It’s just one small infraction, no big deal.
This is a common enough argument that we hear often in our own heads. We would never be brazen enough to justify our infractions this way in public, but we say it to ourselves.
Suppose, you are leaving a hotel and want to stuff the extra packages of lotion or shampoo in your bag. Oh, it’s just a little thing and surely the hotel expects us to take it, right? You are talking to friends and you think of something embarrassing to say about someone else behind his or her back. Oh, it’s just this one time, what’s the big deal? You are filling out your taxes and no one knows about the cash payment you were given, you won’t report it this one time. No big deal.
Yet, how often does the not such big deal turn out to become a big deal? What happens when the government audits you and finds the infraction. Suddenly, your life is turned upside down and you need to pay fines and possibly serve jail time. What was the big deal? Well once you are holding the audit papers in your hand, it becomes a big deal.
What if the person you mocked finds out about it and becomes bitter. You’ve turned a friend into an enemy for life, and one who is out to take revenge. Suddenly, it is a very big deal.
Your daughter comes home from school to tell you that she was flirting with the boys in her class. What’s the big deal? Your son comes home from school to tell you that he experimented with cocaine, it’s just one small infraction, what’s the big deal?
A lifetime can be impacted and other lives can be impacted by one small little infraction that turns out to be a rather big deal.
The Beautiful Woman
The Torah talks about going out to battle and finding a beautiful woman among the captives. You are filled with lust as is the nature of victorious soldiers and you want her. The Torah tells us that you may marry her but only after she has lived under your roof for a month, and after she has agreed to convert.
Our sages explained that the Torah is not proud of Jewish soldiers who take advantage of this rule. This rule was intended for those who would otherwise rape this woman on the side of the road. They can’t rein in their impulse and would otherwise succumb to their cruel passions in violent and horrible ways. The Torah provides a framework in which to succumb to the impulse in a dignified and permissible way.
Yet, the Torah goes on to say that nothing good will come of this. The next section of the Torah describes a wayward and rebellious son who defies his parents and teachers, who rebels against his friends and community, who is a glutenous and dangerous thief, who would steal from his own mother. Who would like to have a child like that?
Says the Torah, guess what? If you don’t like seeing it in your child, then you better take a long look in the mirror. Your child is mirroring you. You saw a woman you couldn’t resist, you never bothered reining in your temptations, you succumbed to whatever impulse struck you at that moment, and would have behaved like a degenerate, had the Torah not forced you to give her some dignity. Do you want to know why your child is so gluttonous? Because he comes from you!
Oh, you say, but I did it only once, and those were unique circumstances. Ah, says the Torah, but this is the entire point. There is no such thing as “it’s okay because it’s an exception.” There is no such thing as an innocent crime. No matter the crime, no matter the occasion, no matter the context, it’s a big deal.
It is a big deal because your son didn’t see what you wanted him to see. He saw what his eyes showed him. He didn’t see that “this is not the real you,” or that “you only did it once,” or that “it was not a big deal.” He isn’t inside your head and doesn’t know your rationalizations and justifications. All he saw was his father succumb to temptation, so he learned that succumbing is okay.
You know it is wrong but were overcome in the heat of the moment, so you did it only once. But your son only knows what he saw, and he saw his father behaving like an animal. He concluded that animal behavior is decent and proper. So, he did the same, only he didn’t stop after the first time.
He saw you hang up on a telemarketer, or slam the door on a salesperson, or disrespect a clerk in the store. He heard you mocking someone behind his back, or berating a subordinate in public, or denying alms to an outstretched hand. That is enough. All he needed to see is that you treat others with disdain, and he learned that others are unimportant. He went and stole or raped or abused. You taught him that.
The Talmud tells us that when a person commits a sin once, he knows it is wrong. But if he repeats the sin, he doesn’t feel it is so wrong anymore. Our moral sense is dulled by repeated offense. The more we reoffend, the less it bothers us. We soon reach a point where we believe it is right.
It all depends on our initial reaction. When we commit the crime the first time, we feel guilty. But how do we respond to the guilt? If we tell ourselves that we were wrong, and should never do it again, we will not likely repeat it. If we tell ourselves that it was not so bad because we only did it once and it is no big deal, we will likely repeat the crime. And repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it, until it doesn’t feel like a crime anymore.
Like Rome, career criminals are not born in a day. They are forged over a lifetime. Then their child comes along in the next generation and becomes a criminal overnight. He doesn’t even know that crime is wrong. You ask the child why they steal, and their answer is a nonchalant, why not?
That is why the Talmud tells us that at first, our evil inclination seems like a thread we can easily snip. But after repeated offense, it resembles a sturdy rope that binds us against our will. We become so inured to the feelings of guilt that they don’t even register. What seemed at first to be a small infraction and no big deal, turns out to be the biggest deal of our lives.
The time to stop ourselves is before we commit the first sin, the one that was no big deal. While it is possible to stop at any point, the task gets harder and more difficult with each repeated sin. If we put the lie to the “no big deal” argument, we will be safe for the rest of our lives. If we succumb to the “no big deal” argument even once, we will spend the rest of our lives playing catch-up.