Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah – Sin vs Sinfulness

“If you focus too much on the fear of judgement,” Rav Moshe Twersky Hy”d once told his students, “you can miss out on Rosh HaShana. What a shame it would be to miss out on Rosh HaShana. And what is Rosh HaShana? It’s tekiat shofar and malchiyot, zichronot, v’shofarot.” Indeed, it is clear from Our Sages that the ten pesukim of malchiyot, zichronot, v’shofarot respectively comprise the primary focus of the prayer. So, let’s take a closer look at one of those verses.

Lo hibit aven b’Yaakov v’lo raah amal b’Yisrael Hashem elokav imo u’truat melech bo, He has not gazed upon iniquity in Yaakov and he did not see burdensome [sin] in Yisrael, Hashem his Lord is with him and the friendship of the king is in him (Balak 23:21).” At first glance, it sounds as though this verse is saying that Hashem does not pay attention to our sins. But that obviously cannot be what it is saying, as we well know from the portion that we just read this past Shabbat which enumerates 98 very serious repercussions for sinful behavior.

Furthermore, Our Sages tell us quite clearly, “whoever says that Hashem is a vatran (meaning, that He overlooks sins), that person’s life will be ‘overlooked’, as the verse says, “Ha’Tzur tamim paalo ki chol derachav misphat, The Rock his actions are perfect for all his ways are just’ (Bava 50a).”

So, then, what does this verse mean? What does it mean that Hashem does not gaze at our iniquities or see our burdensome sins?

Rashi explains it as follows, “When they violate his words, he does not pursue them with a merciless scrutiny of dwelling on their iniquitousness and burdensomeness.” Note, that Rashi does not say that Hashem does not pay attention to our iniquities, but that he does not pursue us with a merciless scrutiny of dwelling on our iniquitousness. So, we need to figure out what the difference is between iniquity and iniquitousness.  Or, perhaps in simpler language, the difference between sin and sinfulness.

The answer to this question can be found, I believe, in a Medrash (Zuta 1:5 and Yalkut Shimoni Chukat 764) that elaborates on the verse in Shir HaShirim 2:2 which says, “Do not look at me when I have become blackened, when the sun has burned me.” The nations of the world, says the Medrash, accost the Jewish People by saying, “You have sinned, and G-d has therefore forsaken you. He has cast you out and rejected you as his People. Now, he will take us instead.”

The Jewish People retort with a parable, “One time, an ugly maidservant went running to her friends in great excitement, saying, ‘My master is going to divorce his wife and marry me instead!’ Her friends asked her, ‘What makes you think that?’ The maid answered, ‘My master’s wife was outside for too long and got badly sunburned. She also got soot from the kitchen oven all over herself. She looked absolutely terrible. When my master saw her, he got very upset. Surely, he is going to divorce her now and marry me instead!’ Her friends answered her, ‘You are such a fool. Your master’s wife needs to just stay out of the sun for a few days and take a few good baths, and she will return to her former beauty. But you are inherently ugly!”

Rav Chizkiyah Mishkovsky shlita once explained this concept in the context of parenting. Inevitably, children will do the wrong thing from time to time. Our job in those moments is not to “catch them red handed” and exclaim, “Aha! Now we see who you really are!” Don’t look at me when I have been blackened by sin. Don’t think that that is who I really am. Yes, I slipped and fell. Perhaps even very hard. But don’t think that my failure defines my essence. What I really am is a shoshana bein ha’chochim, a beautiful rose among the thorns.

Yes, of course Hashem sees and takes note of every single one of our deeds, as we exclaim with awe in zichronot. And, yes, he also gives us punishments when necessary. But he does not do so out of vengeance. He does not pursue us with a merciless scrutiny of dwelling on our iniquitousness and sinfulness.

Instead, he says to us, “I see your iniquity, but I do not see iniquitousness. I see your sin, but I do not see sinfulness. I affirm that your failures do not define you. Even when those failures are colossal and extremely serious. I know, better than you do for I have created you and invested you with an exalted neshama that comes from beneath my very throne of glory, that your essence is good and pure. That no matter how many times you may slip or fall, what you really are is a beautiful rose that got stuck amongst the dangerous thorns.”

No matter what, even when we have sinned and need to be punished, Hashem never leaves us because he never looks at us as being iniquitous or sinful.  He confirms that the sin is not who we really are. Hashem elokav imo u’truat melech bo. Hashem his lord is with him, and the friendship of the king is in him. Forever, no matter what.


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