What Matters More Than We Notice

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New Series: End of the Third Sha’ar of Sha’arei Teshuvah

by R. Gidon Rothstein

I was seventeen, scanning the shelves of the Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion for what to study during their mussar seder, and stumbled on Rabbenu Yonah’s Sha’arei TeshuvahGates of Repentance. [Brief reminder: Rabbenu Yonah was a relative and younger contemporary of Ramban’s, living 1200-1263 CE.] I come back to it again and again, always gleaning new insight.

The first two and last sections of the book are excellent although ordinary teshuvah discussions, why, how, and what gets people to repentance and atonement. Here, we will take up the longest section, the third sha’ar, or gate, which does not obviously fit with the others.

It’s surprising both for its length—it is easily longer than the other three sections combined—and its tenuous link to teshuvah. Rabbenu Yonah tells us the type and intensity of repentance necessary for a sin is a matter of its severity. The more severe the sin, the more effort we need to invest in our repentance, the more regret we need to summon. To know what counts as more or less severe, he points to the punishment (an idea of Rambam’s). For all we are adjured to treat all obligations and sins as very important, those that incur a more severe punishment are, in some sense, “worse.”

In some sense, therefore, violating a rabbinic ordinance creates “less” of a debit in one’s Heavenly accounts than failing to fulfill a Biblical obligation or violating a Biblical prohibition. Rabbenu Yonah takes pains at each level to remind us of how serious it is nonetheless, but his basic framework calls us to evaluate our failings by where they fit in the hierarchy of commandments.

He then writes a sort of mini-Sefer Ha-MitzvotBook of the Commandments. He does not strive for comprehensiveness, listing all 613, but he gives more than the minimum examples to demonstrate each type of commandment. The whole sha’ar more than rewards study, I am saying, although I here am going to start relatively close to the end, probably two thirds of the way through.

Losing Our Share in the World To Come

I start there because Rabbenu Yonah has finished with all the sins with a specific clear punishment. He has gone through karet (for which a court could administer lashes), and capital punishment, and the three sins a Jew must forfeit one’s life if threatened to violate. At the technical level, he has already covered the halakhic system. Yet a full third of the (very long) sha’ar remains.

His last category—second to last, actually, as we will see—consists of sins for which one loses his/her share in the World to Come. These are the most serious, he tells us, because they rupture the relationship between the person and the Creator, for Whose glory people were created. It shows a full failure of a human being’s life.

Significance We Easily Miss

I raise these sins for review here because I believe many of them will surprise us, many of us have forgotten how seriously the Talmud took failures we might treat as barely worth noticing. They do not, by and large, have a reputation of severity, yet Talmudic sources label them as sufficient to lose one’s share in the World to Come.

[Thought experiment for the next few weeks: if you found out you thought aspect of Judaism was the most important, and Rabbenu Yonah told you it was y, and he had clear sources to prove it, what would you do about it?]

After he finishes his discussion of those sins, Rabbenu Yonah adds a lengthy discussion (the real reason I turned to this text, because of what seems to me its relevance to current events) of the four groups of people Sotah says will never greet the Divine. He does not call it a level of sin, so the members of the four categories are not definably the worst, except he gives them more attention than any other category, by far.

As we’ll see, the problems to which he seems to have been most alert still plague us today. Rambam said as much in the beginning of the fifth chapter of Laws of Fast Days, our sins still echo the sins of our ancestors.

The Purpose of Humanity and Loss of the World to Come

We can easily come to think of reward as a prize, as if we are given a great big cookie for doing well, and lose it or get punished for failure. With the World to Come, at least, Rabbenu Yonah wants us to understand the stakes are much greater.

In paragraph 143, he says all creatures were made for the glory of Gd (as Yeshayahu 43;7 says). Logically, then, one who is mehalel Hashem, treats Gd sacrilegiously, and/or denigrates Gd’s word, has done the exact opposite of what s/he was placed here to do. Bamidbar 15;30-31 speaks of those who act flagrantly as blasphemers, to be cut off from the nation.

Rabbenu Yonah says death cannot suffice to atone, hence the loss of the World to Come. In this category he includes those who knowingly sin in front of others; those who reject Gd’s discipline, even in private; who decide they will no longer keep any one of the mitzvot.

This last is different than the occasional yielding to temptation we all suffer, a matter of choice rather than weakness. A deliberate rejection of any one sin is rebellion against Gd, with serious consequences. Avodah Zarah 26a speaks of not saving shepherds who are in danger, because they gave up on observing the prohibition of stealing (they graze their flocks on others’ lands), showing the conscious rejection of any sin counts as full-fledged rebellion. So, too, those who eat nonkosher for no particular reason (in his view, it counts as le-hakh’is, with the intent of angering Gd, because the person has no particular motivation or temptation, s/he has just decided not to observe this mitzvah.)

Attitude Matters

That’s what Bamidbar 15;31 meant by acting be-yad ramah, with an uplifted hand. The next clause in the verse speaks of devar Hashem bazah, he mistreated the word of Gd. Sanhedrin 99a thought the phrase included those who deny the divine origin of the Torah; are megaleh panim to the Torah, a term Rabbenu Yonah will explain in the next paragraph; or who degrade or mistreat Torah scholars or the holidays.

For any one of these, the Gemara says, a person can lose his or her share in the World to Come regardless of his/her Torah knowledge and good deeds. I linger over the point, because it is clearly counterintuitive. The Gemara is telling us certain specific choices can negate all the other good a person has done, to the point of loss of share in the World to Come. In Rabbenu Yonah’s understanding, the phrase means the person has completely fallen down on the basic responsibility of being a human being.

That’s a mouthful in our times, when we insist people’s good deeds must count for something. They do, in the sense Gd does not deny any deserved reward. Those rewards, however, will come in this world. On the big question, is the person overall good enough to be included in the World to Come, the answer is no. Just denying the divinity of the Torah, or the others—whose definition we will see next time—puts us out of the great future Gd plans.

It’s a reminder of the stakes of the topics we are discussing, despite the absence of an immediate or human court ramification. They each, instead, show us an issue of much greater import, where we fit in Gd’s plans. Or don’t.


About Gidon Rothstein

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