The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht —  the founder of Chasidism — 
met the soul of the Messiah during an ascent to heaven. 
The Besht asked him, "When will the Master come?" 
The Messiah answered, "When your wellsprings break forth to the outside!" 
(from a letter written by the Besht to his brother-in-law about one of his soul ascents) 

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Who says, I will sin and then atone...

Death and Yom Kippur atone with t'shuvah, returning.
T'shuvah atones for active and for negative transgressions [that are] lighter,
and for severe ones, it hangs suspended until Yom Kippur comes and atones.

One who says, "I will sin and I will return, I will sin and I will return,"
there is not enough in his hand to do t'shuvah;
"I will sin and Yom Hakipurim atones," Yom Kippur doesn't atone.

Transgressions between a person and the Place, Yom Kippur atones;
Transgressions between a person and their fellow, Yom Kippur doesn't atone
until they make their fellow accept [them and their t'shuvah]

      ~ Mishnah Yoma 8:8-9

R. Matyah ben Heresh asked R. Elazar ben Azaryah at Rome:
Have you heard of the four distinctions in atonement kaparah that R. Ishmael was expounding?
He said to him: They are [only] three, and t'shuvah [goes] with each one.

One who transgressed an active [command], and did t'shuvah,
he hasn't yet moved from there and they [already] forgive him...
One who transgressed a negative [command], and did t'shuvah,
t'shuvah suspends [the sentence], and Yom Kippur atones...
One who transgressed for which the penalties are
Karet (being 'cut off' by Heaven), or death by Beth Din (court sentence),
t'shuvah and Yom Kippur suspend [the sentence] and sufferings issurin scratch out [the sin]....

But the one who has desecration of the name [of God] chilul hashem in his hand,
he doesn't have power with t'shuvah to suspend, or with Yom Kippur to atone,
or with sufferings to scratch it out, but [instead] all hang suspended and death scratches it out...

Said R. Chama bar Chanina: Great is t'shuvah, for it brings healings r'fu'ot to the world.

      ~ Talmud Yoma 86a

T'shuvah, returning (usu. translated "repentance") is not an easy concept. "The one who says, "I will sin and I will return, I will sin and return": Perhaps it means, one who says it once but not twice is forgiven – in the Gemara it says, "The fourth time a person sins, they are not forgiven." Or it means, the one who plans to do this twice even before sinning the first time.

But another way of reading this is one who feels guilt but still sins, one who goes through the same thought process, the same emotional loop, again and again. It's not that they are not forgiven, but rather they don't have enough strength to bring themselves to change. The mishnah isn't describing punishment but normal cause and effect. Guilt is neither necessary nor sufficient.

T'shuvah, returning is not an easy concept. If we take it as seriously as this mishnah implies, we would be hanging in suspense under the burden of our unprocessed sins, until Yom Kipur lifted the weight off. We would be acutely aware that for some sins our own internal guilt is not a useful tool, and even changing our habits is not enough.

But if we're not feeling guilty because we've already done t'shuvah, what is the actual feeling of having one's atonement 'hang' in suspense? I'm stumped on how to recognize this feeling or describe it.

What then constitutes the gravest sin of chilul hashem, where atonement is so to speak permanently suspended, the sin which is not atoned for at all in life and is only scratched out in one's death? The Gemara gives a few examples: Not paying the butcher immediately where people don't run accounts; walking a short distance without Torah and tefilin; 'anyone whose friends are embarassed because of his reputation'; one who learns Torah, but does not deal in good faith and does not speak gently. Doesn't this bring us back to guilt tripping over the smallest mistakes and not just the big ones?

Last open question: this is a site full of eco-Torah, and I am wondering, 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 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 fellow species? If neither fits, what place do environmental sins have in the schema of atonement? I think the answer must a hybrid of both categories, and it must be rooted in actions that make the idea of "bringing healing to the world" real, but we need to work it out.

I'm still answering these questions. Please write and share your answers with me!



Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006