They asked wisdom: “How may a sinning soul achieve atonement?”
Wisdom said, “The sinning soul shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4)
They asked prophecy.
Prophecy said, “Misfortune pursues sinners.” (Proverbs 13:21)
They asked Torah.
Torah said, “Let him bring a guilt offering, and he will be atoned for.”
They asked G-d.
G-d said, “Let him repent, and he will be atoned for.”
This is the meaning of the verse (Psalms 25:8), “Good and upright is the Lord, for He shows sinners the way.”
—Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Makkot 7a
(version of the Vavei HeAmudim,
son to the holy SheLaH)
The Talmud describes four answers to the problem of sin, each more lenient than the one which precedes it. Whereas wisdom says the only way to be cleansed of the blemish of transgression is through death, prophecy, from a higher perch, sees that suffering can achieve the same. Torah provides atonement through a sacrifice, whereas G-d Himself says it’s possible without death, suffering, or even a sacrifice if one merely performs the spiritual act of Teshuvah, repentance or return to one’s creator.
There is actually an implicit fifth member, the least sympathetic of the lot, the one who has no advice for the sinner. One might call this unsympathetic friend “worldliness” or “nature.” Nature may be defined (in extreme summary) as that G-dly expression which conforms to the need of the result, rather than the Creator. For example, when G-d speaks light into being (Genesis 1:3), it is in the mode of nature, and therefore the divine act creates an independent entity, a light which has properties and exists by taking up space at certain times, etc.
Now, the problem nature has with sin is that the deepest property of every created being, its first nature, is the role it plays in the Divine Will. Before light’s color and its illuminating properties and its speed is its purpose, the role it plays in G-d’s design for the universe generally, whether that purpose is to have a dwelling place in the lowest realms (as explained in Tanya Chapter 36) or any other.* The role of the divine commandments is to reveal this G-dly truth in the object of the commandment, leather for Tefillin, wool for Tzitzis. Sin conversely denies this inner truth and reinforces only the superficial reality of the creation, creating a rift between the inner directed purpose of a being and its apparent independence, between the result of the Divine act and the Divine act itself.
Since sin is an affront to nature’s very soul, nature’s connection to its source in the Almighty, nature by definition cannot absolve us of sin. Just as an amputated arm cannot sew itself back onto the torso, a nature rendered independent and metaphysically inert cannot undo the destruction wrought by transgression. Sin truly creates nature, in the sense that amputation creates the arm, so this now-independent nature cannot uncreate sin. “Dear universe,” writes the thief, “I am sorry for stealing the money. Please forgive me.” The universe cannot respond, because the theft has killed some of her children.
So we must turn at least to wisdom. Wisdom is able to see nature in context, which is itself proof that wisdom is greater than nature and comes from beyond nature. If wisdom is the very power to see inner truths, then it is the opposite of sin, which severs the inner truth from its effects. Indeed, Reish Lakish says (Sotah 3a) that “a man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly enters him,” or in other words, that wisdom and sin cannot dwell in the same place. Where nature in our grisly example is the amputated arm, wisdom is that which connects arms with bodies. However, where the arm does not survive sin, this connective power merely goes into hiding. It, itself, will always have a solution for severed arms; this is its entire being. So wisdom tells us, “The sinning soul shall die.”
Why death? Why not death! The fulfillment of G-d’s will draws the Divine into the world, the infinite into the finite, the living soul into an arm. Sin is death, for death is nothing but the separation of soul and body. Wisdom, sin’s opposite, provides the technical solution. If one has brought death to the world, that dirt washes off only one way. When death finds you, and your soul and body are separated, your debt will be paid. The punishment fits the crime.
But wisdom is the lowest of four, and therefore the least kind. Kindness, in terms of forgiving sin, is proportional to the height of perspective. To the arm that gets cut off, the cutting off is vitally important. Arm-severing is the arch-rival to the power that holds arms to bodies. But prophecy is not nature, nor even the inner truth of nature. Prophecy stands fully above nature and nature’s truth. Prophecy is to creation as the body itself is to the arm that is severed.
The body feels pain at the removal of extremities, yet the body continues to survive. To have sinned is to have harmed nature, but not the Divine act which produces nature. The divine act is only harmed inasmuch as it cannot be fully expressed in the lowest place. This is not death to the divine act, which retains its connection to G-d and remains divine. How, then, is the sinning soul cleansed? Death is not necessary, for sin does not bring death. Rather, misfortunes pursue sinners—transgression is cleansed by pain and suffering, and this is enough to pay the debt.
Torah is something different entirely.
Torah is G-d’s wisdom.
As a form of wisdom, one might assume it is similar to the wisdom of the first answer, the inner truth of each creation that offers death as the only atonement for sin. But Torah is not the truth of creation but rather Truth itself. It is not the purpose of nature, but rather the purpose of all purposes, and it cannot be derived from nature.
There is no way to know what Torah will tell the sinner, except by Torah telling us. Or in other words, we do not know what a sin truly is to Torah merely by looking at the spiritual effects of the sin, for all the sin’s perceivable effects reach only up to the Divine act of creation. The Torah is not a creation at all, but rather the source of creation, the knowledge that precedes that G-dly act.
We know how the arm feels about its amputation, how the force connecting the arm to the body feels, and how the body feels. But do we know the mind’s reaction?
The mind propely understood** is not fixed in any causal chain or natural reaction to anything in the person below itself. The mind may choose how to react to any stimulus. If my arm is cut off in a freak accident, I will mourn the loss of the limb. But if the arm is cut off to save my very life, perhaps I will view it with some relief. If I am offered seventy billion dollars to cut off my arm and I will be able to afford the best prosthetics, perhaps I even make this choice willingly and see it as an improvement to my condition. The arm when it is cut off is unaware of this calculus; the pro-attached-arm force has never heard of it; it does not stop the body’s physical pain of losing a limb. The only way to find out what the mind thinks is to ask it.
The Torah says, “Let him bring a guilt offering.” In the eyes of the Torah, the divine mind, inscrutable from below, this is the proper balance; pain and death are unnecessary, and only the Torah could tell us so. We first regret our actions and resolve never to transgress again, which turns intentional sins into unintentional ones before G-d. We then bring a specific animal sacrifice to the temple in Jerusalem, and this atones for our unintentional actions.
Why, in the Torah’s approach, must we first transform our sins into unintentional actions before we can atone for them through a sacrifice? Because no matter which conceptual framing the mind lends to the loss of the arm, there are still facts about the amputation that are unavoidable, that cannot be reframed. Even to the divine mind, which in its Truth is an expression of G-d Himself, things still have their essential natures. The Torah is able to see how losing the arm is not so bad a thing that it’s equivalent to death or suffering, but no amount of broadmindedness can view the arm as more a part of the body than it was before. Similarly, the Torah, in the context of repentance and sacrifice, can see the transgression as a misadventure that is balanced and “justified.” But the Torah, ultimately limited to being wisdom, cannot see the transgression as a positive.
G-d says, Repent and be atoned.
Don’t contextualize and then balance the transgression.
Rather, de-transgress the transgression. Transform the intentional sins into merits (as described in Tanya Chapter 7). Beyond even the mind there is a soul incorruptible possessing infinite power. Its power stems from being totally beyond nature—not nature itself, nor the act that creates it, nor the source of that act in the divine wisdom, but a simple indivisible self that stands in relation to nothing, that is defined by nothing. A self before whom all constructs, even that of “having an arm” and “not having an arm” are interchangeable.
G-d, because He is G-d, because he stands beyond all realities, even the reality of His own wisdom, is able to not just balance or forgive the transgression. He is able to reverse the valence of the debt. He is able to transform an act of violence, of death, of pain against Him into an act for which He will willingly dispense reward.
All that is required is repentance***, and to repent is just to acknowledge G-d beyond all realities. This itself is the act that repairs the soul, and that cleans it. The highest atonement, the painless atonement, is not a balancing or a transacting but a shift of our being itself. The sinner realizes that the sinner’s own soul comes from a G-d who is truly beyond his petty concerns, beyond any folly or lust or evil that caused him to sin, beyond even the distinction between sin and non-sin. Authentically realizing this to be his true nature, it becomes so. G-d forgives him not by letting his sins slide, but by an in-dwelling presence that literally transforms the sinner into a servant of G-d and the sins into merits, by standing the sinner himself in that position of needing nothing, being defined by nothing, but simply being, which is being one with G-d.
As the verse says, G-d is good—so good, He does not reckon with the reality of the sin at all, but truly transcends it, and so can offer atonement to all. And G-d is upright—His goodness is not confined to Him alone, but can hold true at every level, can be given to the sinner and be real to the sinner.
This, even the Torah cannot understand.****
Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s “v’Chol Adam,” Shabbos Haazinu, Shabbos Teshuva, 5723/1962
*Sometimes this divine purpose is in line with the teleological end of the creation in the ancient sense, its greatest perfection, but often is not—many things are created to be destroyed, whether literally or through a process of nullification, in which we reveal the inner ayin, the subsuming of the creation in the divine reality such that it has no independent existence whatsoever. An earthly ox is more perfect the more it instantiates the divine ox, but the divine ox is itself utterly nullified to the G-dly emanation. It is therefore good for an ox to be healthy, and it is even better for an ox to move up a teleological level by correctly serving human purposes in the fields or as food, and it is categorically better to use the Ox’s skin for making Tefillin, in which (in Tefillin’s highest form) the Ox serves no earthly purpose, neither for the betterment of the Ox nor for the betterment of man.
**Rather than how it’s commonly understood today.
***The truest expression of the uniquely G-dly atonement is on Yom Kippur. The rest of the year, we can attain it, but only through atonement. On Yom Kippur, the day itself atones; we do not have to do anything, and why should we, if our very souls are beyond the distinction between sin and non-sin? The only reason we also repent on Yom Kippur is so that the mind, the body, the attachment of the arm to the body, and the arm are also aware, at their own levels, that the arm has regrown.
****The fact that this advice of G-d is actually recorded as part of Torah, in the Jerusalem Talmud, is because the Torah, in its source, is absolutely one with G-d Himself, just as the mind in its source is one with the soul itself. The Torah’s advice of bringing the sacrifice is the Torah describing its own perspective (Torah is in the center line of sefirot, which connects all levels highest to lowest); G-d’s advice of repenting and transforming sins into merits is the Torah’s description of its source’s perspective (Torah in its source, beyond even being the center line).