The Value in, Difficulty of, Resisting Sin

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Mabit’s Sha’ar Ha-Teshuvah, Chs. 4-6

The Strengths of the Righteous and the Repentant

The Gemara twice (Berachot 34b and Sanhedrin 99a) contrasts a statement in the name of R. Yohanan with one in the name of R. Avahu. R. Avahu’s is the more familiar, so I will discuss it out of the Gemara’s order. R. Avahu says where penitents (ba’alei teshuvah) stand, fully righteous people cannot, an idea he supports with Yeshayahu 57;19’s calling out in peace to the far and near, the formerly far first. Mabit explains R. Avahu must have been sure the verse referred to ba’alei teshuvah, people who had been far and returned to Gd, because the previous verses in the chapter had clearly addressed them.

The Gemara brought it up because it had encountered the statement of R. Hiyya b. Abba quoting R. Yohanan, who said all the promises of goodness in Scripture are for ba’alei teshuvahtzadikkim, fully righteous people, are covered by Yeshayahu 64;3, no eye has seen it other than Gd’s. To explain how that must mean the righteous, Mabit points to Nedarim 22b, where R. Ada b. Hanina says had the Jews refrained from sinning, they would have only been given the Torah and book of Yehoshu’a (because it lays out the conquest of Israel). All the rest of Scripture was addressed to sinners, who will eventually be ba’alei teshuvah.

The Righteous Who Conquer Temptation

My teacher, Prof. Haym Soloveitchik, used to speak of the angle of deflection, when a writer approaches a text in a way not demanded by the text itself, where some of what comes into play must be issues of his rather than the text..

Mabit here gives an example, because he asserts—without evidence other than his certainty of its blinding obviousness—that neither of these amora’im was referring to the kind of righteous person who is tempted by sin and controls him/herself as much as humanly possible. Of course, even such a tzaddik will have some sins, because it is inherent to human nature, as verses in Bereshit say.

The righteous person who manages to keep sin to its absolute minimum is clearly better than the penitent, Mabit is sure. The debate has to do with a tzaddik who does not sin because s/he has no desire for it. While such a person also does not sin, may sin less than the tzaddik discussed already, it is not a spiritual victory, simply that person’s nature. [Note his assumption struggle with desire is spiritually ennobling.]

For R. Yohanan, this kind of tzaddik, too, is among those for whom Gd has prepared a future the prophets did not begin to explain. For R. Avahu, these are the karov me-ikara, the people who were always close to Gd, and therefore less dear than the ba’alei teshuvah, who had to fight their way to get there. Their efforts put them closer to the tzaddikim gemurim, the ones who conquered their desires all along. The ones who never had to work at it have not actualized their commitment to Gd the way the members of the other two groups have.

Self Control as the Better Form of Righteousness

A point Rambam made in Shemonah Perakim, the introduction to his commentary on Avot, supports Mabit’s idea. Rambam had asked whether it is better for a Jew to have and conquer inclination to sin, or better not to want to sin. To answer, he differentiated intuitive from nonintuitive sins. Sins the whole world rejects, like murder, should have no attraction for us, but sins we would never have thought of without the Torah are the ones where we should abstain only because of Gd’s command.

It shows Mabit the better spiritual state is to have desire and overcome it in the name of service of Gd. It may be fortunate and easier not to be tempted by sin, but as a religious matter it is a step below.

He refers to one more source I think also shows how much this idea colored his reading of texts. Ta’anit 25b tells of a drought where R. Eliezer prayed at length without results, where R. Akiv’s very brief prayer produce rain. In the ensuing hubbub over how clearly greater R. Akiva was compared to R. Eliezer, a divine voice demurred, said R. Akiva received the response only because R. Akiva was ma’avir al middotav.

Ma’avir al middotav usually means to ignore slights, to forego his rights, as Rashi explains it in Rosh HaShanah 17a. Mabit here takes it very differently, R. Akiva had to control himself, pass over his own tendencies, to reach his righteousness, where it came naturally to R. Eliezer.

[Two points: I think Mabit’s idea works best in specific types of sin and temptation. No one is tempted by all sins and few people lack all temptation. But to say that within financial crimes, e.g., some people have no interest, others sin and repent, and others control themselves, and to see these latter as the greatest of the three makes a point I find enlightening and enriching.

Second, Mabit’s idea about R. Eliezer could explain why he generally is thought of as more stringent. Someone to whom observance comes easily could also not see why there is a need for a more lenient view. A topic for another time.]

Deathbed Repentance: A Better Question Than Answer

Mabit now wonders about the Gemara’s certainty a person’s repentance on his/her deathbed counts fully, the person is a ba’al teshuvah, and achieves a share in the World to Come. Mabit has no problem with the idea thoughts of repentance remove the need for punishment, but where have the merits come from to secure the sinner a place in the World to Come? More, he was previously sure the penitent, despite being considered a tzaddik gamur after repenting in thought alone, needs to cleanse the sins as well, through Yom Kippur, suffering, maybe death.

For the merit side, Mabit is sure even sinners have done some mitzvot. Sins of lack of faith might make it harder, because Sifrei Shelah says someone who denies principles of faith is as if s/he denies the entire Torah [personal aside: yet one more example of the importance of knowing what counts as a minimum necessary faith; aside from the faith itself, one who denies such minima becomes an overall heretic, and his/her mitzvot lose their mitzvah qualities]. Mabit doesn’t quite say it, but I think he means if someone observes Shabbat while rejecting certain faith ideas, the observance of Shabbat does not count as a mitzvah.

He solves this problem by assuming even the most wicked people do some good that is good regardless of their underlying thoughts, like giving tzedakah, charity. The penitent may not have much World to Come if the repentance comes only on the deathbed, but will have something.

I’m not thrilled with the answer—it seems insufficient—and less so with his idea of this death as sufficient punishment to cleanse the sin. He suggests Gd will take the person slightly early, and that will count as a death penalty, and wipe away all the sins. He also claims the repentance itself frees from the need for punishment in the World to Come, only leaves a punishment debt in this world, so death puts the sinner beyond it.

I’m not quite happy, on either end. I’m not convinced all people have sufficient merits to gain entry to the World to Come once their sins are removed, and I do not quite see how death coming five minutes early to a person already on his/her deathbed can be enough to take away the need for punishment. But that’s what he said.

The Sins We Struggle to Eradicate

In chapter six, Mabit wonders about sins people repent on Yom Kippur, then recidivate (I had to look it up, but it’s a real word for relapsing to a certain kind of behavior). [He means sins we would prefer never to do, repent sincerely on Yom Kippur, then find ourselves succumbing to them again; I don’t want to reveal my personal religious struggles, so let me use lashon ha-ra as an example, one common enough not to be about me alone. A Jew regrets having spoken ill of others on Yom Kippur, sincerely intends never to do it again, then over the course of the year finds him/herself sliding back into old ways]. Does failure to stick to the commitment remove the repentance?

No, says Mabit. The penitent has resolved the earlier examples of the sin with effective regret and resolve (and articulation of sin, as we will see in a moment). The weakness of the human spirit means in this instance s/he did not succeed, will have to repent the new sin, but the backsliding neither nullifies nor negates the repentance.

A passage in Yoma 86 poses a problem. The Gemara says sins a Jew committed in one year, repented, and successfully avoided, need not be articulated again in the Jew’s vidui the next year. If the Jew did commit those sins again, s/he must include them in vidui.

I confess I always thought the Gemara meant s/he has to say vidui for the new sin, but Mabit makes a convincing point: the first half of the statement referred to whether the old sin should be included in vidui, so the second half presumably does as well. Why would there be any reason to include old sins in a vidui, unless sinning again also removes the previous repentance?

Mabit wants to sustain his view, repentance is immediately and permanently effective. He explain the Jew who returns to a sin needs to say vidui for the old sins to aid his/her resolve this time. A Jew who sinned once in a particular way will say vidui differently than if this is a recurring problem, even if the earlier instances of the problem have already been resolved. Including the old sins in the vidui improves the current vidui.

Alternatively, vidui can be in place even where teshuvah has been and continues to be effective. R. Eliezer in that passage held Jews should say vidui even for sins the Jew has not repeated since the last act of teshuvah; for him at least, vidui is relevant even for a fully atoned and forgiven sin. The other view might agree about vidui where the person did return to the sin, might say this Jew needs more reminders of the past, regardless of those sins having been forgiven and atoned.

I had hoped to summarize chapter seven this time as well, but Mabit defeated me with the richness of his ideas. To add more would make this too long, so we will stop here, more aware of Mabit’s view of the value of successful religious struggle, repentance even on one’s deathbed, and how the memory of even the resolved past can help us be more successful going forward. We will pick up next time with his ideas about how to repent appropriately for the different levels of intent in a sin.

About Gidon Rothstein

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