"Regarding this matter (the concept that G-d 'hardens the heart' of
unrepentant sinners, withholding from them the possibility of repentance),
the Prophets and righteous beseech G-d in their prayers to help them along
the proper path. This is as David said, 'Instruct me in Your ways' (Psalms
27:11). Meaning, let not my sins hold me back from the path of truth, so
that from it I will know Your ways and the oneness of Your Name. And so too
that which he said '...and with a giving spirit sustain me' (51:14).
Meaning, allow my spirit to do its will and don't cause my sins to hold me
back from teshuva (repentance). Rather, let free will be in my hands until I
return, understand and know the proper path. Along the same lines is
everything similar to these verses."
This week's paragraph in the Rambam is a bit cryptic but continues the theme
of the previous few paragraphs. The Rambam earlier discussed the concept
that G-d at times removes a person's free will -- when a person has become
so thoroughly evil that it is evidently clear he has no interest in
improving his ways and returning to G-d. When that point is reached, G-d may
stop gently prodding such a person to repent. He may instead remove the
person's ability to repent in order to fully punish him, giving him once and
for all what he's been asking for. In the case of Pharaoh, G-d hardened his
heart in order to unleash the full might of His plagues upon Egypt --
demonstrating to the world over just who the G-d of Israel is.
Here the Rambam uses this principle to explain several verses in the
Scriptures. King David many times asks G-d to lead him upon the proper path
in life, to grant him a good spirit, to instruct him how to behave, etc.
Now, most such things are really not for G-d to freely hand us. *Our* task
in life is to find the proper path and improve our spirits. We cannot just
ask G-d to grant us such things for free. Yet David appears to constantly
beseech G-d for such free handouts: "Create for me a pure heart, oh L-rd,
and an upright spirit renew within me" (Psalms 51:12). Isn't that almost
asking G-d to fulfill our life's mission for us through no effort of our own?
To this the Rambam explains that David was not simply asking G-d for a
freebie, that G-d magically perform his personal growth for him. Rather, he
was asking that his sins not interfere with his own ability to improve. Do
not let my sins take away my clarity of perception, giving me a clouded,
impure heart. Do not harden my heart on account of my faults, making it
impossible for me to return to the proper path.
One point which becomes clear from David's prayers is that this hardening of
the heart is not limited to the most heinous of sinners. Although as we saw
earlier G-d only removes the free will of the worst among us -- which King
David was most certainly not, the same phenomenon can occur even to the
righteous in a much more subtle manner. G-d was not about to actively remove
David's ability to repent, but his sins might have very slightly clouded his
ability to correctly understand himself. They may have dulled him to his
faults or biased him in favor of his current behavior. Once we can no longer
be objective about ourselves, it is extremely hard to recognize our flaws
and improve. David prayed and prayed again that G-d never remove his
aptitude for true introspection.
The Talmud (Brachos 10a) records the following incident. The were certain
ruffians who lived in Rabbi Meir's neighborhood and who caused him much
aggravation. R. Meir could no longer tolerate them and began praying to G-d
that they die. His wife, the well-known scholar Beruriah (quoted several
times in Talmudic literature), criticized him. Rather than pray that they
die, why not pray that they repent? In fact, Psalms 104:35 states, "May sins
cease from the earth, and the wicked will be no longer." The verse does not
state that sinners ("chotim") should cease, but sins ("chata'im") should
cease. R. Meir heeded his wife's advice, prayed that they repent, and so
The episode is heartwarming, not least because it's an excellent example of
Beruriah's ability to apply the feminine touch to rabbinical scholarship, to
very positive effect. But there are some basic problems with it. First of
all, Beruriah's main point is not correct. It is quite clear throughout
Psalms that "chata'im", though technically translated as "sins", is used to
refer to sinners. As my teacher R. Moshe Eisemann pointed out, one need not
go farther than 1:1 -- "...and in the way of sinners ('chata'im') he did not
stand..." -- for evidence of this.
Second of all, how can one person pray that another one repent? If I pray to
G-d for such, does it mean G-d will control the other person's mind and make
him repent? But doesn't that fly in the face of free will -- the subject of
the last two chapters of the Rambam? As we know, G-d does not *make* us be
good or bad; it is up to us: it depends how we exercise our own free will.
This is the entire principle of free will which the Rambam spent so much
time expounding. Yet now we have the Talmud telling us that R. Meir prayed
that the local bullies repent and it succeeded? Does sincere prayer annul
the entire principle of free will?
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu &
www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig) offered the following answer. No, we
cannot pray that G-d change someone else's mind or force him to improve. But
G-d can do one thing -- and it takes us right back to the Talmud's ambiguous
use of the word "sin/sinner".
In a bit of a simplification, we can distinguish between two types of
sinners -- those who are okay people who merely slip, and those who really
*become* the sins that they do. Most of us sin more than we'd like, but that
is not whom *we* are. We are good people; we just sometimes act in ways
inconsistent with our values, with the way we know we should behave.
There are other people, however, for whom sin has become such a way of life
that it becomes who *they* are. They are not just good people who slip; they
are sinners through and through. Sin has become their essence. Such people
Psalms refers to as "sins". When a person's bad behavior becomes *him*, he
can be described as the bad behavior itself. Thus, such people are "sins"
("chata'im"), not merely "sinners" ("chotim"). They are not people who *do*
sins, but people who *are* the sins that they do.
And these are the type of people King David berates in Psalms -- not good
people who engage in bad behavior, but people who become their bad behavior.
Such people are walking sins, evil incarnate. And they must be shunned,
ostracized, castigated, and ultimately destroyed. David uses the word "sins"
to refer to "sinners" -- but only when those sinners really are sins themselves.
This is what Beruriah meant when she criticized her husband. David only
meant *real* sinners should be destroyed. And is that really the case with
the troublemakers in their neighborhood? Are they really evil incarnate? Or
are they just a bunch of good-for-nothings who spent their lives hanging
out, who never really matured enough to think about life. Maybe they had
lousy, abusive upbringings. Perhaps they have been using the street as a
refuge from life, as a way to pass the time without ever really having to
come to grips with whom they have become.
And if that is the case, which Beruriah, better than her husband, rightly
sensed, R. Meir can pray for them. Of course, he cannot pray that G-d *make*
them repent: that is up to them and their own free will. But he can pray for
one thing -- that they perceive themselves properly. Just as King David
prayed so often that his sins not cloud his perception of right and wrong,
R. Meir could pray that the local toughs see themselves for whom they really
are. Let them not be fooled into thinking they are sins incarnate -- as R.
Meir almost did. Let them recognize that they are really human beings,
possessing beautiful souls, who have just allowed themselves to be drawn in
the wrong direction, who just never really stopped to think who they are and
how great they can be. And once G-d grants them that gift of
self-perception, once they recognize the beauty of their inner souls, they
can so easily take control and start anew.
This is one of the great lessons which emerges from the Rambam this week. We
cannot pray that G-d do all our hard work for us. But we can pray to Him for
clarity. Let us see ourselves for whom we *really* are. Most of what holds
us back in life is not wickedness but plain old low self-esteem. We lack the
ability to recognize our greatness and our potential for growth. We become
accustomed to our flaws. We do not see ourselves as people capable of
change, of doing great things. And this, like the vast, vast majority of all
our shortcomings, are only in our mind. With only the briefest flash of
heavenly inspiration, of true self-knowledge, we are capable of worlds of
growth, of becoming the people whom we know deep down we really can be.