The Wages of Sin
‘No one would commit a sin unless the spirit of folly overcame them’ (Talmud, Sot3a)
‘And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.. this also is a striving after wind’ (Ecc 1:17)
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, and the Days of Repentance1 between New Year and Yom Kippur, it is worth considering the images of folly, sin and repentance, and their connection. For it is folly that makes us sin, and if we have not erred, why would we be instructed to repent?
The English translation of the two verses almost always use the word ‘folly’ in the sentences above.2 However, in the Hebrew, these are two different words, with quite different meanings. In the Talmud verse, the word used in ‘a person would not sin unless the spirit of ‘shetut’ (shin-tet-vav-taf, often pronounced ‘shtuss’) overcomes them’. Solomon’s verse says that he investigated ‘sikhlut’ (shin-chaf-lamed-vav-taf), along with looking into wisdom and madness.3
‘Shetut’ translates as madness, insanity and foolishness, whereas ‘sikhlut’, which usually means confusion or foolishness, has its roots in the word ‘sekhel’, which also means brightness, deliberation and cleverness.4
‘Shetut’ is a loss of awareness, a ‘turning aside’ , of our connection to the the divine.5 It is a common word, in Yiddish, meaning ‘nonsense’ in the more benign sense. R. Sholom Dov-Ber, the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, commenting on this verse, calls it ‘monumental stupidity’.6 This is because the consequence of acting under the influence of the spirit of ‘shetut’ is that it cuts us off from God. Or, perhaps more correctly, the spirit of ‘shetut’ arrives precisely because the individual, by an absence of thought, is already separated from an awareness of God. They behave with no awareness of our connection with the divine or responsibility to the rest of creation.
‘Sikhlut’ is in some ways the opposite. It suggests too much thought, being ‘too clever for ones own good’. It can also be a supra-consciousness of sorts, a kind of conscious abandonment of rational awareness for another way of being and action. This understanding is found in the idea of ‘playing the fool’, when one is quite aware of what one is doing. Examples would include The Fool in the Tarot pack;7 the king’s fool in royal courts, who knew exactly what was going on and who, ‘cleverly’ and skilfully, spoke the truth to the king; the ‘wise fool’ and ‘crazy wisdom’ of Eastern religions, and Trickster figures, who feature in mythology.
The problem, as Solomon is aware, is that clever tricksters just as often catch themselves in their own traps, as they get to offer original and creative insights. Getting caught by ones own too-cleverness does not necessarily imply ‘sin’, in the Talmudic sense, although the lack of inhibiting reflection by over-valuing one’s intelligence would also lead to being ‘cut off’ from that which keeps us close to the sacred sense of life.
With that understanding of ‘folly’, we can return to the first quote. Something happens, or could happen, when ‘shtuss’ overtakes a mind. This is referred to in the Talmud as ‘sin’, a behaviour that alienates one from God.
Jewish scripture has different ways of viewing sin. The first opinion is that sin is not a good thing. It sets in motion a karmic cycle, where poor choices have compensatory consequences. Bad action leads to bad results. The second opinion is that sin is really bad. Since connecting with God is considered ‘life’, disconnection leads to ‘death’, at least psychic and emotional estrangement. The third view is that sin is a dumb thing to do, brought about through ‘folly’, and contrary to what the soul desires, which is to get near to the divine. Here, sin can be transcended and overcome when a person reasserts their soul, with the ego-body in service to more conscious aspirations. The fourth view is that, by acknowledging all three of the preceding views, sin offers the opportunity to reflect on oneself and repent, that is, to regret ones action, and to resolve and commit to not behaving like that in future. This is ‘teshuva’, which transforms, redefines and erases the sin, returning the person to reconnecting with God.
‘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 agonise over the utter devastation it has wrecked on our soul. We have to recognise, disavow and renounce its folly. Only then can we can go back and change what we did.’8
Evil, and Death
If ‘teshuvah’, repentance and return, and reconnection to God, is the hidden meaning concealed in every sin, then we might ask: how is this accomplished? It is not simply a case of saying sorry to God, or to the person we have wronged, sincerely resolving to not behave that way in the future and then forgetting about the matter. We might be wiser to follow the advice of James Hillman, who recommends that, in situations of transgression, we should not ‘forgive and forget’, but rather ‘forgive and remember’.9
But that still does not explain how it is possible to ‘right the wrong’ and transform the past.
To get some insight into this, there are two matters to consider. First concerns the issue of understand good and evil. The second is to attempt to understand how the condition of sin and distance becomes transmuted into holiness and closeness.
Regarding the first matter, the Torah contrasts ‘life and good’, with ‘death and evil’, urging us to choose life. ‘See I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil’ 10and ‘I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life..’11
Thus, evil and sin have both been called ‘death’.12 We need to understand what evil means in a more radical way. We begin with the premise that God is good, which means that every interaction God has with creation is necessarily an expression of good. From the verse, “And the earth was chaos and void, and was upon the face of the deep…God said let there be light, and there was light. God saw the light that it was good…’13 our discussion then proposes that only after God had created light and said ‘,, can we differentiate between the good that we see, and those other aspects of God, which are also good, but appear to us as evil, that exist in the void before Gods utters those words.
The Alter Rebbe, in the Tanya, explains that ‘.. one should accept misfortune with joy, like the joy in a visible and obvious good. For it, too, is for the good, except that it is not apparent and visible to mortal eyes, for it stems from the ‘hidden world’, which is higher than the ‘revealed world’.14 This matter is expounded more thoroughly elsewhere.15
The deeper implication is that evil, and by association, death itself, is a sleight of hand of our ego’s perception. This principle applies then also to the notion of sin, which is called ‘death’. It is an illusion of our limited perception that we could ever be separate from God, since our very existence is nothing else but a living part of God’s creative force made visible. The problems, caused by the ego-self in its behaviour, are not so much to ‘reconnect’ with God, but to remove the ego’s illusion that we could be separated in the first place.16
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his talks, addresses the matter. It is a sublime essay, so I will quote at some length.17
‘At a certain point you have lived long enough to have made many choices and to be able to see the consequences they have wrought. From this vantage point, elevated by maturity, you now see that every choice you made was made in ignorance. You recognise that the full impact of each choice was not seen at the time, and had it been, then perhaps another choice would have been made, or the same choice, but with much more trepidation, less spontaneity and a total absence of frivolity.
The remorse this awareness brings drives you to seek audience with the Heavenly Court. An audience to seek forgiveness not for your sins, but.. for the actions you were so sure at the time were right. Only now, when you have lived long enough to see their consequences.. did you see how very foolhardy you have been.. Even though your mistakes and limitations could be excused by lack of knowledge, you would still desire to stand before the Heavenly Court and ask forgiveness. For these consequences, as unintentional as they may have been, are now very real and exist with a life of their own..
Even your repentance is limited. For you can only repent what you know, and your knowledge is meagre. Ten or twenty years from now you will remember standing before the Heavenly Court today, and it will appear almost childlike. Because ten or twenty years from now, you will see even more of the aftermath of your actions. And you will once again seek atonement for them knowing that every newly realised consequence requires its own repentance..
What do you do? How can you possibly make a move? With the weight of this awareness, will you ever laugh again, be spontaneous, frivolous, fun loving, joyful?
Yet, miraculously, you act. You release the arrow. You laugh you sing and you dance. Because ultimately, through your years, you have learned that God loves you. You are joyous precisely because there is a Heavenly Court before which you can stand and receive forgiveness and understanding and love. You laugh precisely because you know that behind the imperative of doing the very best that you can is the futility of doing anything more than you can. You breathe deeply and release a smile because you know that God wants no more from you than you are able to do and has already given you everything you need with which to it. You dance because this is our freedom: to dance your part in God’s creation with grace and courage and faith. And you sing knowing that you are only one voice in the chorus, and that the symphony is endless, ultimately perfect, yet ironically, dependant on you.
And finally you realise that the failings and limitations, errors and miscalculations, even the consequences that cause the blood to rush to your face in shame are also part of your limited perspective, your narrow vision, your lowly vista. For if you could climb high enough, you would see that the reason the Heavenly Court grants its forgiveness is that, ultimately, there is nothing to forgive.
From the highest plateau you would see that you are dancing your part perfectly. You always have. And you always will.’
Now we can approach the mystery of repentance and forgiveness.18 The biblical concept of forgiveness presumes that sin is a negative force that adheres to the sinner, and that forgiveness is the Divine means for removing it. Repentance is a mystery. If the penance is successful, how the body and soul moves from one ontological condition, that of being in a state of sin and requiring forgiveness, to another state, one of having one’s transgressions entirely nullified – for that is both the point and the consequence of repentance and return – cannot be explained by any logical categories; and yet is a matter of experiential certainty for the believing penitent.19
There are a few places where the Torah instructs us as to how removing of sin is accomplished. One of those is the Azazel ritual, the Jewish ceremony of cleansing via two goats.20 First, a blood offering, one goat sacrificed to God as a sin offering, then the ‘cleaning out’ of the other goat, driven out into the wilderness after confession. There is nothing ‘rational’ in these rituals. Understanding how a goat can can make expiation for a human’s sin, or receive the confessions of human wrongdoing, and then carry these into the wilderness as part of the cleansing, is not an intellectual process. Even the choice of which goat is the sin offering is determined not by logic, but by fate, the random moment of chance by lottery.
Another text is even more perplexing. That is the purification ritual of the Red Heifer, whose ashes are required for the purification of a person after contact with death.21 There are discussions, in Torah, of how the Sin of the Golden Calf is corrected by the Purification of the Red Heifer, following the principle of ‘like cures like’.22 Gold naturally has a yellow-reddish colour. 23 The gold of the calf healed by the red of the heifer. In Alchemy, the red gold of the rubedo, the goal of the alchemic opus, is the ‘elixir of life’, and restores one who was previously tainted by death to eternal life. Again, we cannot rationally understand how the purification of the sinner is achieved. This ritual is so logically inexplicable, that the Midrash tells us that even King Solomon, ‘the wisest of men’, couldn’t comprehend how the process accomplished its purpose.24
And that is precisely the point. In the Torah, the commandment of the Red Heifer is one of class of commandments called ‘chukkim’, which are defined as a supra-rational decree made by God, without any explanation or logical way to understand them. That’s just the way it is. No rationale offered or available. And, paradoxically, for a good reason.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the most incomprehensible of all human experiences, the phenomenon of death, can be transformed only with the most unfathomable of divine commandments, the ashes and water of the Red Heifer. Again, like cures like. The tikkun, the repair, of something incomprehensible can only be made by something else incomprehensible.25
Physically and biologically, death makes perfect sense. Indeed, it is the phenomenon of life that defies explanation. Yet we find death utterly devastating to our sense of reality. Despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary, something deep inside us insists that life is the natural, axiomatic state of the human being, and that its cessation is a violation of the most basic law of existence.
And, from the perspective of the soul, that is correct. The human body is physical flesh, and as such, shares the dissolutive nature of all things physical. But it is animated by a soul that is a ‘spark of the Divine’ and fortified with the eternity and indestructibility of its Source. In its essence, human life is eternal.
Finally, we can reconnect the idea of ‘shetut’, the loss of mindfulness that causes one to sin, and ‘sikhlut’ the over-confidence that Solomon says is ‘a striving after wind’. Both produce conditions whereby the person could perceive themselves as separate from God’s creation. The repair, the tikkun, for the irrational, incomprehensible stupidity of folly that brings about behaviours that separate us from God can only be corrected by an equally irrational, incomprehensible acceptance of behaviours that reunite us with God.26
That is why, in these 10 days, we offer our prayers on high and listen to the lowly song of the goat through the shofar; wear our finest Yom Tov clothes even as we make confession for our poverty of consciousness; celebrate with good food, wine and apples with honey, while we also prepare to fast, unwashed, with the appearance of a pauper; and we plead for forgiveness from God and our fellow man, and yet are humbly confident that our prayers will be received.
Paradoxical, holy, foolish, irrational acts, like love, faith, ritual, prayer, and trust that our voices echo into eternity, return us to our True Source. They are the means by which we are led back to God. We are returned to the Infinite Nothing out of which all of creation originally emerged. From that place, we are restored to our original essence. From there, we emerge whole, holy and renewed. That is the true meaning of New Year.
May we all be blessed with Shana Tova u’Mesuka, a good and a sweet year.
1. The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur have several names. Originally referred simply as ‘The 10 days’, they are also called ‘The 10 Days of Awe’, and, especially since Maimonides in the 13th century, ‘The 10 Days of Repentance’. This latter term is one most often used in modern time. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Days_of_Repentance
2. Eg, in the translation on the Seraphia website of Jewish texts, in the book ‘Kuntres u’maaion, published by Chabad, and most websites. .
3. Translating this word has its own challenges and has similarly ambiguous meaning. Usually, the word ‘holailot’ means confusion, scheming and crazy thinking. Yet the root-word ‘Hallel’, means ‘to be bright’ and ‘to praise’, and is also connote with ‘hallelujah’, praising God. This point, how an action or state of mind could be reckoned from different viewing points, is part of the concern of this paper.
4. Marcus Jastrow, ‘Dictionary of the Targum, Talmud and Midrashic Literature.’ P1553. The Judaica Press, Inc. NY, 1971
5. In the Talmud, the connection is specifically made between ‘shetut’ and ‘turning aside’ as sin. Cf. Talmud, Sotah 3a.
6. R. Sholom Dov-Ber Schneersohn, ‘Kuntres Uma’ayon Mibais Hashem’, p8. Kehot Publication. Brooklyn, N.Y. 1973
8. From an article by Yanki Tauber, based on the teachings of the Rebbe. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2830/jewish/What-Is-Sin.htm
10. Deut 30:15. Sefaria translates differently, not according to the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, which are used in the Torah.
11. Deut 30:19. Sefaria translation. www.sefaria.org
12. The connection between sin and death was established earlier in the paper.
13. Gen 1:2,3
16. Osho’s reaching, claiming the opposite of the Biblical view, leads to exactly the same place. https://o-meditation.com/2012/04/27/what-is-sin-osho/
17. Sichos in English. ‘Vistas’. Original paper copy with date misplaced.
18. Teshuvah is one of the 7 ‘things created before creation’. Cf.. http://www.tamboo.co.za/kabbalah/returning-prophesy-and-poetry/
20. ‘Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.’ Lev 16:7-10
21. ‘The red heifer, a female bovine which has never been pregnant or milked or yoked, also known as the red cow, was a cow brought to the priests as a sacrifice according to the Torah, and its ashes were used for the ritual purification of Tum’at HaMet (“the impurity of the dead”), that is, an Israelite who had come into contact with a corpse. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_heifer
22. ‘Like cures like’ is a fundamental principle of medical alchemy, as stated by Hippocrates, the ‘father of Western medicine’ in the 4th century BCE. ‘By similar things a disease is produced and through the application of the like is cured’ and repeated by Paracelsus, the renaissance medical pioneer, in the 15 century. That this idea was later adopted by homeopathy, and mostly discredited there, has no bearing on its more ancient and reliable roots.
23. In the Koran’s telling of this story, the heifer is yellow.. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_heifer
26. ‘Indeed, explains the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the most incomprehensible of human experiences—the phenomenon of death—can be sublimated only with the most incomprehensible of divine mitzvot, the ashes and water of the Red Heifer.’