What Is Sin?
What Is Sin?

What Is Sin?

Tue. Aug. 15, 2023 | Av 28, 5783

Kabbalah, Chassidism and Jewish Mysticism Chassidic Thought Insights & Readings By Yanki Tauber
What Is Sin?
By Yanki Tauber

Like almost everything else, it depends on who you ask.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Psalms 25) describes a sort of “panel discussion” in which this question is posed to four different authorities — Wisdom, Prophecy, Torah and G‑d — each of whom gives a different definition of sin.

According to Wisdom sin is a harmful deed. According to Prophecy it is death. Torah sees it as folly. And G‑d sees it as an opportunity.

The philosophical view of sin is that it is a bad idea, like walking barefoot in the snow or eating too many fatty foods. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you.

Does this mean that Someone sits up there, tabulating sins and dispensing punishments? Well, yes, though it is not as simplistic as a vengeful G‑d getting even with His little earth creatures for daring to defy His instructions. Is frostbite G‑d’s punishment for that barefooted walk in the snow? Is heart disease G‑d’s revenge for a high cholesterol diet? Ultimately it is, if you accept that everything that happens, happens because G‑d wants it to happen. But what it really means is that G‑d has established certain “laws of nature” that describe the patterns of His actions upon our existence. There are physical laws of nature — the ones that scientists measure and hypothesize. There are also spiritual laws of nature, which dictate that spiritually beneficial deeds bring spiritual benefit, and spiritually detrimental deeds cause spiritual harm. And since our physical existence derives from and mirrors the spiritual reality, a person’s spiritual and moral behavior ultimately affects his physical life as well.

Thus King Solomon (who is the source of the “Wisdom” perspective in the above Midrash) states in the book of Proverbs: “Evil pursues iniquity.”

“Prophecy” takes this a step further. Sin is not only a harmful deed — it is the ultimately harmful deed. Prophecy (which represents the apogee of man’s endeavor to commune with G‑d) defines “life” as connection with G‑d. Sin—man’s turning away from G‑d—is a disruption of this connection. Hence, sin is death.

Torah agrees that sin is a harmful deed. It also agrees that it’s a disruption of the flow of life from Creator to creation. Indeed, Torah is the source of both Wisdom’s perspective and Prophesy’s perspective on sin. But Torah also goes beyond them both in recognizing that the soul of man would never willingly and consciously do such a stupid thing.

Sin, says Torah, is an act of folly. The soul loses its head, and in a moment of irrationality and cognitive confusion does something that is contrary to its own true desire. So sin can be transcended, when the soul recognizes and acknowledges the folly of its transgressions and reasserts its true will. Then the true self of the soul comes to light, revealing that the sin was in fact committed only by the soul’s most external, malleable self, while its inner self was never involved in the first place.

And what does G‑d say? G‑d, of course, invented the laws of nature (both physical and spiritual) and the Wisdom that recognizes how they operate. G‑d is the source of life, and it is He who decreed that it should flow to the human soul via a channel constructed (or disrupted) by the deeds of man. And G‑d gave us the Torah and its formulae for spiritual sanity, self-discovery and transcendence. So G‑d is the source of the first three perspectives on sin.

But there is a fourth perspective that is G‑d’s alone: sin as the opportunity for “return” (teshuvah).

Teshuvah is a process that, in its ultimate form, empowers us to not only transcend our failings but to also redeem them: to literally travel back in time and redefine the essential nature of a past deed, transforming it from evil to good.

To achieve this, we first have to experience the act of transgression as a negative thing. We have to agonize over the utter devastation it has wrecked on our soul. We have to recognize, disavow and renounce its folly. Only then can we can go back and change what we did.

So is sin a bad, harmful deed? Is it the very face of death? Is it mere stupidity, to be shrugged off by an inherently wise and pristine soul? Is it a potent opportunity for conquest and growth? Turns out, it’s all four. But it can only be the fourth if it’s also the first three.

By Yanki Tauber
By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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Share your constructive comments or questions
Debra TexasAugust 14, 2020
What if the actions of others lead you to sin? What on Earth did I do so horribly in my childhood; that I would be abused most of my life? I became what I was raised in. Not all of it; still, the actions of my grandparents, parents, community, etc.; showed me what a horrible person I was. I still cannot forgive myself for being horrible. This progressed by those I worked with, went to school with, family, friends, etc., etc., etc., and I did my best to do better. I still cannot forgive myself and now the horror’s I put my daughter through; she cannot forgive me and will not. I have been told I am someone who forgives only to take it back when something continues. Everyone around me seems o be able to move on without any regards to what they have done and I am left the bad girl, literally. It is disheartening. I cannot seem to move past my past and I want too. Is there really anything called forgiveness, truly? If so, how do you forgive yourself, even if your surroundings will not?
yana August 23, 2020
in response to Debra:
Debra, I can help you! I understand how you feel ! Don’t blame yourself for others actions . Remember that Hashem loves you! Take down my e-mail:
Charles September 3, 2018
I find this confusing . Teshuvah is almost impossible. If Teshuvah is meant to have the desire to undo what might be or is a sin then I understand this What a frail wish
. To go beyond this and actually figure out a way to undo the sin or mistake is the impossible part. This is for the average Joe which I am .
There are no average righteous men or women as righteous is a full time 24/7 job. So, it is no wonder why a generation of slaves had to spend their lifetime riding themselves of this
stigma.The newborn is born into a world of history of failures , and with guidance tries to become a success within the parameters of the culture or his county. It is G-d and Man that sets the parameters of Good , so that what is good for one is not always Good for both of them. So , no country would allow Israel to walk through their land , as to do so would make it seem that their leaders had not the will to defend their own land We defend our nation in lieu of what maybe better.
Portia South Africa, CenturionAugust 23, 2016
Great discourse
More interesting is that one can also sin against themselves and not only G-d, both a harmful deed and stupidity have negative effects against self more than G-d
Saul FCFebruary 13, 2018
in response to Portia:
Would you also, then, argue that you believe that G-d feels nothing for his people? Or would you also argue that you believe that human kind is more important or greater than G-d?

Harming yourself causes G-d to grieve for your loss of opportunity to be nearer to G-d. Consequently, all sin is against G-d. Since G-d is everything and the architect of the entire universe, you cannot cause harm to anything without causing harm to G-d.

To say otherwise flies in the face of the definition of G-d in Judaism. And claiming that anything means more to a human than to G-d would be ludicrous, since everything IS G-d.
Charles MargateSeptember 3, 2018
in response to Saul:
“The soul loses its head, and in a moment of irrationality and cognitive confusion does something that is contrary to its own true desire. So sin can be transcended, when the soul recognizes and acknowledges the folly of its transgressions and reasserts its true will.”
Here , Harming oneself is called irrational and cognitively confused . Here is an e.g. I was trying to keep up with congregation . So , I would say to myself , I am going to fight to keep up which meant putting up physical mental and spiritual energy to do so.So i wound up on the wrong page of the Shema saying the holiday Shema for the Weeknight Shema . An old man with a white beard stopped me , and took my Siddur and opened it to the right Shema, I was
total exhausted and had to sit down and could not continue, and although I said nothing , I was angry at him , because I had put out all that I had and called this effort a failure . Later ,I reconsidered , and was forced to accept the verdict . How many sins are here
Rita March 8, 2014
Interesting article.
Brian Thwaites Sheffield, EnglandFebruary 10, 2011
What is SIN?
The answer is simple. Sin is doing wrong in the eyes of G-D or Man.
Saul FCFebruary 13, 2018
in response to Brian Thwaites:

G-d is the only one who can judge what sin is. Therefore, doing wrong in the “eyes of man” had no real meaning. Humans make mistakes, especially in decided who sinned and who did not. Consequently, doing wrong in the “eyes of man” cannot define a “sin”.

Reading the Torah, you are provided with all the information you need to determine what is sin and what is not, for your own behavior. There are, for instance, 10 commandments, and 613 mitzvot. They are directives from G-d to you, but they are not meant to be used by others to interpret your behavior. To do so would be a sin in G-d’s eyes.
Anonymous March 12, 2009
Rabbi, this is truly an outstanding article. Yasher Coach.
Craig March 6, 2009
Balance to the Force
Sin and deed are so close together. What is sin, but a letter that balances with other letters? Thus, with respect to sin one might say that in moderation we find virtue.
Anonymous February 25, 2005
Great article… so if G-d created these laws of nature, using the high cholestoral diet/heart attack relationship example, does that mean that if a person does tesuvah, for let’s say, smoking, does that mean that G-d can help to heal them or help them not to get cancer as a result? We are talking about miracles here… but then again, there are some people who never get sick after smoking for 80 years… who can explain that phenomenon?
Saul FCFebruary 13, 2018
in response to Anonymous:
It seems that this is a topic near to you, i.e. cancer from smoking, and I do feel for any losses you have experienced as a result.

However, teshuva actually means “return” not repentance. One “returns” to G-d’s ways and as such is granted a place to be inscribed in the book. But “return” is in no way tied to the privilege of a miracle, and especially not just because you “want” one. G-d has never made a promise to anyone, in Judaism, that they would be free of the consequences of their own actions. This is a Christian belief.
Anonymous February 24, 2005
Dear Rabbi,
I am very pleased to see the way you explained about sin. It is encouraging as well as fulfilling to bring us near G-d from different view of perspective. It shows G-d’s abundant love and mercy.
Thank You and G-D of Israel bless you….
It was extremely gratifying to read an explanation on the many sided aspects of sin. Usually the topic is presented in either a too simplistic fashion or difficult to understand bibical reference. Thank you for the comphrehensive and all-inclusive essay.
Anonymous August 24, 2004
I keep reading these 4 short sentences, pasted below. I’ve never read anything about sin that I find so beautiful. Not the sin itself. The way you wrote about it. The way it is, according to Judaism. So totally unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.

” According to Wisdom sin is a harmful deed. According to Prophesy it is death. Torah sees it as folly. And G-d sees it as an opportunity. ”

And then there is: ” So is sin a bad, harmful deed? Is it the very face of death? Is it mere stupidity, to be shrugged off by an inherently wise and pristine soul? Is it a potent opportunity for conquest and growth? Turns out, it’s all four. But it can only be the fourth if it’s also the first three. ”

And now I’m going to stop reading; I need some distance now from what I’ve just read before I return to it.

Thank you for writing this.

Thank you for writing, period.

Rahelli Nairobi, KenyaMarch 25, 2004
Dear Rabbi,

Before long time ago for different type sin Jewish used secrifies animal and G-D of Israel used forgive them.
What about this day?
Thank you
G-D of Israel bless you.
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