Minefields and Hidden Consequences
Chapter 1, Law 4
"Even though teshuva (repentance) atones all and the day of Yom Kippur
atones, there are sins which are expiated at the time [the person sins], and
there are sins which are only expiated afterwards.
"How is this? A person who transgressed (i.e., neglected to perform) a
positive commandment which does not carry [the punishment of] excision and
he [then] repents, he is forgiven immediately (lit., 'he does not move from
there until they forgive him immediately'). Regarding such it is stated,
'Repent wayward children; I will heal your backslidings' (Jeremiah 3:22).
"If [a person] transgressed a negative commandment which does not carry [the
punishment of] excision nor the death sentence and he repents, teshuva
(repentance) delays (lit., 'hangs' -- defers justice), and Yom Kippur
atones. Regarding such it is stated, 'For on this day (Yom Kippur) he will
effect atonement for you to purify you; from all of your sins before G-d you
will become pure' (Leviticus 16:30).
"If [a person] transgressed [negative commandments carrying] excision or the
death sentence and he repented, teshuva and Yom Kippur delay, and the
affliction which is visited upon the person completes the atonement. [Such a
person] is never forgiven fully until suffering is visited upon him.
Regarding such it is stated, 'And I will punish with the staff their
transgressions and with plagues their iniquities' (Psalms 89:33).
"When is all of the above the case? (Lit., 'In what [context] were the words
stated?') When [the sinner] did not desecrate [G-d's] Name at the time he
sinned. But one who desecrates the Name, even if he did teshuva, and [the
day of] Yom Kippur arrived while he was in a state of repentance, and
suffering was visited upon him, he is not forgiven fully until he dies.
Rather, the combination of teshuva, Yom Kippur and affliction delay, and
death atones, as it is stated, 'And it was revealed in my ears [by] the L-rd
of hosts: This sin will not be forgiven for you until you die' (Isaiah 22:14)."
This week's law discusses the process of atonement. As the Rambam describes,
full expiation is often a long and protracted process. Except for the most
minor of sins, repentance cannot be achieved immediately. Many stages must
be realized before the sinner's atonement is complete. We may be inclined to
think that as soon as we sincerely repent and mend our ways, we are
immediately reconciled with our Maker. All is forgiven and forgotten. But in
truth, life it not nearly so simple. Improved ourselves we may have, but
truly eradicating the last vestiges of sin is a long and difficult process.
There is, however, an interesting distinction in this. It is true that
teshuva (repentance) is often a lengthy process, yet one aspect of it -- in
fact the most critical one -- can be achieved instantaneously. I'll explain
by way of illustration.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig once observed that we sometimes find decidedly
un-spiritual people -- vicious criminals doing time on death row -- who all
of a sudden "see the light" and become religious fanatics, considering
themselves eminently qualified to preach to others what they should believe
in and how they should act. Now sometimes, such people are the same old
murderers, exhibiting the same aggressive, violent tendencies, just in a
different (perhaps slightly more positive) manner. And to us such people
seem ridiculous. Yesterday they were murderers and today they've become
G-d's spokesmen to humanity -- telling *us* -- people who have hardly tasted
such evil -- how G-d wants us to behave. And further, knowing what the
Rambam has just taught us, such people are very far from true rapprochement
with their Creator.
But my feeling is that there is often some truth to such people's new-found
passion. There *is* a spiritual side to such people -- untouched by even the
worst of their behavior. We *are* beings fashioned in G-d's image. Except
for the absolute worst of us, sins cannot entirely undo that. Thus, such
people may very well have become attuned to the promptings of their soul --
and are tapping into an unsullied and unbiased part of their psyches, which
really does reflect the will of the L-rd. (Not that I'd put too much
reliance on their wisdom, but the sincerity is quite likely there.) In fact,
sometimes a person has to hit bottom first -- engage in the most violent and
depraved behavior -- till he realizes all is futile and the only endeavors
worthwhile are spiritual.
We thus find two curious opposing truths, both correct at the same time: one
that true expiation is a protracted process, and two that even the worst of
sinners can become in touch with G-d and their spiritual selves practically
in an instant. And the idea behind it is as follows. Entirely uprooting the
rot of sin and the aftereffects of evil is a long-drawn process. Serious
sinners carry much baggage with them and will have to endure much before
their atonement is complete. Yet even with that baggage, such people can
easily reconnect to G-d, merely by becoming attuned to the innermost part of
them which is untouched by evil. And although more expiation is sure to
come, G-d will lovingly accept such people back as His precious servants.
This is one of the major themes of repentance -- the fact that becoming in
touch with G-d and with ourselves is a whole different affair from actually
expunging sin from our systems. However, I won't belabor this point here
since it is one we've discussed in the past (and no doubt will return to in
the future). See for example our final class on the Laws of De'os (Who Are
We? Part II: Chapter 7, Law 8(b))
This law contains another interesting point worth noting. Taking the
Rambam's final case, if a person desecrated G-d's Name in the course of
sinning -- say he acted in a way which publicly lowered the image of Jews in
the eyes of humanity, his sin is not atoned until his death. Now the Rambam
neither stated nor implied that such a person has to die an untimely or
particularly gruesome death. He merely has to die -- as of course we all do
sooner or later. It therefore does not seem that death is part of the
penitential process -- that the person must suffer an excruciating death to
complete his atonement. He could perhaps die peacefully in his sleep at 95
and still attain forgiveness merely by dying.
Based on this, it seems that death is not atonement per se. It is not a
necessary part of the torment the sinner must endure. But somehow, such a
person's repentance is not complete until it occurs. What is the idea behind
We can make a similar observation regarding the Rambam's second case -- the
transgression of negative prohibitions, for which both teshuva and Yom
Kippur are required. There too, the Rambam did not state that such a person
must experience an especially meaningful and uplifting Yom Kippur to
consummate his atonement. Perhaps he observed the day properly but not
particularly enthusiastically. Even so, just living through the holiness of
Yom Kippur completes such a person's teshuva.
Based on the above, it is clear that there are very precise rules to how
true expiation may be achieved. Certain milestones must be reached before
the aftereffects of sin can be utterly eradicated. Repentance is not simply
a matter of feeling bad about your sins and putting the past behind you --
or even of suffering a prescribed degree of affliction. Certainly these are
important components, but G-d in His wisdom decrees that more must occur for
true atonement to be achieved. Just as in the physical world there are Laws
of Nature which dictate for example that matter can never be destroyed, in
the spiritual as well, sin may not be expunged without the necessary
Let me make the same observation in a slightly more scholarly way. I believe
this will bring us to the crux of the issue. There are three aspects to a
sin, all of which must be amended. They are:
(1) The sinner has angered G-d by disobeying His will, creating a barrier
between himself and G-d.
(2) Practically, by accustoming himself to sin, the sinner has dulled
himself to spirituality and proper values.
(3) The sin itself, by its very nature, has caused harmful effects both on
the sinner and the world about. Since G-d has decreed that a certain action
is by nature evil, it damages the world in very real, yet in spiritual and
usually indiscernible ways.
How does one correct each of these aspects? Well, the first is fairly
straightforward and presumably can be corrected quickly. If I regret my
actions and determine to return to G-d, He will gladly and wholeheartedly
accept me back. If I want G-d, He will most certainly want me as well
(depending of course how far I lapsed and how truly I want Him). G-d's
nature is to love man. This was the theme of the earlier class I cited above
(Who Are We? Part II: Chapter 7, Law
8(b)). Our failure to re-bond with our Creator after sin is generally
our own choosing, not His.
Correcting the second issue -- the fact that sin dulls ourselves to
spirituality -- will certainly take greater effort. It is a matter of
retraining ourselves and our behavior, of realigning ourselves with Torah
values. Very rarely does this happen instantly. However, it all depends on
our own efforts. It is within our control to correct this as quickly as we
The third issue is the great unknown. Sins have spiritual ramifications.
They destroy the fabric of the universe, the tenuous sinews which connect
the spiritual and physical planes. And for such matters we have no idea --
neither how much damage our sins do nor how the damage may be undone. And
regarding this, I believe, is where we are told that repentance is a lengthy
process. For reasons we cannot fully fathom, the aftereffects of certain
types of sins may only be expiated through the cleansing process of Yom
Kippur. And some are so heinous that merely the person's continuing to live
in this world preserves their wicked memory. Only death removes the final
vestiges of such behavior.
To wrap up, I feel this is the most significant lesson of this week. We
simply cannot judge sins -- nor mitzvos (good deeds) for that matter. We
simply do not know how devastating an effect wickedness has on the universe.
One of the worst fallacies you sometimes hear from sinners is that their
behavior is their own business; how does it hurt anyone else? It would take
me an effort to come up with a falser statement in Jewish thought. Sins
destroy the world, not just a single individual's World to Come (devastating
as that is). We are playing with fire; we are tossing about sticks of
dynamite which do far more damage than we ever could once we loose them on
the cosmos. We must approach all of the Torah's prohibitions with
trepidation, with a sense that we are stepping through a minefield with no
idea how much damage one wrong move will inflict.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org