To Err is Human

This is the fifth in a series of articles exploring the daily Shmoneh Esrei prayer, also called the Amida or standing prayer. We’ve just explained that the fourth blessing is about recognizing that all intelligence derives from God. It is this intelligence which separates us from the rest of Creation, so we begin our Amida shopping list by requesting more grey matter. In blessings five and six, our Sages have advised us to ask God for repentance and forgiveness, because we know that we generally have fallen short of the Divine expectations for humanity. It’s ironic that once we’ve attained a certain level of understanding, the first thing we realize is that we’re wrong. 

These two blessings present us immediately with a dilemma: Aren’t TESHUVA (repentance) and SELICHA (forgiveness) basically the same thing? I mean don’t we seem to combine these concepts during the Ten Days of Repentance? BTW we’re going to have a similar issue of apparent duplication when we get to the blessings about rebuilding Yerushalayim and restoring the Davidic monarchy, but we must wait a few weeks to resolve that quandary. 

Actually, the more basic problem is that most of us assume that TESHUVA is always connected to sin. That’s just not true. Look at the wording which begins blessing number 5: Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah. We’re not discussing specific sins or transgressions. We’re discussing that life has brought impediments to our continued progress in Torah, Mitzvot and MIDOT (character development). Every morning we remind ourselves that we received a ‘pure soul’ (ELOKEI NESHAMA SHE’NATATA LI TEHORAH HI) from our Maker, and now we’re asking God to return it to the factory settings.  

This, I believe, is what the Rambam is teaching us in his majestic Chapter 7 of Hilchot Teshuva:

Do not say that no repentance is needed except for sins to which action is attached, for example: promiscuity, robbery, or theft. For even as it is necessary for each one to repent from such, so it is necessary for everyone to search one’s bad tendencies, to turn in repentance from anger, from hatred, from jealousy, from deceit, from pursuing wealth, honor, feasting and the such; in fact, from all of these it is necessary for one to turn in repentance. Indeed these failings are more grievous and more difficult for one to separate from than those which require action, for on such spiritual issues the prophet Isaiah said: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts” (Yeshayahu 55:7, Halacha 3). 

The difference between the normal view of TESHUVA from sins and the issue in this BERACHA is, I believe, described by our Sages as TESHUVA M’YIR’AH (repentance out of fear from sin and punishment) and TESHUVA M’AHAVA (repentance from love of God and Torah). In our scenario, the individual hasn’t done anything specifically prohibited, but has a feeling that the gap between this Jew and the Infinite is, paradoxically, growing. It’s time to commit to the path God would want for us. 

So, this BERACHA continues to discuss that one must reconnect to Torah and to Divine service. We, therefore, ask God to bring us back SHLEIMA, completely and totally, to the spiritual highway. Then we conclude that it’s right to ask for this help because, ‘Blessed are You, O Lord, who truly desires this TESHUVA route. 

Then we turn in BERACHA 6 to the regular garden variety of TESHUVA, namely sin. This blessing is famous because when we mention the two examples of sin we hit our hearts. This signifies that it was our heart-based emotions which have caused us to transgress God’s law, not our minds. If we had thought things through, we wouldn’t have sinned, maybe.  

Now a public service announcement: Don’t bang your chest! This isn’t a Tarzan moment. We’re embarrassed by our faux pas, so, please, a gentle tap. The rest of us don’t want to hear your enthusiasm.  

We have two terms for sin, and two terms for forgiveness, and they directly correlate to each other. We begin with SLACH or ‘forgive’ for our CHET, one of many words for sin. But what kind of sin? I first encountered the original meaning of CHET at the rifle range in the IDF. It means to miss the mark or target. Not that I ever missed. Here, too, it refers to missing the expectations God has for us. It generally refers to sins of error, called SHOGEG. I didn’t realize that act was prohibited. Famous example: I thought the piece of animal fat was SHUMAN (permitted fat), when in reality it was CHELEV (prohibited fat). 

The word for forgiveness for this type of mistake is SLACH or forgive the misstep. That’s why we begin our blessing by referring to God as AVINU, our Parent.  This is the kind of mistake a loving parent will make allowances for. 

Next we encounter PESHA, a much more severe variety of sin. This transgression was done on purpose. The individual knew it was prohibited and, at least, for that moment didn’t care. Hence, we refer to God as MALKEINU, our King, in this circumstance. We should have the proper awe and fear of the Master of the World when we behaved so poorly. 

This transgression can’t just be excised and forgotten so easily, therefore we ask for MECHILA, pardon from severe penalty. It’s akin to commutation of a sentence. The sin doesn’t disappear, but we mitigate its impact.  

Missing from our blessing is the highest level of clemency, KAPPARA, atonement, erasure of the sin. There are commentaries who explain that KAPPARA is assumed in the next blessing, GE’ULA, redemption. I believe that we don’t ask for KAPPARA on a daily basis. This level of amnesty is reserved for Yom Kippur. It’s important to maintain our fear and trepidation of sin throughout the year. We reserve our begging for this special gift of God, for the anniversary of the revelation of the 13 Attributes of Compassion while forgiving the sin of the Golden Calf. 

These two blessings are a daily reminder of the spiritual dangers lurking in our world. We must commit on a regular to tread carefully on the path of life. We recognize that we need God’s help in this project. 


About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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