Ju­daism

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - SH­MUEL RABINOWITZ • SH­MUEL RABINOWITZ The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

Yom Kip­pur, which be­gins this evening and ends on Satur­day night, is a day whose name de­picts its essence. “Kip­pur” means atone­ment. This is the day when God atones for peo­ple’s sins, or as it says in the To­rah: “For on this day He shall ef­fect atone­ment for you to cleanse you. Be­fore the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins” (Leviti­cus 16:30).

If there is a set day each year on which God ef­fects atone­ment for peo­ple’s sins, then the fact that peo­ple sin and do not al­ways act as they should comes as no sur­prise. This re­al­ity is un­de­ni­able and is also not co­in­ci­den­tal. Thou­sands of years ago, on the day the Tem­ple was ded­i­cated, King Solomon ex­pressed this idea with­out minc­ing words: “...for there is no per­son who does not sin” (I Kings 8:46).

How are we to deal with this fact? The He­brew word for sin is “het,” which is of the same root as the verb for miss­ing a tar­get. There is no doubt that sin­ning is miss­ing a goal and is not de­sir­able. But is it ac­ci­den­tal? In other words, couldn’t God have cre­ated a slightly bet­ter ver­sion of man, one who would not sin at all?

A prom­i­nent scholar who dealt with this topic ex­ten­sively was Rabbi Moshe Haim Luz­zatto (1707-1746), a kab­bal­ist, poet and philosophe­r. His pro­found teach­ings get to the heart of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence and man’s stand­ing be­fore his God. He com­pares God’s re­la­tion­ship with man to that of a mother’s with her son, a re­la­tion­ship com­posed of three suc­ceed­ing stages: hessed (benev­o­lence), din (judg­ment) and ra­hamim (mercy).

When a baby is born, his mother takes care of him with com­plete benev­o­lence. She has no ex­pec­ta­tions of any com­pen­sa­tion or even a re­turn of her own de­vo­tion. She gives of her­self en­tirely and lov­ingly.

Shortly after­ward, when the baby is a bit older, the re­la­tion­ship takes on a bit more rec­i­proc­ity. She ex­pects a smile, some sort of re­ac­tion. When he is even older, she ex­pects him to be a good stu­dent, a child who brings his fam­ily na­hat, sat­is­fac­tion. She now treats him not only benev­o­lently but with a cer­tain level of judg­ment. She ex­pects com­pen­sa­tion, start­ing with grat­i­tude, ap­pre­ci­a­tion, and meet­ing her ex­pec­ta­tions. This is hu­man na­ture. Psy­chol­o­gists say that if a mother would con­tinue bestow­ing good­ness on the child with no ex­pec­ta­tions of rec­i­proc­ity, the child’s de­vel­op­ment would be harmed and he would be­come es­sen­tially a per­ma­nent child.

As the child grows, if rec­i­proc­ity is not main­tained – a rel­a­tively com­mon phe­nom­e­non – we might ex­pect the mother to stop pro­vid­ing for her child, since her re­la­tion­ship with him is sup­pos­edly based on this rec­i­proc­ity. If the rec­i­proc­ity was to­tal, then par­ent-child re­la­tion­ships would look like those be­tween any per­son and his bank man­ager – you get what you de­serve, you don’t get what you don’t de­serve.

But a par­ent-child re­la­tion­ship is dif­fer­ent. It ex­ists on its own merit. It is un­con­di­tional, with­out a set goal to­ward which both sides strive. The re­la­tion­ship it­self is the goal. This is the at­tribute of mercy – the third stage.

The cre­ation of man is to­tal hessed, benev­o­lence, giv­ing with no rec­i­proc­ity.

Man is cre­ated and then sent off on a long jour­ney that does have ex­pec­ta­tions of rec­i­proc­ity: God pro­vides for man, and man is ex­pected to take the straight and cor­rect path. This is the at­tribute of din, judg­ment. If we would stop here, our re­la­tion­ship with God would look like our re­la­tion­ship with our bank man­ager, and that would not end well.

God cre­ated man as a crea­ture who sins. This is not by mis­take; not a mishap. God ex­pects us to un­der­stand that the Di­vine at­tribute of judg­ment is not how He con­ducts the world. The Di­vine at­tribute of mercy, stronger than rec­i­proc­ity, is the one that ex­presses the real re­la­tion­ship be­tween God and man. God wants to pro­vide for us with­out limit, un­con­di­tion­ally, and there­fore it says “for there is no man who does not sin.” We can never stand be­fore God con­fi­dently and claim “I de­serve this.” There­fore, we can never mis­tak­enly think that God con­ducts the world ac­cord­ing to the at­tribute of judg­ment.

This, of course, does not make sin per­mis­si­ble. On the con­trary. This point of view strength­ens our faith and trust in God and His good­ness and em­pow­ers us with the de­sire not to sin.

Our sages con­veyed this con­cept con­cisely. “At first God meant to cre­ate the world with only the at­tribute of judg­ment. He saw that the world can­not ex­ist this way, so He added the at­tribute of mercy.” What is the mean­ing of “He saw that the world can­not ex­ist this way”? Could it be that God was mis­taken, that He thought the world could ex­ist this way and ul­ti­mately dis­cov­ered that it couldn’t? That is a ridicu­lous thing to say.

“The world can­not ex­ist on the ba­sis of the at­tribute of judg­ment.” The world does not at­tain its goals when man be­lieves that God is con­duct­ing Him­self wholly on the ba­sis of the at­tribute of judg­ment. Yom Kip­pur is a day when we ad­just our aware­ness and sharpen our con­scious­ness of the fact that it is the Di­vine at­tribute of mercy that con­ducts the world. ■

Amir Co­hen/Reuters) (Il­lus­tra­tive:

WOR­SHIPERS TAKE part in ‘tash­lich’ (rit­ual of cast­ing away sins of the past year into the wa­ter) ahead of Yom Kip­pur on the seashore in Ash­dod, last year.

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