Six ideas were created before the world was created…..Rabbi Ahava berebi Ze’eira says Teshuva (repentance) also (was created before the word was created). – Bereishit Rabbah 1:4

In his two word comment buried in the middle of a paragraph of Midrash, R Ahava berebi Ze’eira revolutionizes the idea of cheit (sin).

Teshuva is an end in itself; it is not just a means of accomplishing atonement for sin. Sin was created after teshuva, as a means to activate the teshuva process. Teshuva, says Rabbi Ahava, is not the consequence of having committed a sin. Rather sin was created as a way to lead people to experience teshuva. If Teshuva is a universal principle inherent to the absolute world (created before the universe), then sin in a necessary creation in the physical world, in Olam Hazeh. For without sin, there could be no expression or experience of teshuva.

Consider how Hashem entices a reluctant Adam into the Gan Eden. Clearly Adam’s reluctance is caused by his realization of the risk of Sin posed by the allure of the Tree of Knowledge in the center of the Garden. Hashem, using the serpent and his relationship with Eve as his agent, sets it up in such a way that sin is almost inevitable. Teshuva is introduced into the Creation on the sixth day; on the day humankind is created, before the first Shabbas.

Sin does not only mean deliberate acts of defiance. Sin is the errors of judgment we all make, the impulsive acts and the defensive reactions that are part of our nature. The way humankind is designed means we are going to sin. “There is no righteous human,” says King Solomon, “who, active in the world and doing good, does not sin.” (Kohelet 7:20)  Sin is part of human nature.Teshuva is a supernatural gift that Hashem gave us to recover from the inevitable failures that mark all of our lives and to bring us even closer to Him than we were before.

This is a significant shift in the way we think about sin and about making mistakes. If none of us knew sin we could never feel vulnerability. If there were no teshuva, we would be paralyzed for fear of error. It is OK to sin (in the sense of unintended error), it is human to sin, provided we use the awareness of sin and error to rebuild and reinforce our characters going forward.

We learn and we grow from stretching ourselves and from stumbling when we do. A child would never learn to walk or ride a bicycle if falling was not OK. Adults find learning new languages challenging partly because we fear making fools of ourselves as we mispronounce words or make grammatical mistakes as we speak.

Embracing error as part of growth and vulnerability, as part of greatness, is liberating. It doesn’t give license for recklessness nor does it justify sloppy morality. But it does allow for bold action, experiment and adventure.

As a parent or leader, giving emotional permission to make mistakes, is the way to unlock discovery, development and innovation. Mistakes can be rectified and sin can be atoned for. The wasted time and opportunity that results from paralysis and passivity however cannot. Act boldly, adventure outwards, take risk, step out of your comfort zone. At worst, if you fail or err, through authentic teshuva you can come back to an even more powerful place than you were before.


Other essays in the What the Midrash Means Series.