Who Are We? Part II
Chapter 7, Law 8(b)
"So too anyone who bears a grudge against any Jew transgresses a negative
prohibition, as it is stated, 'And you shall not bear a grudge against the
members of your nation' (Leviticus 19:18). How is this? Reuben said to
Simeon, 'Rent me this house' or 'Lend me this ox,' and Simeon refused. Some
time later, Simeon needed Reuben to borrow or rent from him. Reuben says to
him, 'Here it is; behold I am lending to you and I am not as you and I won't
pay you back as your deeds.' One who acts like this transgresses 'you shall
not bear a grudge.'
"Rather, [a person] should blot the matter from his heart and not preserve
it. For so long as he keeps it in mind and remembers it he may come to
vengeance. Therefore, the Torah was particular regarding bearing a grudge
that one blot the sin out of his heart entirely and not remember it. This is
a proper character trait ('dai'ah'), through which it will be possible to
preserve society (lit., 'the dwelling of the land') and the interaction of
mankind one with the other."
Last week we began discussing the prohibition of bearing a grudge and we
made an important inference. Although the intent of such prohibitions is
that we not even *care* when another wrongs us, technically the Torah only
forbids acting on our feelings -- such as giving your fellow your
(well-rehearsed) lecture about how much better you are than he and why
doesn't *he* act the way *you* do etc. (I'd personally prefer not receiving
my fellow's darn hammer over having to sit through the lecture. I've had
times where I just went without so as not to have to endure an "I told you
so!" ;-) Typically, the Torah commands us on the level of action alone
whereas the intent is clearly that we sanctify our souls. It is just that
modifying our behavior is the only true means of reaching and improving our
>From there we began discussing a relevant fundamental. The Torah commands
that we act a certain way -- in the hopes that our feelings will follow. But
let's say our feelings are not there? As we all know, when we behave
properly we are often acting better than we feel. We at times long to
misbehave, yet for various reasons -- some worthier than others -- we force
our bodies to stay in line. Are we "close" to G-d because we forced
ourselves to behave? Or does He see through it, knowing that we are really
rotten, lustful being on the inside and that our affected behavior without
is merely a facade?
Conversely, when we sin we often feel that it's not how we *really* want to
be. *We* -- our inner selves -- want to strive towards G-d, yet just now our
flesh is too weak and out of our control. And again, are we our spiritual
yearnings? G-d knows as well as we that our souls within are pure and
sublime, which want nothing of ugly, perverted behavior. Or is that
immaterial because we did *not* control our bodies? How does G-d view and
judge us, based on our behavior or based on our thoughts?
To this we made a very basic distinction, based on the writings of the
Nefesh HaChaim. There are really two factors to consider. Our actions are
stronger and more concrete. They do more damage (or good) -- both to
ourselves and the world about. Yet actions generally stem from a lower and
more external part of us. Our souls truly did not want to sin, yet we acted
out or blurted something out before we could stop ourselves. The Talmud
states that a person does not sin until a "spirit of madness" enters him
(Sotah 3a). Our true selves were really not a part of it. It was all a bout
of (and sometimes a rather long bout of) temporary insanity.
By contrast, our thoughts do very little. They do not leave the realm of our
fantasies, of our minds. They thus make little difference to the physical
world about (or so we imagine). Yet they stem from a very deep part of our
psyches -- from the innermost recesses of our souls. They thus do less
damage, yet the damage they do do cuts very deep. When we sin with our hands
it is an inadvertent slip, not truly a reflection of who we are and not
fundamentally altering our values and sensitivities (depending, of course,
how premeditated our actions are). But when we daydream about sinning the
sin has ever so slightly penetrated our deepest souls.
So which is more significant -- unthinking actions or thoughts which do not
lead to deeds? It appears that on the one hand, Jewish law generally regards
actions more seriously. If you murder, the courts will put you to death. It
matters not at all that it was a "mercy" killing, an "honor" killing, or
that you had 101 good reasons to kill the victim but are a perfectly nice
guy underneath. Likewise, if you spend hours every day wishing you could
shoot your boss dead, you may very well be a bloodthirsty murderer on the
inside, yet the courts could never hang anything on you. Jewish courts judge
based on actions and dry facts alone -- in fact taking care not to permit
psychological or sentimental considerations alter the exactness of justice.
Conversely, as we learned several times in the past, some of the worst sins
in the book -- such as lashon hara (malicious gossip) -- warrant no legal
punishment at all since speaking is not an "action". Similarly, the Sages
state that the Second Temple was destroyed because of needless hatred
("sinas chinam") (Talmud Yoma 9b), although that too is a sin of the heart
alone. Courts cannot touch you on account of hatred or gossiping, but such
animosities destroy the fabric of Israel. G-d was literally not willing to
dwell among us for a sin not even prosecutable by Jewish law.
And this is not only a matter of human courts. To a great extent, G-d judges
us primarily based on our actions: Did we control ourselves, did we
withstand temptations, as strong as they were, and choose to serve G-d? For
the most part, we are much less culpable for thoughts and desires which are
so much less within our control. (Of course, ultimately we should learn to
control them, but for most of us that is a far distant goal.) Rather, G-d
examines how we acted on our desires. Did we serve G-d regardless or did we
fall prey to our evil inclinations?
But there is a deeper issue here, based on the distinction we made above.
G-d judges man on a level far more profound than actions alone. He sees just
how much of our true selves went into them. Are our actions -- both good and
evil -- truly *us*, or do they stem from a lower part of ourselves? Human
courts could never allow such considerations to enter the judicial process.
Murder is murder; larceny is larceny. The judges may justifiably sympathize
with the felon that his upbringing and circumstances led him to thievery,
yet their job is essentially to see to it that the money is returned, not to
feel bad for the unfortunates of the world. G-d, however, views us on a far
more profound level, determining to what degree our actions truly bring us
closer to or further from Him.
Let me bring this out by contrasting two statements of the Rambam. In the
first chapter of the Laws of Repentance (Law 4), the Rambam describes the
process a person must undergo to effect full expiation for his sins. The
most minor sins can be atoned through repentance alone. More serious ones
require both repentance and the experience of Yom Kippur. Yet more serious
ones require that the sinner undergo repentance, Yom Kippur and suffering.
And finally, the most serious sins -- ones which involved the desecration of
G-d's Name, require repentance, Yom Kippur, suffering and death. Only after
the person dies can such sins be fully purged from his soul.
Yet in Chapter 7 (6-7), the Rambam writes as follow: "Repentance brings
close the far. Yesterday this one was despised by G-d, detested, distanced,
and abominable. And today he is loved, desired, close, and cherished...
Yesterday this one was separated from G-d, the L-rd of Israel... he would
cry out and not be answered... he would perform mitzvos (good deeds) and
they would tear them up before him... And today he cleaves to the Divine
Presence... he cries out and is answered immediately... he performs mitzvos
and they accept them pleasantly and joyously..."
But didn't the Rambam earlier state that repentance is a slow process? If
this fellow was held in such contempt yesterday, presumably he has
transgressed some fairly serious sins. We would think that he wouldn't
become "loved" by G-d until at least the atonement of Yom Kippur?
But this is precisely our point. There are two ways of looking at a person
-- based on his actions and based on who he *actually* is. Based on actions
alone, it's true -- a sinner may require a long and grueling expiation until
his slate is wiped clean. Yet he may become close to G-d immediately. Does
he *want* G-d? Does he care about his relationship with his Maker? If so,
G-d will drop everything, so to speak, to embrace him. G-d *loves* such a
person. True, no sin may go unpunished. To entirely wipe out the
aftereffects of sin, the repentant sinner will have to undergo a protracted
process. You can't just snap your fingers and instantly come clean. It takes
serious and concerted effort and mental retraining to utterly excise
wickedness from your system -- not to mention Divine retribution. But
*close* to G-d you can become immediately! I *want* G-d -- that's who *I*
am, regardless of various slips in my past, never mind how many. Sure my
blunders will have to be dealt with and atoned for properly. But becoming
close to G-d can take place in an instant.
A perfect illustration of this is King David (as heard from R. Berel Wein
(www.rabbiwein.com & www.torah.org/learning/rabbiwein)) . As we all know,
David sinned grievously with Bathsheba (II Samuel 11-12). (To be fair, as
the Sages explain, *technically* David did not sin, as standard practice in
those days (and since) was to divorce one's wife before going to war in
order that she not be shackled in case her husband disappears. Yet still...
Bathsheba was hardly a woman free for the taking.)
Yet David -- possibly more so than anyone before or since -- was one who
never swerved from G-d on account of it. He lived with G-d constantly, in
his good times and in his bad, in the midst of his good behavior and during
his times of weakness. Sure he slipped -- we all do -- but that didn't mean
he rejected or distanced himself from G-d, just that he couldn't restrain
his body. You can sin and still be G-d's loyal servant. Punishment would
surely have to be endured -- and as both Scripture and the Talmud state,
David would suffer much on account of his sin (see Talmud Sanhedrin 107a).
But punishment may merely be G-d's means of purifying a beloved soul until
it can cleave to Him entirely.
Conversely, if your heart is *not* there, you may be doing everything right
on paper but not really be close to G-d -- because G-d knows full well that
on the inside you really don't care for Him. You can do every mitzvah
(commandment) in the book, and you can avoid all the bad, yet it means
nothing if you haven't truly used those mitzvos to build a relationship with
your Creator. And again, good deeds must be rewarded. Such a person will be
rewarded in some form for everything he accomplished. But I really don't
know if that means he'll be granted box seats in the World to Come. G-d will
pay him off somehow -- perhaps in this world if that's the only one he cared
for. But is such a person, who merely watched his p's and q's, *truly* close
to G-d? I'm really not sure.
And this serves as an excellent conclusion to our studies. (Yes, this is the
final law -- more on that below.) Certainly, no one can pretend he is close
to G-d deep down if he ignores G-d's mitzvos. Actions are the basis of
everything. They, simply put, are *the* way of cleaving to the Almighty. But
they in themselves are not the *true* goal of life. The Torah is not "Watch
your behavior and I'll give you reward" but "Condition yourself for a
relationship with Me." Proper behavior is important but that is not where
Judaism ends; it is where it begins. Through that we can build a *true*
relationship with our Creator. As the Talmud puts it simply, "G-d wants the
heart" (Sanhedrin 106b).
And so our conclusion, perhaps the single-most important lesson of our
studies: If you have slipped you can still latch back onto G-d -- instantly
-- simply by getting in touch with your innermost self which wants nothing
of evil behavior. For as low as you have fallen, there is a deep place
within your soul which is untouched by it, which desires nothing but G-d.
There is no room for giving up on yourself that you're too wicked and filthy
for G-d to accept. That is merely Satan's means of attempting to hold on to
his own miserable lackeys. Sure, true repentance is a lot of work, but
closeness to G-d is within everyone's grasp, no matter who you are and what
you've done. It only really takes that first step. And at times that is all
G-d truly asks of us.
Conversely, if you *are* behaving never believe that Judaism ends there. One
of the worst misconceptions people have about Judaism is that it's primarily
a religion of ritual and form. Those who practice it and practice it truly
know that nothing could be further from the truth. If a person is so busy
observing the nitty-gritty details of the Torah that he forgets the G-d who
commanded it, he's building a relationship with no one. And that is all but
pointless. If, however, you care and truly care about G-d, there is no limit
to the heights you can reach.
(Based in part on thoughts heard from my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
(Talmudicu.edu & Torah.org).)
With this and with G-d's help, we have completed the Laws of De'os.
Well, the Laws of De'os are complete in a mere 73 classes. My hope now is to
cover another section of the Rambam, the Laws of Repentance -- as part of
the same series. So please hold on to your subscriptions (meaning do nothing
-- stay subscribed). However, I will be taking off several months beforehand
in order to get a decent head start in our studies. I hope to begin the new
section sometime this spring. So please stay tuned! And of course, if you're
bored in the meantime, you're welcome to sign up for this writer's Pirkei
Avos class (www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos) ;-) -- or any of the other
excellent classes offered by Torah.org. Till then be well and thanks for
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org