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What Is Sin?

What Is Sin?


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; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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Portia South Africa, Centurion August 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 Reply

Rita March 8, 2014

Interesting Interesting article. Reply

Brian Thwaites Sheffield, England February 10, 2011

What is SIN? The answer is simple. Sin is doing wrong in the eyes of G-D or Man. Reply

Anonymous March 12, 2009

Rabbi, this is truly an outstanding article. Yasher Coach. Reply

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. Reply

Anonymous February 25, 2005

reversal 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? Reply

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.... Reply


WHAT IS SIN 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. Reply

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, Kenya March 25, 2004

secrifies 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. Reply

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