Chapter 4, Law 3
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"And among them (i.e., the twenty four factors which interfere with
repentance listed in this chapter) are five things that it is impossible for
one who does them to fully repent since they are sins between man and his
fellow, and [the sinner] does not know [the identity of] the one he sinned
to in order to return to him [what is owed] or beg his forgiveness.They are:
(a) One who curses the many. He did not curse a specific person in order
that he can ask his forgiveness.
(b) One who divides with a thief (i.e., he buys stolen goods from him),
since he does know whose stolen item it is. Rather, the robber steals from
many and brings to him and he purchases. Further, he strengthens the hand of
the robber and causes him to sin.
(c) One who finds a lost item and does not announce it until it is returned
it to its owner. Afterwards when he repents he does not know whom to return
(d) One who consumes the goods (Heb., 'shoad', lit., 'spoils') of the poor,
orphans or widows (for example by demanding payment for their loans, causing
them to undersell their property). Such people are unfortunates who are
unknown and obscure. They wander from city to city, not known to others
(lit., 'and they don't have one who recognizes them') in order that [such a
person] would know whose goods these are so that he can return them to them.
(e) One who takes a bribe in order to pervert the law, [for] he does not
know to what extent this distortion reached and the degree of its impact [on
his decision] in order that he can return. [This is] because the matter has
a basis (meaning, there are typically grounds for deciding in favor of the
briber regardless). Furthermore, [such a person] strengthens the hands of
this one (the briber) and causes him to sin."
In this chapter the Rambam lists different factors which make repentance
particularly difficult. This week he discusses situations in which it is
difficult to determine either to whom the person sinned or in the case of
accepting a bribe, the extent of the damage caused.
I don't have a whole lot to add to this week's law which for the most part
is self-explanatory. I will just add a few points of clarification regarding
the cases themselves, and then comment on the law in general.
(a) "One who curses the public:" Cursing a large group of people makes it
virtually impossible to apologize to everyone involved and to make proper
amends. R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933; known as the "Chofetz Chaim,"
considered the spiritual leader of Eastern European Jewry in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries) notes that the same is true regarding gossiping
about large groups of Jews or segments of Jewry. Maligning say, Sephardic
Jews, Hungarian Jews, Chassidic Jews, etc. too creates a negative perception
very difficult to correct. The Talmud (Jer. Talmud B"K 8) likewise states
that one who speaks of the flaws of an entire family will never achieve
atonement (Chofetz Chaim 4:12).
(b) "One who divides with a thief:" The Sages equate purchasing from a thief
to stealing. To quote the Talmud's expression, "The mouse doesn't steal; the
hole steals!" (Kiddushin 56b). Having a ready market for his stolen wares
(or his pirated software, untaxed merchandise, etc.) enables the thief to
carry out his crimes. We should never say another person's sins are none of
our affair. Aiding and abetting a criminal is a Torah offense all the same.
(e) "One who takes a bribe in order to pervert the law:" The Torah forbids
the acceptance of bribes (Exodus 23:8, Deuteronomy 16:19). Once a litigant
has given the judge a little "contribution", it is impossible for the judge
to view him objectively. A judge must be totally impartial to adjudicate
properly. Once he has received a bribe, he will either be unfairly partial
to the briber (if that's a word), or he'll bend over backwards in the
interest of *im*partiality and will end out deciding unfairly against him.
Thus, it is almost impossible to determine the extent of damage a bribe has
done and to properly atone for the injustice caused.
In a more general sense, I and I'm sure many of my readers find this law
particularly disturbing. Take the first example -- one who curses or maligns
the many. Throughout the year how many derogatory statements have we made
against others? Who were they? What did we say about them? When the High
Holidays arrive and we'd like to somehow make amends, how do we even begin
to address all of our faults? The Rambam taught us at the very start of
these laws that one of the prerequisites of teshuva (repentance) is
confessing the sins we have done (1:1). Even apart from badmouthing
others, do we even *know* what sins we've transgressed over the course of
the year? Yet to truly atone for them we must regret and confess them all.
How do we even begin?
Thus, many people view repentance as a hopeless endeavor. There's no way
we'll really clean our slates. A natural psychological defense mechanism in
such situations is to bow out entirely. "I know I won't do more than a
second-rate job to begin with. Therefore, I won't even try. Why do something
I know from the start I'll be lousy at? Who wants to admit he's a failure?"
Instead, laugh off all your faults and forget the whole darn thing.
There are two important responses to this. First of all, the Talmud itself
makes practical provisions for the difficulty of teshuva. The Talmud states
that one who stole and does not know from whom he stole should involve
himself in the needs of the community (Bava Kama 94b). True, he does not
know precisely whom to pay back or apologize to, but volunteering for
community service is a general means of atoning for harm inflicted upon the
community at large. The Sages recognized the need for alternate means of
teshuva for those who could never manage it on their own.
But there is a more fundamental message here. There are many Jewish outreach
organizations which are quick to make the following statement (one which,
incidentally, I totally disagree with): "Judaism is not all or nothing."
Their point is that one should never give up entirely because he cannot do
it all. Most folks view Judaism as a very demanding religion, one which
governs every aspect of our lives and behavior. Now, no one wants to be told
what to do all the time -- to have their lives under constant supervision
and surveillance. Therefore, they don't touch it at all. They get scared off
before they even begin. Better to try some less taxing religion (or
denomination of Judaism) and sate ourselves with some pleasant generalities,
or at least no more than once-a-week devotion.
Thus, outreach organizations are quick to point out that Judaism should not
be viewed as "all or nothing." Try out a bit here and there and see how you
like it. Try putting on tefillin, listening to a lecture, coming for a
Sabbath meal. But don't run away before you've even tested the waters.
Pardon my saying it, but from a technical standpoint this position is an
outright fallacy. Say I were to come to G-d and say the following: "Gee, 613
mitzvos (commandments) is much too much! I just really like shellfish and
don't want to part with it. But, say like this: I'll keep the other 612
mitzvos to the letter and will just leave that unwanted 613th off to the
side. Hey, I'm still pretty good - 612/613 is over 99%!"
Well, we learned before the fate of someone who refuses to accept a single
commandment, acting as if it does not exist (3:9). If done
out of spite (and according to some opinions, even out of weakness), such a
person has no share in the World to Come. He is no servant of G-d. As we
explained back then, a servant does not tell his master what he will and
will not observe. Judaism *is* all or nothing, to be frank about it. You're
either G-d's servant or you're out - 100%.
Yet there is a profound truth behind this credo of outreach organizations.
If I observe 612 mitzvos (commandments) and *reject* the final, I have
written myself off entirely. I have not accepted G-d's yoke. Even what I do
observe is my own affair, bringing me no closer to G-d and the hereafter.
However, let's say I do not openly reject anything. I'm just not ready to do
it all. It's just too much. I'm not prepared to utterly change my life just
yet (or even for quite some time). Okay, but observe *something*! Whatever
you observe will earn you eternal life. Not sure if you really see yourself
becoming fully religious? Don't worry about it! Every good deed brings you
closer to G-d. Don't fall into the Evil Inclination's trap of claiming that
since you can't be perfect, there's no point even trying, that you've been
so wicked in the past there's no hope for you. Or since you know you haven't
weaned yourself from sin X, you are vile and disgusting in G-d's eyes and it
would be hypocritical serving G-d in other ways. All of this is just your
good old Evil Inclination trying its darnedest to keep you from the growth
you're on the verge of achieving.
This is thus one of the great messages of Judaism. So long as we do not
openly reject any of G-d's commandments, our every act of service and
devotion is absolutely precious to G-d. There is nothing hypocritical about
not being perfect, even of having faults you know you're not ready to
address yet. As far as I know (you can correct me if I'm wrong), none of us
are perfect. We all tolerate faults within ourselves. Yet we try our best;
every good deed counts. One day, every one of us will stand before G-d in
judgment. Our every action will be reviewed and judged. And when we're there
we will be so certainly thankful for every good deed we did do -- every time
we didn't listen to our evil inclination's hollow cry "hypocrisy!". For as
fault-ridden as we may be today, we must never pass up the opportunity to do
every bit we can. For whatever we feel about our imperfect selves, G-d never
gives up on us. We must not either.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org