For there is no person who does not sin...

A reflection on Yom Kippur.

WORSHIPERS TAKE part in ‘tashlich’ (ritual of casting away sins of the past year into the water) ahead of Yom Kippur on the seashore in Ashdod, last year. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
WORSHIPERS TAKE part in ‘tashlich’ (ritual of casting away sins of the past year into the water) ahead of Yom Kippur on the seashore in Ashdod, last year.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Yom Kippur, which begins this evening and ends on Saturday night, is a day whose name depicts its essence. “Kippur” means atonement. This is the day when God atones for people’s sins, or as it says in the Torah: “For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30).
If there is a set day each year on which God effects atonement for people’s sins, then the fact that people sin and do not always act as they should comes as no surprise. This reality is undeniable and is also not coincidental.
Thousands of years ago, on the day the Temple was dedicated, King Solomon expressed this idea without mincing words: “...for there is no person who does not sin” (I Kings 8:46).
How are we to deal with this fact? The Hebrew word for sin is “het,” which is of the same root as the verb for missing a target. There is no doubt that sinning is missing a goal and is not desirable. But is it accidental? In other words, couldn’t God have created a slightly better version of man, one who would not sin at all? A prominent scholar who dealt with this topic extensively was Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto (1707-1746), a kabbalist, poet and philosopher. His profound teachings get to the heart of the human experience and man’s standing before his God. He compares God’s relationship with man to that of a mother’s with her son, a relationship composed of three succeeding stages: hessed (benevolence), din (judgment) and rahamim (mercy).
When a baby is born, his mother takes care of him with complete benevolence. She has no expectations of any compensation or even a return of her own devotion.
She gives of herself entirely and lovingly.
Shortly afterward, when the baby is a bit older, the relationship takes on a bit more reciprocity. She expects a smile, some sort of reaction. When he is even older, she expects him to be a good student, a child who brings his family nahat, satisfaction. She now treats him not only benevolently but with a certain level of judgment. She expects compensation, starting with gratitude, appreciation, and meeting her expectations.
This is human nature. Psychologists say that if a mother would continue bestowing goodness on the child with no expectations of reciprocity, the child’s development would be harmed and he would become essentially a permanent child.
As the child grows, if reciprocity is not maintained – a relatively common phenomenon – we might expect the mother to stop providing for her child, since her relationship with him is supposedly based on this reciprocity.
If the reciprocity was total, then parent-child relationships would look like those between any person and his bank manager – you get what you deserve, you don’t get what you don’t deserve.
But a parent-child relationship is different. It exists on its own merit. It is unconditional, without a set goal toward which both sides strive. The relationship itself is the goal. This is the attribute of mercy – the third stage.
The creation of man is total hessed, benevolence, giving with no reciprocity.
Man is created and then sent off on a long journey that does have expectations of reciprocity: God provides for man, and man is expected to take the straight and correct path. This is the attribute of din, judgment.
If we would stop here, our relationship with God would look like our relationship with our bank manager, and that would not end well.
God created man as a creature who sins. This is not by mistake; not a mishap. God expects us to understand that the Divine attribute of judgment is not how He conducts the world. The Divine attribute of mercy, stronger than reciprocity, is the one that expresses the real relationship between God and man. God wants to provide for us without limit, unconditionally, and therefore it says “for there is no man who does not sin.” We can never stand before God confidently and claim “I deserve this.” Therefore, we can never mistakenly think that God conducts the world according to the attribute of judgment.
This, of course, does not make sin permissible. On the contrary. This point of view strengthens our faith and trust in God and His goodness and empowers us with the desire not to sin.
Our sages conveyed this concept concisely. “At first God meant to create the world with only the attribute of judgment. He saw that the world cannot exist this way, so He added the attribute of mercy.” What is the meaning of “He saw that the world cannot exist this way”? Could it be that God was mistaken, that He thought the world could exist this way and ultimately discovered that it couldn’t? That is a ridiculous thing to say.
“The world cannot exist on the basis of the attribute of judgment.” The world does not attain its goals when man believes that God is conducting Himself wholly on the basis of the attribute of judgment. Yom Kippur is a day when we adjust our awareness and sharpen our consciousness of the fact that it is the Divine attribute of mercy that conducts the world.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.