Sometimes I feel that there are so many details in Jewish law that it is impossible to follow them all. Nobody can. So everybody fails at something (at least) sometime. Are we then all "sinners"? How can we live with constant failure?
Judaism does not believe in original sin. If anything we believe in a process of continual growth. In English the word “sin” has a connotation that comes from the Christian meaning; that we are inherently bad or that we are constantly failing. In Jewish tradition, that just isn’t true. Judaism doesn’t understand the world in terms of “sinners” or not. We are all imperfect and that is acceptable.
The word “het” which most closely represents “sin” in Hebrew is a term that comes from archery. It means to miss the mark. Just like when an archer fires an arrow down range it may (or more likely may not) hit the mark, we too sometimes fail even with the best of intention. Judaism recognizes this and does not demand our perfection. Only our continual efforts at improvement.
You are correct that there are many details in Jewish law. Whether it is possible for you to follow them all is not a question I can answer for you. But I am mindful of Hillel’s decree that the Torah teaches us to love one another, with the rest left to commentary. Our job in this life, if we are committed to Jewish practice and tradition, is to wrestle with where we are currently, to keep learning the commentary of Jewish tradition and experience, and to try and continually improve. Constant failure is part of the program. Hopefully, it reminds us to breathe deeply, load another arrow and fire it down range.
Granted, there are more details in Jewish law than any one person can keep straight. There are, at least in theory, consequences to the reality that no one is capable of doing it all. The High Holy Days liturgy includes the phrase that “repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the harsh decree,” meaning that we recognize the consequences and can act to mitigate them. We do teshuva, acts of repentance, throughout the year and at Yom Kippur as a way of acknowledging our lack of perfection and petitioning God for forgiveness. One part of our constant conversation with God acknowledges that we are merely human and never perfect.
Being human, by definition, means we are not now and will never be perfect. God knows that better than we do; as Creator God understands the limits of our capabilities. If we look upon ourselves as “failures” because of our lack of perfection, it is only because we don't have God's perspective. We want and expect more from ourselves than is humanly possible.
In place of perfection we have choice. The Torah teaches: (Deuteronomy 30:19) “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.” This is our reality; we will enjoy life and we will die and along the way we will experience both blessing and curse. The Torah's response is “therefore choose life.” Life is messy, live with it because the alternative is much worse.
Human's have the unique opportunity to choose our behavior – to enliven our days or not, to observe the laws or not. We also have the ability to grow along the path; to do better this time than we did last. That growth is part and parcel of what we call teshuva, meaning for me that we can turn our lives to make better choices all the time. Our path is never a straight one, so we advance some days and get misdirected on others. I do not believe that our fate rests on any one choice. Knowing that at any given moment we may be off track, the goal is to find our way to be on track more often than not. The Torah's advice is not to give up, not to despair, not to look upon your past and declare yourself a failure but in every moment to look forward and strive to choose life.
In many ways, I think this is one of the classic questions of life, law and Judaism. How can we live with constant failure?
I think the classic answer is another question: is the glass half full or half empty? Do we look at this as constant failure or constant success?
The ritual mitzvot (commandments) are essential to our lives. Keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and festivals, praying regularly bring great meaning to our souls. They structure our lives and help us find balance in a world always leading towards excess. They teach us that we are most happy when we are happy with what we have, yetalso remind us that there is always more we can strive for--not just materially but spiritually. Many of these mitzvot we might classify as bein adam l’Makom, between a person and GD.
Yet there is another entire section of mitzvot--those bein adam l’chavero, between an individual and his friend. This includes vast sections of Jewish law--business ethics, familial ethics, sexual ethics, and more general interpersonal relationships. Jewish law teaches us that we must be honest in our business dealings (that we are forbidden to have two sets of weights and measures--or two sets of books). We are commanded to love our neighbors and not to stand idly by if they are in danger. Jews are to treat one another with respect. In all of these departments, we probably fulfill many mitzvot we never even knew were mitzvot!
Whenever someone introduces him or herself to a rabbi, the introduction often continues, “but I’m not religious.” I’ve heard this from doctors and garbage collectors, lawyers and airline ticket agents. Yet, many people picked careers that match their Jewish values. Reproductive specialists help couples fill the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Lawyers are advocates for the poor and those that need help. Garbage collectors remove that which is disgusting from our homes, allowing us to pray and eat in places that do not smell terribly.
To be technical, we do all sin at times, but we also do many, many more mitzvot. In the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, it says that Gd visits iniquity to the third and fourth generation of those that hate GD, but shows mercy for a thousand generations to those that love GD and keep the commandments. In GD’s great mercy, we are given opportunity to atone--every day and on Yom Kippur. We acknowledge our shortcomings, reminding GD that we are imperfect and must be judged on the scale of the imperfect.
I want to end with two Hassidic tales:
A chassid once asked his rebbe, "why should wepray on Yom Kippur, after all, we will inevitably sin again." In response, the rebbe asked him to look out the window behind him. Outside there was a toddler who was just learning to walk. "What do you see?" asked the rebbe. The disciple replied, "I see a child, standing and falling," Day after day the chassid returned to witness the same scene. At the week’s end, the child stood and did not fall. The child’s eyes expressed the achievement of having attained the impossible. "So with us," said the rebbe. "We may fail again and again, but in the end, a loving God gives us the opportunities we need to succeed."
Another classic story. Reb Zusha was on his death bed, and he had tears streaming down his face. "Why are you crying?" asked his disciples. "If God asks me why I was not like Moses or Maimonides," answered Reb Zusha, "I will say, I was not blessed with that kind of leadership ability and wisdom." But I am afraid of another question," continued Reb Zusha, "what if God asks, Reb Zusha, why weren’t you like Reb Zusha? Why did you not find your inner being and realize your inner potential? Why didn’t you find yourself? That is why I am crying!"
Of the 613 mitzvot, many require the Temple, the ability to offer sacrifices. For those, we have alternate paths, we remember the Temple, we recite the sacrifices. Yet there are other mitzvot that we can fulfill. We must continue to try to fulfill all the ones we can. We must continue to try to be the best people we can be. We must treat each other with love and respect. We must remember that we will fail, but like the toddler, we must get up again and keep trying. Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity! The glass is half full.
I do not believe that G-d requires us to be perfect. Rather, He asks us to grow in wholeness, recognizing that the only perfection is found in G-d. Jewish law, Halachah, is the path by which G-d directs us to grow in wholeness, and to view the world through Halachik glasses. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that when dealing with the world, one holds up one’s options to the light of Torah ethic and morality, and then makes the best decision one can.
The way we practice living a life of Torah ethic is by following Halachik ritual. There are essentials in Halachah as well as details. The details are argued about in great depth, but the essentials are pretty much agreed upon. I have always believed that as long as we attempt to remain within Halachah, whether we decide to lean toward strictness or leniency, we are fulfilling G-d’s plan. Every Mitzvah performed is a victory and is of infinite worth because by submitting to G-d’s will we train ourselves to recognize that G-d is the father of all human beings and we are all brothers and sisters, all family. We may have family fights on occasion, but we need to remember that we are all on the same spaceship, hurtling through G-d’s cosmos, and must work together to banish suffering.
Rather than viewing ourselves as constantly failing, I believe we can view ourselves as continually succeeding each time we perform any Mitzvah in a way that is, within the essentials of Halachah, meaningful to us. Life is tough and challenging, and the Torah is supposed to be “Darchei Noam”, “paths of pleasantness and sweetness.” Since we are promised “Kol Yisrael Yaysh Lahem Chalek B’olam Habaah’, “all Israel has a portion in the world to come”, we are assured of G-d’s support, compassion and forgiving nature. We do not have to live in a state of continual fear and guilt, and can be assured that any mistakes or omissions we commit will be forgiven. As a matter of fact it is those very mistakes that give us an opportunity to perform another Mitzvah, Teshuvah, repentance, and when we do that Mitzvah of Teshuvah our Rabbis tell us that all those mistakes are transformed into additional Mitzvot by our compassionate G-d.
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