“The Process of Sin”
It is a word that one hears frequently these days, in many contexts. The word is “process.” It is a word that reflects our growing recognition that there are very few things in this world that occur in an instant, yesh me’ayin, something out of nothing.
When one faces a complex set of circumstances, he is well advised to assume that these circumstances did not arise out of nowhere, but, on the contrary, are the results of many prior events, some going back many years.
Hence, we speak of the processes of nature, the historical process, the process of aging, and even the process of disease.
The concept of life as a process may be traced back to the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who pointed out that one does not step into the same river twice. Life, like the river, does not stand still, and no two moments in life are identical.
From a Jewish perspective, everything is in the process of change. Everything, that is, except God Himself, who is unchanging and eternal.
I first became aware of the philosophical importance of the notion of process in a course I took in graduate school on the great American philosophers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In that course, I was introduced to the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote a book entitled Process and Reality. Although I remember finding that book very difficult to read, I can still recall the instructor’s helpful analogy of life as a flowing river that continuously carves out new paths. As an example, she showed us old maps of the Mississippi River which demonstrated that it changed course many times over the centuries but always had the same destination, the sea.
Much more recently, I attended a seminar in which a very prominent physician distinguished between those diseases that are the products of long-term processes of deterioration versus those diseases that are the result of sudden trauma with no previous pathology evident at all.
As this doctor made his point, a participant in the seminar rose to protest. He identified himself as a “process philosopher” who believed that even sudden traumatic events are part of a subtle ongoing process which preceded them, rendering the individual susceptible to what appeared to be sudden trauma, but what was in reality only the inevitable outcome of a prior ongoing process. He insisted that even traumatic events, seemingly coming out of nowhere, are the culmination of a process.
Whereas this philosopher’s contention is surely debatable, what is not debatable is that sin is part of a process. Sins are not merely isolated events in a person’s life. This point has its roots in this week’s twin Torah portions, Behar and Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34).
At the beginning of chapter 26, which appears near the end of the first of this week’s portions, Behar, we read:
“You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I am the Lord your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate my sanctuary…”
Rashi, the greatest of our traditional commentators, is puzzled by the placement of this particular simple verse. It follows the long and complex chapter 25, which discusses a great diversity of subjects: the sabbatical year; the transfer of merchandise and the sale of real property; laws of usury; the conditions which apply to a person who becomes destitute, who, when he has no other alternative, may even sell himself into slavery to another Jew.
Rashi responds, following a passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 20a), that what we have in chapter 25 is a detailed account of a fundamental process of human nature, the process of sin.
Rashi tells us that sin typically proceeds in incremental fashion, from minor to major, from incidental and almost trivial infractions to a point where a person becomes trapped in a web of sin from which it is very difficult to extricate himself.
Thus, chapter 25 begins with the laws of the sabbatical year, alluding to a person who, in the interest of monetary gain, ignores those laws and does commerce with the fruits of that year. As punishment for this, his commercial plans are frustrated, and he must sell his merchandise to raise cash. If he then persists in his sins, he finds himself forced to sell off his fields, and then, still failing to repent, will become so desperate that he has to sell his very home. This process continues to spiral downward if he does not change his ways, and he finds himself so strapped financially that he must borrow money under usurious terms.
Two parallel processes inexorably move forward: the process of deepening entrenchment in sin, and the process of ever worsening financial conditions.
But then, chapter 25 continues with even more disastrous consequences for this obdurate sinner, and, with no other alternative, he is forced to sell himself into slavery to a fellow Jew. But in this condition, he still has hope, because the Torah here implores other Jews to come forward and redeem this poor fellow from his enslavement. However, continues Rashi, if the sinner still does not get the message of his need to change his sinful ways, help will not come forth. Thus concludes chapter 25: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.” And the Talmud comments, “They are to be My servants, and not the servants of other, human, servants.”
If such is the case, and that stubborn sinner still doesn’t “get it,” we have the opening statement of chapter 26, to which we’ve already referred. “You shall not make idols for yourselves…”
These words are addressed, Rashi tells us, to our stubborn sinner who, even when sold to fellow Jews, remains unrepentant. He then finds it necessary to sell himself to non-Jews, to other nations. And he therefore needs to be reminded that, even in an alien environment, he must remain faithful to his God.
He cannot say, “My master is immoral, why can’t I be? My master is idolatrous, why not me? My master violates the Sabbath, why shouldn’t I?” Even at the nadir of his process, he is encouraged to repent and is admonished, “You shall not make idols for yourself…”
Sin is a process. Egregious sins have a history and are long preceded by minor, even trivial, infractions. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that repentance is also a process. When one commits to change his ways, he need not be discouraged by the enormity of the task ahead. He need merely proceed, step by small step, in the right direction.
The process of teshuva, return, requires just a “re-turn,” a small change in behavior. How encouraging are God’s words, as phrased by our Sages, “Open for Me an opening the size of the eye of a needle, and I will open for you an opening as large as the door of a great Temple.”