered.
Then, HaKadosh Baruch Hu was asked.
“Let him do teshuvah and be forgiven,” He answered.
(Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim 702)
Wisdom answered, “Evil shall pursue the sinner.”
“Wisdom” means human logic. Logic dictates that suffering alone atones for sin and purifies the soul. Some people intentionally self inflict pain in order to purify themselves (as explained at length in Shiurim 4 and 5).
Prophecy answered, “The soul that sins shall die.”
This is the same basic answer, but to a more severe degree. All suffering contains an element of death, as Chazal say (Bava Kamma 65a), “What is the difference between full death and partial death?” When a person’s sense of guilt is so dreadful that even suffering cannot calm him, he might feel that death is his only escape. In such instances, sin can cause suicide.
Torah answered, “Let him offer a sacrifice and atone.”
This is also a kind of death, lived vicariously through the slaughter and sacrifice of an animal. The Ramban explains (Vayikra 1:9) that a person who offers a korban must imagine that everything done to the korban should have been done to him for his sins. The animal takes his place, and thus he achieves atonement.
This is what I explained in my talk to the secular kibbutz. When secular books tell stories describing a person undergoing tremendous conflict with strong feelings of guilt leading to suicide — that is literature influenced by Christian culture. I told them, “Take all of Jewish writing, from the beginning of time down to today, and show me a similar instance of someone committing suicide (other than Achitofel [Shmuel II 17:23]).”
What is the Jewish response to guilt over sin?
“HaKadosh Baruch Hu answered, ‘Let him do teshuvah and be forgiven.’”
So you did something wrong? You made a mistake? Just do teshuvah and be forgiven. Until now you hurt people, cheated, and stole? Change your behavior and that will be your atonement.
No culture in the world knows this secret. Jewish tradition is much more optimistic. You can change. Change your future behavior, and you will be cleansed of the sins of the past. In other cultures, a person who stumbles and feels that he has done something terrible sees no other way to atone and change other than death.
I explained to them that there are four stages to teshuvah: ceasing the sinful behavior, regretting it, confessing to Hashem, and resolving to be better in the future. That is all. A person can be wicked and sinful for his entire life, but if he makes a resolution of teshuvah at the last minute before his death, he is considered perfectly righteous.
A person has the choice. He can choose to change his ways. He does not need to enter the mode of “the world has come to an end.” He just needs to change his ways and resolve not to do it again, and then he is considered a perfect tzaddik.
Even the worst mistake can be corrected. Nothing stands in the way of teshuvah!
Debate on the Kibbutz
I explained to them that in every culture there is sensitivity to “sin,” however that culture defines it. But different cultures have different ways of coping with sin and responding to it. Over the course of many years, a culture develops with its own unique patterns of behavior and its own outlook on the world. We absorb the culture from the society around us, and it influences our behavior, our responses, and our creative expression.
“You may think that you are original thinkers and that you have developed an entirely novel culture of Modern Hebrew literature, but you are fooling yourselves. In one way or another, it is an imitation of cultures that preceded it. Either you have absorbed your influence from Christian culture or from Jewish. You may be secular, and you may try to distance yourselves from your Jewish roots, but there are things that seep in subconsciously over the generations whether you realize it or not,” I told them.
If Jewish culture offers “teshuvah” as an alternative to despair, why is it that there are still Jews who do commit suicide?
Teshuvah depends on our belief that we are able to change. Sometimes a person feels that he just cannot change. Tomorrow he will go back to the same mistakes he made today and yesterday, and there is no escape from it. He has sharp pangs of guilt, and wants to cleanse himself and “atone” somehow by bringing the ultimate punishment upon himself: “The soul that sins shall die.”
The Catholics invented a novel way of dealing with guilt. A person can kill someone, feel bad about it, and then go to his priest and confess his sins. He is absolved, feels good about himself again, and goes back to killing people. They developed a new method of “virtual atonement,” which allows them to cleanse their guilty feelings without having to change their behavior.
Real teshuvah is a system espoused by no other culture in the world. We look at sin from an entirely different perspective. Anything can be changed.
In other cultures, anxiety over sin can bring either to suicide on the one extreme or to a total disconnection from moral responsibility on the other. People stifle their conscience in order to escape a sense of guilt.
Judaism faces guilt with a sense of optimism. Sin is not a cause for panic or depression. Nor should it be ignored. Everyone makes mistakes. We just need to change our behavior, to do teshuvah, and everything will be fixed and forgiven. But teshuvah itself is a subject for study. What does teshuvah mean? How is it done? At what stage are we forgiven? This is a topic for study, which will be discussed in the coming chapter.
Rav Isaac Sher’s Insight
on the Influence of One’s Environment
Rav Isaac Sher would try to make us realize how our outlook was shaped by the society around us. One time Rav Isaac asked us if we would be interested in returning to the Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania with him after the War was over.
“Of course not,” my friend, R’ Eliezer Dovertz, answered. “Why would I want to return to Chutz LaAretz?”
Rav Isaac tried to convince us that it would be worth our while to return, to advance our Torah study (“shteigen”). When he saw that we were not swayed by considerations of where we would learn best, he suddenly told us, “I see that you have been drugged by Zionism.”
“How could I have been drugged by Zionism? I never even read Zionist books,” I asked him.
Rav Isaac laughed and said that if mushrooms grow from the moisture in the air, then we can also be influenced by the sentiments in the air. We do not need to read Zionist books to be influenced by Zionism. The very air in Eretz Yisrael is infused with Zionism. You absorb it whether you want to or not.
“If a person recognizes that his shteigen would be better abroad but still insists on living in Eretz Yisrael, that is Zionism,” Rav Isaac told us. He meant to teach us how to recognize the influences that shape us. We absorb the influences in the air, just as mushrooms absorb moisture, without being aware of it.
For more from Rav Hoffman….
Read and discover… the Secrets of the Soul
First volume of an upcoming series, sold over 20,000 in Hebrew!