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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays The Month of Elul

“Seek Me Out and Live”

“Repentance preceded the creation of the world” (Nedarim 39b). In other words, repentance is an integral part of creation and bound to it by its very nature. It stems from God's own integrity, for without this, creation would be lacking in some way.
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The Midrash teaches (Pesikta D'Rav Kahana):
They asked wisdom, "What is fitting punishment for a sinner?"
Wisdom replied: "He who sins incurs the death penalty."
They asked the Torah, "What is fitting punishment for a sinner?"
The Torah said, "He must bring a guilt offering as atonement; it is thus written, 'and it shall then be accepted as an atonement for him' (Leviticus 1:4)."
They asked the Almighty, "What is fitting punishment for a sinner?"
The Almighty replied, "Let him repent and this will atone for him; it is thus written, 'God is good and upright; He therefore teaches sinners the way' (Psalms 25:8). My children, what is it that I ask of you? That you seek me out and live."
R' Pinchas says, "Why is he 'good?' Because He is 'upright.' Why is he 'upright?' because He is 'good.' 'He therefore teaches sinners the way' so that they may repent."

In the above context, a sinner ("Choteh") is one who transgresses inadvertently. Still, according to our Midrash, "wisdom" holds that such a person should receive the death penalty: If he had been careful in his actions and cognizant of the fact that sinning is tantamount to disavowing the Creator, he would have taken steps to guard himself from even inadvertent misdeed. Inasmuch as he did not do this, he incurs the death penalty.

This, though, is difficult to understand, for the wisdom referred to here is Torah wisdom. If so, how is it that "wisdom" rejoins differently than the Torah? Furthermore, how can the Torah, which was given to us by God, give a different answer than God Himself?

Perhaps each of these three responses relates to different aspects of the infraction. An example of an inadvertent transgressor becoming liable to death can be found in connection with the seven Noachide laws: If a non-Jew violates one of these injunctions, he incurs the death penalty even if there was no prior warning and even if he acted for the most part inadvertently ("shogeg karov lemezid"; cf. Yad, Hilkhot Melakhim 10:1). This is because sinning deprives a person of the right to exist in the world. And just as one who accidentally falls into a fiery furnace suffers the consequences regardless of his intentions - for there is no escaping the laws of nature - so, too, the unintentional wrongdoer deserves to suffer the consequences.

Along comes the Torah and says, "The sinner must bring a guilt-offering" (such an offering is occasionally brought even by intentional sinners; for example, in the case of an "asham gezeilot" brought by a person who denied a debt, swore a false oath that he was not liable, and later admitted that he was liable and that he had sworn falsely.) for he must repent from his sin (and if he does not repent from his sin, his offering is an seen as abomination. This accords with the words of Ibn Ezra in the Vayikra Torah portion, where he explains that presenting a sin offering is intended to teach the delinquent that everything that happens to the sacrifice should have happened to him. It is he who deserves to have been slaughtered, because sin brings death. The sinner must assay to envision himself being slaughtered and sacrificed upon the altar, for the sin which he performed is like death, and its rectification is divine worship and sacrifice upon the altar. Such atonement is powerful enough to put the wrongdoer back on the path of life.)

However, this kind of atonement is difficult to achieve, and not everybody merits it. In addition, it is connected to the divine worship in the Holy Temple, and when the Temple sits in ruin, devoid of priests and sacrifices, the people of Israel are not capable of attaining a very high level of Divine service. Hence, there is presently all but no possibility of attaining a high level of atonement. Therefore, the Almighty says, "Let him repent and be atoned for," because even inferior worship is worship, and is capable of leading the sinner from the path of death to the path of life. Repentance is part of the order of creation, and the sages teach that, "repentance preceded the creation of the world" (Nedarim 39b). In other words, repentance is an integral part of creation, and bound to it by its very nature. It stems from God's own integrity and goodness, for without this, creation would be lacking in some way. This is the reason that repentance continues to be effective even when there is no Temple in Jerusalem and remains at the disposal of whoever wishes to leave his evil ways and attach himself to God. "See me out and live."

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In the above article, the explanation of "asham gezeilot" was taken from The Talmud: A Reference Guide, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Random House).

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