Yisurim, Punishment, and Repentance

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Mabit’s Sha’ar Ha-Teshuvah, Chapters 9-12: Yisurim, Punishment, and Repentance

Protective Suffering

Last time, Mabit discussed ways yisurim address the past; now, he takes up two ways they can be a function of the future. The easier of the two to understand is protective yisurim, where a moment of suffering now stops the righteous person from acting in a way that will damage him/her (especially spiritually, I think he means).

He gives the analogy of someone who gets a thorn in his foot and therefore misses a boat that turns out to be doomed to sink; I think he means Gd sometimes hinders a person from a path that would lead them down a bad road. If I think to take a job that requires living in a place likely to draw me away from a life of Torah, let’s say, Gd might send a professional setback losing me the job as part of protecting me from living there.

[For all the clarity of the idea, it still complicates the attempt to understand yisurim; last time, Mabit held we are supposed to link yisurim to the specific sin for which Gd sent them. If some yisurim head off a trouble we do not know is there, it will be harder to understand those yisurim and yisurim in general. I am not disputing Mabit’s ideas, I happen to think he’s exactly right (and that’s saying something, because most people I see discuss these topics today deny his basic claim). I am pointing out how hard a process it is, even as it might be important to our relationship with Gd].

Yisurim of Love

Berachot 5, the Gemara that had said yisurim should lead a person to find the sin for which they came, and if not to assume it was about neglecting Torah study, finished by saying if that was not it, they are yisurim, sufferings, of love. Mabit eventually says the protective yisurim he just discussed also count as shel ahavah, of love, because Gd would not go out of His way, as it were, to help someone unworthy avoid a sin.

However, Mabit thinks the more paradigmatic version of yisurim shel ahavah are sufferings that help the righteous person show a greater connection to Gd than his/her life would have otherwise allowed. He notes Rashi says Hashem makes the righteous person suffer in this world in order to get more reward in the next. To explain the possible value in “meaningless” suffering, Mabit suggests these people already fully utilize all their opportunities to serve Gd; by sending suffering they can bear uncomplainingly, they serve Gd even more, showing their love of and submission to their Creator.

[I admit I find this idea not fully satisfying, but he adds something else I think points in a more obviously productive direction.] He notes some righteous people ask for punitive suffering where their original act did not call for it, such as R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi, whom Baba Metzia 85a portrays as having suffered for years because he had insufficient compassion on an animal being taken for slaughter. Mabit thinks R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi– himself and other righteous people– would undertake such suffering, to wipe them away their sins proactively.

[That’s as far as Mabit takes it, suffering for sin, suffering for bad health regimens, suffering to shield us from sin, and suffering to allow us to demonstrate love of Gd. In this last category, he included sufferings the righteous take on to create an opportunity to show their love of Gd. I wonder whether Mabit would have agreed with the following addition: yisurim shel ahavah come in areas where this righteous person has room to grow, although s/he did not sin in any specific way. That would be similar to R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi realizing he needed more compassion, taking on suffering to have life teach it to him.]

Chapter 10: Suffering and the Linkage of Generations

For some sins—Rambam thought only avodah zarah, worshipping a power other than Gd, Mabit assumes it can be for others as well—the Torah says Gd holds the wrongs of previous generations against the descendants who continue that path. Mabit wonders why that would be when the first sinners will have gone through an atonement process, which should have wiped away the sin, where the sinning descendants should theoretically be able to use the ancestors’ sin as a mitigating factor: they grew up in an environment where this sin was acceptable, and their makeup (physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual) was clearly vulnerable to this sin.

He rests his explanation on a decidedly non-Western idea, descendants’ continuing link to ancestors. Just as people are obligated to serve Gd Who created them, each of us has a similar obligation to our parents, who created us. The link is so strong, tradition assumes minor children are in many ways extensions of their parents, so much so that a child can be punished for a parent’s misdeeds [this is one reason a father says Baruch she-petarani when the child reaches Bar or Bat Mitzvah, celebrating his relief the child will no longer suffer for his failings].

That’s true for the child who does not then sin as the father did. When a family has a bad path, and the child continues it as an adult, the original connection of childhood remains sufficiently strong to mean the child’s sin is part of the chain of this family, and therefore the child is punished for being part of and identifying with that chain [his/her sin is both the sin itself and the choice to retain this family’s mode of conduct.]

Should the chain be broken at any point, though, it’s broken. Mabit thinks Gd will not include punishment for taking up the sins of a grandfather if the father had not done them. Poked avon avot, holding sins of the father against the son, is about the parent-child first; if there is reason there to punish, Gd would see if the grandfather and great-grandfather had also done it, and if so, the third or fourth generation would be punished for extending those chains of misconduct.

The Sin of the Golden Calf and the Length of a Chain

The Torah refers to Gd only “holding” the sin against up to four generations, and Mabit repeats the explanation of others, that descendants only know ancestors back to their great grandfathers (and so could only possibly be affected by them, for it to be sensible for their sin to be implicated by the earlier ones’ sins). However, Shmot 32;34 is where Gd tells Moshe the sin of the Golden Calf will figure throughout the generations of Jewry, their punishments for later sins always or often containing some element of punishment for the Golden Calf. Why the difference?

Mabit first assumes the later sin must be worship of a power other than Gd. Such a Jew has by that act cut him/herself off from acceptance of the Torah, as tradition holds that acknowledging any other power than Gd constitutes a denial of the Torah. A Jew who takes him/herself out of the Torah community, Gd forbid, loses the right to be protected from past sins [note the switch: now Mabit thinks we all deserve to have past sins affect us if we continue a path, even if we did not see or know the ancestors involved].

Kiddushin 30a shows the other side of it, attaching to Torah connects the Jew to a positive chain, as the Gemara says teaching Torah to one’s children makes it as if they received it at Sinai. Rejecting Torah, Gd forbid, means it is as if we never got it, and would lose us our protection from the past.

Mabit’s first option, then, is that the past stays with us, even if we never knew that past. Should we continue its wayward ways, by rights we would bear its consequences as well as our own. Ordinarily, our merits as Jews grant us the boon of having that chain cut off at the fourth generation, but if we worship anything other than Gd, we remove ourselves from the Torah community, including that piece of it.

Then he steps back, offers a less far-reaching idea. True, even worshipping anything other than Gd only lasts four generations in terms of bringing punishment to people, but only for individual sin. If a community worships another power, that lasts and affects their descendants much longer term.

[Mabit seems to take the Golden Calf as just an example of idolatry, personal or communal, where the simpler reading of the Torah treats it as unique. In addition, he skips over another difference, the sin of the Golden Calf redounds throughout history despite there seeming to have been generations in between that did not commit that sin. But we have a lot to do, so we will have to think this through another time.]

Chapter 11: Multiple Sins of Multiple Types of Sin?

Talmudic ideas offer contradictory evidence on whether it is worse to commit one sin many times or the same number of different sins. Yoma 86b has R. Huna’s idea a person who sins three times loses his/her sensitivity to it, comes to treat it as almost permitted, suggesting it is worse to repeat a sin because of the dulling effect. On the other hand, repeat unwitting acts of sin require only one sacrifice, where each type of unwitting sin requires atonement of its own.

Skipping much of his reasoning in the name of time, he concludes that multiple types of sin are worse, because they damage the Jew’s relationship to Torah in separate areas (in his kabbalistic view of the role of mitzvot in the world, each type of sin creates a new hole in the fabric of the world, as it were, where repeat sin “only” makes the one hole worse). The Jew will have severed his/her connection to Torah in more places, loosening it more broadly than if s/he has simply lost the battle with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, in one place.

Along the way, he does share one idea I do not want to miss: to explain why the Torah says the Flood of Noah came because of hamas, sounding as if this one sin was so bad, Mabit argues it was the visibility of the hamas that did it. When Gd brings justice, it preferably comes in a comprehensible form. Were the Flood to come for fully private sins, it would have been inexplicable to those who did not know these people’s private lives. To be sure it had a clear and recognizable cause, Gd hinged it on their hamas, their brazen theft.

[This is the second time we saw Mabit insist Gd wants divine justice to be comprehensible, with yisurim and now with the Flood.]

Chapter Twelve: I am really out of space, but if I don’t do this now, I’ll be out of space next week (spoiler alert: I’m going to be out of space next week anyway). Let me just say the brief chapter twelve stands up for the idea that partial repentance has value. There is value in regret and in resolve not to repeat a sin, even if it takes both to achieve full repentance.

It is why Gd rewarded Ahav for his abashedness about his past actions, although he had not decided to change, and rewarded Nineveh for planning to change without their having regretted the past. Imperfect repentance is not repentance, but it is not nothing.

Nineveh puts us in mind of Yom Kippur, and next time we will see them again (and more thoughts on the repentance of Yom Kippur) as we struggle to see as many of the rest of Mabit’s stimulating ideas about repentance as we can.

About Gidon Rothstein

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