Whatever Became of Sin?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

According to Rabbi Hayyim Angel, this week’s parasha, parashat Nitzavim, contains “one of the greatest expositions on repentance in the Torah.”

Rashi, in Deuteronomy 29:12, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, maintains that when the People of Israel heard the Tochacha (G-d’s reproof of the people) and the terrifying litany of 98 curses it contained, they were frightened and depressed by the prediction of what seemed to be a hopeless future.

Moses then comforted the people, telling them, Deuteronomy 29:9, אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, ”You are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d.” In effect, Moses told the people that just as G-d had not abandoned them before, so will He be certain to embrace them in the future. Although the Tochacha was intended to prevent the people from future sinning, if they did stray, the punishments would bring them atonement, not destruction.

In parashat Nitzavim, Moses gathers all of the people together on the last day of his life, from the most exalted to the lowliest, and, for the last time, initiated them again into the Covenant of G-d.

A new concept was introduced– עֲרֵבוּת, ‘arayvut,’ the concept of mutual responsibility for one another. From now on, it was not enough for the people to just behave properly, they were expected to be responsible for all Jews and to help them to properly observe the Torah, and prevent them from violating its statutes. With the introduction of the revolutionary idea of arayvut, Moses declares, that no Jew may be indifferent to the shortcomings of their fellow Jews, and that public desecrations of the Torah must be the concern of every Jew.

The introduction of the revolutionary concept of mutual responsibility, fully justifies referring to chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, as “One of the greatest expositions on repentance in the Torah.”

In 1973, Karl Menninger published his renowned analysis of contemporary society, Whatever Became of Sin? In this volume, Menninger boldly questions what was wrong in his time with society’s ethics, values, and morality, and asserts that the answer lies within society itself.

Menninger wrote this volume at a time when the “new morality,” had emerged, when “Do your own thing” became the operating principle of many young people’s lives. It was a time when multitudes of young people felt that they must throw away all restraints on their behavior and sexual activity, and focus either on caring for themselves, promoting racial equality and the elimination of poverty. Some young people at the time abandoned any sense of responsibility and simply “dropped out.” They became “flower-children,” began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, and joined ashrams and communes.

It was in this environment in which Menninger wrote his very impactful volume, Whatever Became of Sin?

Menninger and other sociologists specifically noted the contemporary practice of avoiding the word “sin” in conversation. A person who committed a crime did not “sin.” He was usually crazy, out of his mind, or on drugs.

The radio commentator, Dennis Prager, points to the dreadful error of calling mass-shooters “psychopaths,” rather than “evil people.” Attributing these nefarious actions to a malady, according to Prager, removes the responsibility from the perpetrator.

Judaism has long declared (Deuteronomy 24:16) לֹא יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים, וּבָנִים לֹא יוּמְתוּ עַל אָבוֹת, אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ , Parents may not be put to death because of children, and children may not be put to death because of parents. Every person shall be put to death for their own sin. A third innocent person may not be punished for the sin of another. Genesis 9:6, clearly states, “Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in His image did G-d make man.”

Contemporary Western society, says Rabbi Angel, acknowledges only “crimes,” not “sins.” Rabbi Angel explains that from the contemporary perspective,

Human beings have rights, including the right to life, body, and property. In addition, obligations do not have an independent existence; they stem from human rights. The right to one’s life and body implies the obligation not to injure others. The right to property implies the obligation not to steal. When we speak of crime, mainly we mean of a person’s rights.

In contrast, Judaism does not see every obligation as deriving from the rights of fellow human beings. Transgressions between individuals not only violate the rights of that individual, but also violate the Divine command. While both Western thought and the Torah attribute supreme value to human life, the Torah maintains that the prohibition of shedding human blood does not originate simply from a person’s right to life, but because that person was created in G-d’s image.

Rabbi Angel writes,

The Western world has no vocabulary for dealing with evil, and often refuses even to call it evil. One historian refers to Hitler and Stalin as having mental disorders. Many call terrorists madmen, rather than evil people. The idea that there is no sin also makes it easy to shift responsibility away from even the greatest of criminals.

The Torah, in parashat Nitzavim, calls upon each person to accept responsibility for their own transgressions, and not to simply wave them away by attributing them to evil inclinations, or environmental temptations.

That is what Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the Ten Days of Repentance are meant to represent: The High Holiday season is the time for every person to take a stand and assume responsibility for their past actions and commit themselves to transformational change. When this is done, when every Jew assumes that responsibility, Jews the world over will join our Jewish ancestors in the more than three millennia of Jewish history, in which Jews, starting from Moses on the last day of his life standing in front of all the people of Israel, have boldly declared their responsibility for their own actions, thus committing themselves to improving their own personal behavior and profoundly influencing the world with their good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana 5779 is observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 9th, 10th and 11th, 2018. The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed next Wednesday, September 12th from dawn until nightfall.