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Home » B'Chukotai, Free Choice

Bechukoti: Retroactive Sin

Submitted by on May 27, 2019 – 1:03 pmNo Comment | 1,768 views

Sin is a terrible thing. First, it tempts me, then it punishes me. Why does G-d play this elaborate game with me? Why does He allow me to sin, and then punish me for having sinned?

I am not asking why He permits me to choose. I know the answer to that. If I wouldn’t have a choice, I wouldn’t be able to take credit for my good or bad deeds. I wouldn’t be able to be rewarded for my good behavior or punished for my bad behavior. So fine, allow me free choice. But why can’t He step in and save me when I am about to sin, must He let me slide and then punish me for sliding?

I realize that if G-d were to step in and keep me from sinning, I would effectively not have free choice. But still, can’t G-d find a way to allow me free choice while protecting me from its pitfalls? Are we saying that an Omnipotent, Omniscient, All-knowing G-d, can’t figure out a solution to this one?

And if He could figure out a solution, but didn’t, doesn’t He carry at least some responsibility for my sins? How can He ride in on a proverbial horse of righteous indignation and punish me for my sins? Isn’t He at least somewhat responsible for the system He created that beckons and allows me to sin?

I suppose the best way of putting it is this. If I believe that G-d is perfectly good, I must assume that something good comes from sin. Otherwise, He wouldn’t allow it. I can’t accept that sin is just an unavoidable by-product of free choice. There must be something good about sin if an inherently good G-d allows it to happen. If so, pray tell me what is that good thing? How can sin be good?

Seeking Sin
The prophet Jeremiah foretold that one day we would seek our sins, but wouldn’t find them because G-d would have forgiven us.[1] The Baal Shem Tov asked a simple question. If G-d will have forgiven our sins, why would we look for them? I can understand looking for my sins if I need to account for each sin and repent for it. But if they are forgiven, why should I seek them?

The answer is based on the Talmudic teaching that after authentic repentance, our sins are not merely forgiven; they are transformed into merits.[2] This is an amazing teaching that makes little sense on the face of it. I can understand a sin being forgiven if the sinner is properly contrite and remorseful, but why does the sinner deserve a merit? How can a demerit become a merit retroactively?

You can find the answer in your own life experience. I am sure that each of you can think of a time when you did something terrible. You either hurt a friend deeply with a callous word or behavior. Or you broke a law and found yourself incarcerated. Or you played roughly and landed your loved one in the hospital to get stitches. Or maybe you did something illegal and landed in prison for a few days.

These things happen. Sooner or later, we will each slip up. We are human and thus imperfect. If you are basically a good person, the moment of slipup is acutely painful. You feel as if a curtain has dropped over your normal life and something drastic, something terrible occurred. You feel like nothing will ever be the same again. You realize that this time you really went too far. You really messed up.

Of course, time is the healer of all wounds and life never really comes to the grinding halt that we envisioned in our moment of slipup. Somehow things fall into place and we pick up the broken pieces. We start over again and life goes on. But it is never really the same. Something important would have shifted for us and now life is profoundly different. What changed?

Life stopped being a game. Life became real. We realize that there are real consequences to our words. Real people get really hurt as a result of our behavior. If we are honest about what happened and seek to learn from our mistakes, we will be super vigilant going forward to avoid similar mistakes. We will carefully guard every word we say. We will play by the rules and never take unwarranted liberties with people or property.

The misdeed was a terrible thing. We should have never done them. But if we hadn’t, life would never have become real. It would have remained a theoretical construct. Theoretically speaking we would have known that actions have consequences, and that discernment and discretion are necessary in a relationship. But these would have been concepts, theories, ideas. They would not have been concrete parts of our reality.

As a result of our failures, our relationships become much more real going forward. Our concern will be authentic, our empathy legitimate, our relationships sincere, and our word will be ironclad. If not for the terrible moment of sin, this increased vigilance and diligence would never occur. Ironically, our failures accomplish what our successes never could. They make life real for us.

This is why the Talmud tells us that after authentic repentance, our sins turn into merits. Our sins are terrible things, but if we put them in proper perspective, they teach us life lessons we never would have learned without them. Our relationship with G-d will never again be theoretical. It will now be concrete.

Based on this, the Baal Shem Tov explained why Jeremiah foretold that Jews would be looking for their sins on the day G-d forgave them. Considering that each sin solidifies and concretizes our relationship with G-d, we will start looking for every sin we ever committed and seek to learn from it.

If we committed a sin against Shabbat, we will want to find it so that our Shabbat will become real. If we committed a sin against the dietary laws, we will seek it to make the laws of Kosher real and meaningful. If we committed a sin against a friend, we will want to repent for that sin and learn to deepen our relationship with our friends.

Why G-d Allows Sin
However, at that point, says Jeremiah, it will be too late. G-d will have forgiven all our sins and there will be nothing left. Ironically, only then, only in retrospect, after we had repented and will be forgiven, will we discover why G-d allowed us to sin.

Sin can be good for us, but only in retrospect. A good G-d does not want us to commit bad deeds. But if we choose to commit them, He allows it because He knows that if we repent authentically, good will come of it. Think of a relationship between husband and wife that emerges from counseling stronger than ever before. It isn’t only stronger; it is also real. Before the crises, the relationship was a fairy-tale. After the crises and resolution, the relationship becomes real. The love is real. It breathes, it is alive, it consumes a very important in the lives of the couple.

Sin does the same, but only if we repent. This is why G-d comes along to punish us if we fail to repent. The punishment is not an angry rebuke. It is a wakeup call that urges us to make the best of what can become a very special and wonderful thing.[3]

[1] Jeremiah 50:20.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b.

[3] This essay is based on Maor Vashemesh on Leviticus 26:41.