Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat VaYelekh -- Yom Kippur


A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Shabbat Shuva (Vayelekh) 5762/ September 22, 2001

Forgive Us: The Difference Between Sins and Crimes[1]

Dr. Meir Seidler

On the Day of Atonement we stand before our Creator, facing our Maker for the entire day. This experience is unique to the High Holy Days in general and to the Day of Atonement in particular. So too is the heightened awareness of sin, "for the sin which we have committed before You." Since "there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and doesn't err" (Eccles. 7:20), we are all required to examine our deeds and to recognize our sins as a necessary precondition for forgiveness and atonement: "for all these, Lord of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us remission."

I would like to examine more closely the concept of "sin," around which the Day of Atonement revolves. This investigation is especially important in our era, as modern enlightened society increasingly denies the idea of "sin," seeking to erase it from human consciousness. Modern society does not acknowledge "sins," only "crimes."

I am not referring to the traditional translation of het as sin and pesha as crime, which pertains to the degree of one's awareness of wrongdoing (unwitting vs. premeditated acts). [2] What I have in mind is the commonly accepted sense of the words "sin" and "crime" in everyday speech. When in modern speech we wish to refer to something that should not be done, to an act that human society denounces and must protect itself against, we speak of crime or of a criminal act.[3] The notion of sin is gradually dropping out of our lexicon, becoming part of the ever-growing store of concepts that have been rendered obsolete by our changing reality and that are only understood today by traditionalists, yeshiva students, or by experts in reconstructing a past era, never to return, in which this term was once relevant.

To understand what the gradual disappearance of the concept of sin signifies we must compare this concept with the parallel one that has taken its place: crime. Thus, before we can ask, "What is sin?" we must ask, "What is a crime?"

According to the modern outlook, which owes its development to the European Enlightenment, human beings are entities with rights. Some maintain that these are natural rights, by virtue of being a human being. The basic rights of human beings are the right to life, body, and property. In addition, a person also has obligations. But according to the modern outlook, these obligations do not have an independent existence; rather they stem from human rights. The right to one's life and body implies the obligation not to injure others; the right to property implies the obligation not to steal from one's fellow, etc. In terms of the philosophy of law, the obligations placed on us in this manner are no more than a sub-article of our rights, insofar as there are no obligations in and of themselves but only obligations that follow from the rights of the next person. When we speak of crime, we mean infraction of a person's rights. [4]

Not so with sin. Sin can only be defined in the light of an additional normative dimension. From the perspective of this normative dimension, human rights and social justice are not the be all and end all; rather, they are a necessary but not sufficient condition for our existence as human beings. Judaism does not perceive every obligation as stemming from the rights of one's fellow human being; rather, there are obligations that exist altogether independently, with no right standing behind them to back them up. Such obligations are the commandments between a person and G-d; however, we shall not the focus on them but on the commandments concerning relations with one's fellow person.

These commandments, as well, which indeed are based on the rights of one's fellow and which follow from the prohibition against infracting these rights, have another, independent, dimension that gives them redoubled force, plain and simple. This redoubled force stems from the assumption that transgressions concerning relations with others not only violate the rights of another person but also go beyond this, violating the Divine order of the universe, whose existence we posit on the basis of the testimony of Scripture. While the world of human beings is chock-full of rights, in the world of the Holy One, blessed be He, human beings are primarily saddled with responsibilities. Sin is a violation of these responsibilities, an infraction of the obligations placed on human beings.

The argument that transgressions between one person and another subsume, in Judaism, a dimension that is not related to human rights, can be substantiated by Scripture itself. Does a person have any more outstanding right than to his or her own life? Yet the responsibility not to shed blood is presented in the Torah not as stemming from a person's right to life, as one might have expected, but as an independent obligation, not related to human rights: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in His image did G-d make man" (Gen. 9:6). This verse envelopes the world of difference between the modern Western concept of man and the Jewish concept. Both approaches equally give supreme value to human life, but the reasons for this are different. According to the Torah, the prohibition against shedding blood does not stem simply from a person's right to life, but because he was created in G-d's image.

Not only the legal verses of the Bible prove this philosophy; the outlook of the Biblical narratives is the same. Transgressions between one person and another are not looked upon solely as violations of human rights, as reflected in the story of David and Bathsheba. When King David became aware of the severity of what he had done, after having been reproved by the prophet Nathan, he expressed himself in these words: "I stand guilty [have sinned] before the Lord!" (II Sam. 12:13). Unlike crime, Sin is always "before the Lord".

Now let us address the question of the image of man that follows from the Jewish outlook that acknowledges human responsibilities. Facing the Creator on the Day of Atonement can only be understood in the light of this idea.

Duties that do not stem from the rights of one's fellow but from an obligation to the image of G-d in us, give human beings an additional moral quality. A person who is defined as possessing rights and nothing more lacks this added quality, no matter how far-reaching the scope of these rights. In such a person the aspiration to the sublime, the inner voice - the voice calling to realize a more elevated ideal than merely preserving one's existence - is silent. To what should such a person aspire? Safeguarding human rights does not yield a higher ideal than existence itself, or as Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it, it is a need and not a value. For people who seek only to realize rights and nothing more, morality is likely to degenerate to the purely functional, based on the need to prevent "one person swallowing another alive," and intended solely to mediate and maneuver between the rights of individuals, without reflecting any more lofty ideal. Is that all there is to Man? Is our destiny as human beings summed up by maximal realization of our rights?

The concept of sin reminds us not of rights that have been violated but of obligations that we have not fulfilled. The concept of sin makes us confront the image of G-d that is in us and calls on us to meet its demands. It requires that we constantly search our souls, especially on the Day of Atonement, to see whether "the soul that You instilled in me" is still "pure."

For good reason the severe words of admonishment in the afternoon Torah reading on the Day of Atonement stress sins, not crimes. The transgressions that are described in this reading, in the realm of sexual relations, involve for the most part things that happen between one person and another, but they cannot be explained by pointing to a violation of our fellow's rights [5], rather only in terms of the obligation placed on us to behave according to a certain minimal standard expected of someone who is created in the image of G-d. This standard is not measured in terms of rights, but in terms of responsibilities, as expressed in the list of forbidden sexual relations (Lev. 18:6-29):

None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness, I am the Lord.

Your father's nakedness, that is, the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover; she is your mother—you shall not uncover her nakedness... Do not have carnal relations with your neighbor's wife and defile yourself with her... Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence. Do not have carnal relations with any beast and defile yourself thereby; and let no woman lend herself to a beast to mate with it; it is perversion. Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants... All who do any of those abhorrent things—such persons shall be cut off from their people.

The words, "I am the Lord," appended to the first verse cited above, recur twice in the text that follows. They underscore that the reason for these proscriptions does not stem from infraction of human rights, but from the obligation placed on us by virtue of the Divine command requiring us to behave in a way that befits the image of G-d in which we were made.

The passage on illicit sexual relations, chosen by the Rabbis as the text to be read as the unique experience of the Day of Atonement reaches its high point, the Ne'ila prayer, conveys an important message. At this special moment the Torah chose to warn us not about crime, but about sin [6]. The Torah reading in the afternoon service on the Day of Atonement sheds light on the essence of sin—violation of the image of G-d that is in us—and warns us against the dire consequences of an approach in which all our responsibilities are founded on our rights alone.

We must be on guard lest the concept of sin be altogether erased from our lexicon, for then the prayer, "May sinners disappear from the earth," might be fulfilled, but the continuation of the verse, "and the wicked be no more" (Ps. 104:35), will not be. In order to achieve righteousness, we must maintain the concept of G-d as the motivation for our actions towards our fellow man, as echoed the conclusion of our verse, "Bless the Lord, O my soul. Hallelujah"


[1]The ideas in this article are based in part on notions first set forth by Isaac Breuer (1883-1946), grandson of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his article, "Laws concerning women, slaves and gentiles" (1910), in Tziyunei Derekh, a collection of articles published in the same volume as his book, Moriyah, Jerusalem 1988, pp. 57-86. Regarding the difference between the Western perception of man and the Torah's perception, my remarks are also based on things I heard from the eminent Judge Menahem Elon, to the best of my understanding, along a similar line to that of Breuer. I also had at hand certain passages from the first part of "Jerusalem," (1783) by Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786), in which he developed his notion of natural law.
[2]Yalkut Shimoni on Parashat Aharei Mot, 576, s.v. "ve-hitvadah alav." Also cf. Rashi on Ex. 34:7. The literal use of the Hebrew words for sin and crime in our sources substantiates this distinction (save for those chapters of Leviticus that pertain to the sin offering). Cf. Lev 22:9, Num. 18:22; I Kings 14:16; II Kings 21:17, and elsewhere. The confession recited on the Day of Atonement mentions the "sin that we have committed before You under compulsion or of our own will," thus the term sin is applied equally to that which is done under compulsion and that which is done willfully.
[3]See het (sin) and pesha (crime) in Millon Sapir he-Hadash (1997). In contrast, Even Shoshan (1955) barely distinguishes between het and pesha.
[4]To sharpen the point, when I refer to "human rights" here and following, I mean the broader rights of any human being, and not the narrower, politically charged meaning of the phrase.
[5]Assuming that the deeds described in the above verses are done with the consent of both sides, according to the modern enlightened view there would be no reason to forbid them, insofar as they do not infringe on anyone's rights.
[6]All attempts at presenting these transgressions in the spirit of the time as infracting another person's rights fail to fathom the full depth of these proscriptions and can be refuted.