Torah Fax

Wednesday, September 22, 2004 - 7 Tishrei, 5765

Yom Kippur Candle Lighting (9/24): 6:30 PM
Fast begins (9/24): before 6:49 PM

Yom Kippur ends (9/25): 7:28 PM

Get Real 

"Wisdom was asked: 'What is the proper punishment for a sinner?' Wisdom answered: 'The sinners shall be pursued by evil.' (Proverbs 13)

"Prophecy was asked: 'What is the proper punishment for a sinner?' Prophecy answered: 'The soul of a sinner shall die.' (Ezekiel 18:4)

"Torah was asked: 'What is the proper punishment for a sinner?' Torah answered: 'Let him bring a guilt offering and he will be forgiven.'

The Holy One Blessed Be He was asked: 'What is the proper punishment for a sinner?' The Holy One Blessed Be He answered: 'Let him do Teshuvah (repent) and he will be forgiven.' This is the meaning of the verse (Psalms 25:8) 'G‑d is good and just, He therefore shows sinners the way.' He shows sinners how they can do Teshuvah"

In this passage from the Jerusalem Talmud, we find four different responses to one who transgresses the Torah. They reflect four different perspectives.

From the perspective of wisdom, punishment is viewed as a direct consequence of sin. Far from being a form of vengeance or retaliation, logic teaches that, if one goes against G‑d's will - the rules of cause and effect decree that suffering must follow (G‑d forbid). Thus, "the sinner shall be pursued by (his own) evil."

Prophecy is a line of communication with the Divine. A sin - even unintentional - severs that person’s connection with G‑d. Prophecy thus declares that, since the soul's connection to G‑d has been broken through sin, it must die. (Note: death in this context can be meant in the spiritual sense in that the degree of communication between the person and G‑d is weakened or even (temporarily) lost.)

Torah, being G‑d's wisdom, transcends prophecy. Thus we have the rule that a prophet cannot introduce a new Torah law. Though the prophet has (or at least claims that he has) a message from G‑d, his message cannot supercede Moses' prophecy of the Torah. The Torah is a direct communication of G‑d's will on an entirely higher level than regular prophecy.

The Torah is therefore even more sensitive to a breach of one of its commandments and views sin as even more damaging than prophecy does. Arguably, The Torah might hold that even death cannot atone for sin. However, Torah is called a Torah of Kindness, Torat Chesed, and it takes into consideration the mitigating factor that "no person sins unless a spirit of folly enters him" (Talmud Sotah). Man on his own is entirely good and wants only to do G‑d's will, it is only the superimposed animal nature within man that causes him to sin. Torah therefore provides the perfect solution - an animal sacrifice that underscores the fact that sin does not come from a genuine feeling of rebellion on the part of the sinner, but rather from the evil, animal inclination that dominated the person at the time of the transgression.

From G‑d’s perspective, one might argue that the blemish caused by a sin is even more damaging and the possibility of pardon is even more remote. Job, however, teaches that G‑d's utter transcendence renders the blemish caused by sin insignificant. He declares: "If you have sinned, what have you done to Him?" (Job 35:6) The essence of G‑d transcends all limitations - even those set out by the Torah. For us to relate, in some small way, to G‑d's essence, we have to connect with the essence of our soul. We have to peel away the distracting animal soul and come to terms with what we are really all about - a pure expression of holiness that is bound up in the oneness of G‑d.

This is the true meaning of Teshuvah: to uncover the core of our soul and realize how inseparably united we are with G‑d. When we relate to G‑d on such a soul-level, returning to our former misdeeds becomes an impossibility. In the words of Maimonides: "True Teshuvah is attained when the One who knows all secrets can testify that the sinner will no longer return to his folly." Such a meaningful connection can be made with G‑d that the person can be elevated from a deep, spiritual abyss to the pinnacle of holiness. Indeed, our sages declare that one who has done Teshuvah reaches such heights that he surpasses even a perfectly righteous person who has never sinned.

Yom Kippur provides us with a most unique opportunity to transform ourselves from one extreme to the other. The culmination of this process will take place when Moshiach comes and the true Jewish soul - the core of our being - will be revealed in all its glory.   
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