Sin and Repentance–The Holy Days

The themes of Sin and Repentance predominate, beginning tomorrow evening and extending for Ten Days of Repentance through Yom Kippur when we chant together, אשמנו, בגדנו, Ahamnu, Bagadnu, We have become guilty, We have betrayed….  This always brings up the questions of the purpose of sin in God’s plan as well as its inevitability.

Strangely, the purpose of sin is much easier to understand, in that it motivates us to not only self-correct the damage we caused through it, but also to be inspired to grow beyond the desire of that particular sin, hopefully leading us to better habits and decisions.  I’m more interested in whether or not it is inevitable that each of us will, at some point, sin.

Out tradition is very honest about our ancestors and leaders.  As we learn about them through the Torah, we witness each of them making mistakes, falling short, committing sins.  In fact, the heritage of sinning is as old as humanity itself, involving the very first couple.

Judaism has a unique take on this First Sin, quite different than the concept of Original Sin.  It’s very important to keep in mind.  Just like any other phenomenon in our God-Created world, even though it presents quite negatively, ultimately it is for our benefit.

If that is a hard-to-understand concept, here’s an even more challenging one I propose:  that first sin generated the adventure of all subsequent human endeavor.  We’re taught that had Adam and Chava merely resisted violating their only negative commandment, they would have entered Shabbat in full glory and holiness and Reality would have gone directly to it’s final, perfect configuration.  Instead, we were sent out into the world and history begins.

A second consequence of this sin is that Death was introduced.  While it’s possible to feel enthusiasm for all we have achieved and experienced since Eden, it’s much more difficult to find a positive value in Death.  Nonetheless, our tradition teaches us that everything that God has created has been created for good.  We often need to explore deep below the surface.

The Ramchal explains the consequences of Adam’s sin were the simultaneous weakening of our souls as well as the greater opaqueness and physicality of our bodies.  As we were originally configured, it wasn’t supposed to be so massively challenging to succeed in our partnering with God to complete and perfect Creation.  We “merely” had to apply our almost infinitely powerful Neshama, soul, to the final polishing of our material, but (at the time) much more ethereal, bodies.  But the task became so formidable as we became so much more tied to our materiality and so much less reliant on our spiritual connection with the Infinite that we now need to undergo a process of physical deterioration and rebuilding, while our soul is allotted an opportunity to recharge and return to its full strength, in order to try once again to bring the world to it’s destined perfection.  In other words, our tradition teaches us that death is an inevitable part of life.

As we prepare to contemplate, “Who will live and who will die?”, we read in the Torah of Moshe’s final day.  Running out of time, he tries to fill us will all his knowledge and wisdom, knowing that it will not be sufficient.  As the Torah reaches the end of its scroll, only to begin again in several weeks, Moshe prepares Yehoshua to lead the next phase.

Just a couple weeks ago, with Parshat V’Etchanan, we learn that Moshe pleaded with God to enter the Promised Land of Israel and to fulfill his mission by returning the Jewish People to our home.  Our sages tell us that he prayed over and over, 515 times, until God told him to stop because, if he asked even one more time God would be obliged to grant his prayer.  I don’t know about you, but if I were told that I could realize my life’s dream by only asking one more time, I wouldn’t read that as a message telling me that the right choice would be to stop.  But that’s exactly what Moshe did and he’s praised for it.

We’re taught that Moshe realized that if he were to pray that one more time, he would indeed bring the Jewish People into The Land of Israel.  He would be transformed into Mashiach and the world would enter it’s permanent, final perfection.  But Moshe realized at this last minute that there are perfections and there are perfections, and the perfection the universe would have been transformed to would be inferior to a higher order of perfection that was still possible to reach.  There is more that Humanity and The Jewish People can still achieve in order to prepare this ultimate and eternal perfection and to make it the highest order of perfection possible.  This echoes, perhaps, the situation in Eden.  Of course, the world would have become eternally “perfect”, but at a lower order of perfection than if we continued to strive to lay a better and stronger background.

We know, both instinctively and socially, that death is evil.  All living things avoid pain and move towards light.  A dead human body is the paradigm of Tum’a, spiritual pollution and defilement, and even dead insects are able to transmit tum’a.  On the other hand, it is often this race against time that motivates us to live and love and create the best we can.  As I get older, the urgency to write all my insights, to play all my music, to present all of my visual wonder grows.  As I cope with having limited, ultimately inadequate, time for so much to do, I confront the reality that I will never achieve everything I hope to.

Our tradition teaches us something very special here, as it reminds us in the tractate of Avot, The Fathers (2:21), that while it won’t be our lot to finish the job we’re not absolved from working on it.  Death is the great reminder that no matter what we achieve, no matter how much we learn, we are always finite.  Adam, the primordial man, Moshe, the embodiment of wisdom were each limited beings.  Even if, as we’re taught, Adam’s soul contained all the souls of future humanity, just as Moshe’s neshama contains the root of all 600,000 Jewish neshamot, as finite humans neither was adequate, or was supposed to be adequate, to bring שלמות, Shleymut, Ultimate Perfection, to Creation.  Rather, humanity had to develop through the experience of history, with each soul assigned a unique and essential role.  The next generation awaits its challenges and opportunities that only they can accomplish.

Yes, we look forward to a day, במהרה בימינו, may it be soon in our days, that we’ve finished our collective task of rectifying and completing Creation, but in order for each of us to best fulfill our unique task we need the humility to truly see ourselves as flawed, limited yet still with infinite capacity.

May our sins bring us to returning, may our mortality bring us humility as well as motivation.

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