Saturday, August 11, 2012

Thoughts on Berachot 10a: Condemn the Sin, NOT the Sinner

This past Shabbat's daf, introduces us to Bruriah, the sagacious wife of Rabbi Meir. In the story recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Meir was being harassed by a Biryoni, some type of outlaw, so he prayed that this man should die. Bruriah retorted with an interpretation of the concluding verse from Tehillim Chapter 104. She pointed out that the verse does not say, "Let hot'im (sinners) cease". Rather it is written, "Let hatta'im (sins) cease". Furthermore, the verse continues, "and let the wicked men be no more" which is superfluous. Bruriah asked that if there will no longer be sinners then of course the wicked would be no more! Rather Bruriah deduced that instead of praying for the death of sinners, the verse is teaching us that we should pray that they do Teshuva so that sin is removed from the world and there will be no more wickedness.

This brilliant interpretation teaches us a profound distinction. We are enjoined to hate the sin but not the sinner. The sinner does not need to be defined by his bad deeds. Rather, he is inherently a good person who has made bad choices and fallen into sin. This is confirmed later in the daf when we learn that every person has a Neshama Tehora, a pure soul, within him or her. This soul remains pure for the entire lifespan of a person even if the person has fallen into impure sinful actions.

This approach to humanity is profoundly different from the approach of other religions, lehavdil. We do not believe that man is born inherently sinful. Rather, man is created with a pure soul that remains pure. It is his actions that can become sinful but this does not need to define him as a person.

This has an important halakhic application. Maimonides in Mishne Torah Hilkhot Gerushin, Chapter 2, Halakha 20 describes the Halakha that although a forced Get, divorce document, is pasul, Beit Din can threaten a recalcitrant man who refuses to give his wife a Get with physical harm until he consents to give her the Get. How could such a Get given under duress possibly be kosher?

Rambam explains:
With regard to this person who [outwardly] refuses to divorce [his wife] - he wants to be part of the Jewish people, and he wants to perform all the mitzvot and eschew all the transgressions; it is only his evil inclination that presses him. Therefore, when he is beaten until his [evil] inclination has been weakened, and he consents [to the divorce], he is considered to have performed the divorce willfully.

This Rambam reflects the idea that every Jewish person is considered to be inherently a good and pure person with the best of intentions. Really such a person would of course want to do the right thing. It is only his yetzer hara, his evil inclination, which compels him to act otherwise. So by Beit Din threatening harm, they are merely helping this Jew do what he really deep down wants to do. They are helping him do the right thing.

This is a very important lesson to realize in parenting and teaching. One should never call a child a bad child. Rather one should say that he might have done a bad thing, but that does not mean that he is a bad person. I have heard many stories of great rabbis who disciplined their children when necessary while reflecting this essential understanding. They would say to their child something like "You are better than that" or "That is not like a mensch like you".

This is not just a good parenting strategy. It is the Emet. Every Jew is born with a pure soul. We might sin and do the wrong thing sometimes but we should never let this define us as a person. Like Bruriah who took David Hamelech's example from Tehillim, let us pray that sins should be removed from the world so that there will no longer be wickedness and we will all reach the full potential that Hashem has in store for us.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. You're talking about jewish people only.... But when, I'm reading Beruria, it seems that she's talking about any human no?