In a few days we will be standing before Hashem on Rosh Hashana. Each of us will ask our Creator’s forgiveness for sins we committed over the course of the preceding year. Since this is the case, we must ask a deceptively simple question: “What is sin?”
In broad terms, sin is any violation of Hashem’s will. More specifically, three kinds of sin are mentioned in the Torah passage that follows the most grievous violation we committed as a nation, namely, the Eigel HaZahav (the Sin of the Golden Calf): “And the L-rd passed before him [Moshe] and proclaimed: ‘Hashem, Hashem, G-d, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving avon (iniquity) and pesha (rebellion) and chata’ah (sin)’.” (Shemot 34:6-7)
In this pasuk, Hashem teaches us that He forgives three distinct types of sin: avon, pesha, and chata’ah. In his Commentary on the Torah, Rashi explains avon as a purposeful sin, performed with full knowledge that it is wrong; the person’s better judgment is overcome and the individual has succumbed to base and lowly instincts.
Avon takes place when an individual loses self-control and is ruled by raw desire. Nonetheless, such people have not forsaken their relationship with G-d, but rather, they have forsaken their relationship with themselves by violating their intrinsic holy status.
Pesha is a far more grievous sin than avon. Rashi explains that it refers to purposeful acts of rebellion against G-d, with an individual simultaneously challenging and rejecting the Almighty’s role as Master of the Universe. Those who commit a pesha repudiate G-d’s hegemony and power and, instead, place themselves on His throne.
Chata’ah is different in kind and degree than the previous types of sin for, in such a case, there is no desire to do wrong, no pleasure-seeking urge run amok, and no desire to dethrone the Almighty. Instead, one who is involved in a chata’ah does so as a result of a lack of the requisite Torah knowledge that would have prevented the forbidden action; as such, it is an inadvertent sin. Chata’ah teaches us that a failure to learn Torah precludes the possibility of correctly living according its precepts; chata’ah occurs when people fail to live up to all that they could have been if only they would have engaged in sincere Torah study.
Teshuvah, returning to Hashem, is our greatest antidote against sin’s destructive poison. It is one of the Almighty’s greatest gifts, as it enables us to return to the correct path and reestablish our relationship with Him.
My rebbi and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal, gave eloquent voice to these ideas: “What, therefore, is teshuvah in contrast to sin? Ascent versus descent. Through sin one is an object, while teshuvah allows one to again become a subject. Through sin man is acted upon, while through teshuvah man can act once again. Through sin he is a thing, while through teshuvah he becomes a person. Through sin gravity overwhelms, while through teshuvah gravity is overcome.”
May Hashem help us encounter our sins so that we may ever ascend, and never descend. Moreover, may we become the masters of our actions, as we grow in our recognition that He is the Master of the Universe. Most of all, when we stand in prayer this Rosh Hashana, and seek to encounter the King of the Universe once again, may each of us remember Yirmiyahu’s celebrated words:
“Hashiveinu Hashem alecha v’nashuvah” (Restore us to You, O L-rd, that we may be restored!” (Megillat Eichah 5:21). V’chane yihi ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom, Kativah v’Chatimah Tovah, and may Hashem in His great mercy remove the magafah from klal Yisrael and from all the nations of the world.