Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Who says, I will sin and then atone...
Mishnah Yoma 8:8-9
Death and Yom Kippur atone with t'shuvah, returning.
Talmud Yoma 86a
T'shuvah really means returning, though it's idiomatically translated "repentance".
T'shuvah, returning, is no simple concept, according to thes texts. If we take it to be as complex as the mishnah states, we would often be in suspense, with our unprocessed sins hanging over us, at least until Yom Kipur lifts the weight off.
Who is the one who says, "I will sin and I will return, I will sin and return"? Perhaps this excludes someone who says one time, "I will sin and I will return", but not a second time; perhaps that person is still forgiven, the same as if they had sinned without having that thought. Or perhaps the mishnah is concerned with someone who plans to do a sin more than once even before committing that sin the first time.
The Gemara also says, "The fourth time a person sins, they are not forgiven." So maybe the one who says "I will sin and I will return" is like someone who has sinned twice.
Another way of reading the mishnah is that a person who says "I will sin and I will return" is someone who feels guilt when sinning but still sins. Someone one who says it twice is going through the same thought process, repeating the same emotional loop, again and again. It's not that they cannot be forgiven, but rather that they don't have enough strength to bring themselves to change, which would explain the strange phrase, "there is not enough in his hand to do t'shuvah". The mishnah isn't describing punishment but normal cause and effect.
If that's true, then feeling guilt is not only insufficient, it may even interfere with t'shuvah. From this perspective, it's also not clear that feeling guilt is a necessary component of t'shuvah. If certain sins are not erased by t'shuvah, we should be acutely aware that for some sins, not only is our own internal guilt not enough, but even changing our habits and behavior may not be enough, to establish forgiveness.
But whether or not one feels guilty, in such cases, after when one has already done t'shuvah, how does one cultivate the feeling of having one's atonement 'hang' in suspense? I'm stumped on how to recognize this feeling of suspense or how to describe it.
Finally, what constitutes the grave sin of chilul hashem, where atonement is so to speak permanently suspended, where one carries the burden for the rest of one's life, where the sin is not atoned for at all in life but is only scratched out in one's death? The Gemara in Yoma gives a few examples. Rav says that for him it would be not paying the butcher immediately in a place where people don't run accounts. Ravina says that for him it would be walking a short distance without speaking Torah and wearing tefilin. Two more normative examples are given: "anyone whose friends are embarassed because of his reputation", and one who learns Torah but does not deal in good faith and does not speak gently. The first two seem to be the smallest of mistakes. How would one stay aware of the burden of these sins when it might be hard to even maintain the memory of them?
The second two are more representative of character flaws than sins. If one atones by truly changing, perhaps the meaning of a suspended sentence is that if a person backslides even a little, the assumption of everyone who knows that person is that their t'shuvah was not real or sincere.
Another open question is this: where do ecological sins fit in? (For liturgy on this click here.) Can we interpret sins against the Place, Hamakom, which is a rabbinic name for God, to include sins against the place, this place, the Earth? Or do they go into the category of bein adam l'chaveiro, sins between "a person and their fellow", in this case their fellow species? What place do environmental sins have in the schema of atonement? I think the answer must a hybrid of both categories, and t'shuvah for such sins must be rooted in actions that realize the idea of "bringing healing to the world".
I'm still wondering about these questions. Please write and share your answers with me!
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006