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Is There an Unpardonable Sin?

  • Is There an Unpardonable Sin?

    Nitzavim - Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20, 31:1–30
D'var Torah By: 

Hands grasp railing behind bars in prison

Nitzavim, combined with the following parashah, Vayeilech, is one of the richest and most powerful in the entire Pentateuch. Our Reform practice is to reprise key verses from it in the morning service for Yom Kippur, so parts of it are likely to be extremely familiar. I would like to focus on one rather perplexing phrase that is not included in our Yom Kippur reading. It appears in chapter 29, verse 19, composed of five simple Hebrew words:

LoYoveh_narrow_65.png, (Lo yoveh Adonai s'lo-ach lo).

This is rendered in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition1 as, “The Eternal will never forgive such individuals,” and continues, “the Eternal’s anger and passion will rage against them.” This seems to be referring to an unforgivable offense, an unpardonable sin, which even sincere repentance will not mitigate. Is this really what the Torah teaches? Do we really believe in this? It is certainly a concept that is not very pleasant to ponder.

Knowledgeable Christians may well be familiar with this concept of an unforgiveable sin, for there is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that reads, “No sin, no slander, is beyond forgiveness, except slander spoken against the Holy Spirit, which will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man may be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit, will not be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:31–32). In classical Christian doctrine, then, the one unpardonable sin — even worse than speaking negatively about Jesus — is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit by denying its power to transform one’s life. Some understood this to be the sin of despair. But what does the phrase mean in our Jewish context?

Surprisingly, even though the language of this verse seems so absolute and extreme, the classical Rabbinic literature applied it to acts that would probably not strike us as the ultimate of infamy. In Tractate Sanhedrin (76b) of the Babylonian Talmud, we read that Rav Judah said in Rav’s name: “One who marries his daughter to an old man or takes a wife for his infant son, or returns a lost article to an idolater — concerning him Scripture says, ‘The Eternal will never forgive such individuals’.” In the Midrash Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer we find, “One who is lax about washing his hands ritually before eating — concerning him Scripture says, ‘The Eternal will never forgive such individuals.’ ” These rather quirky statements seem to have been made somewhat tongue in cheek, expressing a particular peeve of the moment that happened to get preserved in our classical texts.

Medieval Torah commentators wrestled with the passage more seriously. The passage in Nitzavim refers to the establishment of the covenant between God and the entire people of Israel. Right before our phrase, the Bible says, “Perchance there is among you some man or woman … whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God to go and worship the gods of those nations, … When [for example] a man hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart.’… The Eternal will never forgive such individuals. …” (Deuteronomy 29:17–19).

Abraham ibn Ezra paraphrased this dangerously misguided thinking as follows: “I’ll be OK, as I will survive through the merit of the righteous ones, for they are many and I am only a single individual who sins.” And here is another commentator, Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague: “Since the world is judged in accordance with the majority, the merit of the righteous will stand for me, and God will forgive me because of them.” In other words, the unpardonable sin is for me to shirk my responsibility to God and to other human beings by assuming there are enough good people out there for righteousness to prevail without me.

In a sense, such thinking reflects a situation opposite to what we encounter in the Book of Genesis. There, it was the problem of the good individual in a corrupt society: Noah in the generation of the flood, Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees, Lot in Sodom. Such loner individuals may think that nothing they can do will make a difference; there are so many people behaving sinfully that the tone is already set and it won’t help at all if an isolated person acts righteously.

Here in Deuteronomy it is the individual sinner, or shirker, in a basically decent society. “I don’t need to respond to a charitable appeal, I don’t need to support the synagogue, I don’t need to vote in the election, or write to my representative in Congress, I don’t need to be careful about the waste products that I throw away — there are others who will get the job done. Who is going to notice if I ‘follow my own willful heart,’ if I go my own way, if I indulge my own selfish impulses and desires?”

What this passage tells us is that God will notice, that God will not forgive this individual. Why? First, because one person does make a difference. The person in our parashah may be a rower in an eight-person crew who thinks he doesn’t need to train because the others are such good athletes, a violinist in a symphony orchestra who thinks she doesn’t need to practice because the others are such fine musicians, or a worker in a long assembly line. The truth is that the slacking of one individual may indeed undermine or even ruin the efforts of many.

And second, because if this individual slips by on the assumption that there are more than enough others who will do the right thing, everyone else would be entitled to draw the same subversive conclusion. There is a wonderful parable told by the 18th-century Maggid of Dubnow about the East European Jewish community that was always running short of wine on Purim; the leaders decided that they could guarantee there would be enough wine for everyone on Purim by having each adult pour a small cup of wine into a large barrel in the synagogue courtyard once a week. One of the Jews thinks to himself, “No one can see what I’m pouring into the barrel, and with all that wine, no one will notice if I pour in a cup of water instead.” And so, he did this throughout the year. When Purim came, the community discovered, to its horror and its shame, that the barrel was filled not with wine but with water — not because the one Jew’s water magically transformed all the wine, but because everyone turned out to have had the same idea.

At this time of year, we prepare to stand before God as part of a congregation, a community, a people — that indeed is how the parashah begins. But our individuality never gets submerged to the point where our unique identity is lost. Ultimately, we are accountable for ourselves. No one else can cover for us. It is only if each one of us fulfills our own obligations, our own potential, that the congregation, the community, the Jewish people , and  ultimately all beings living on this planet, may be able to flourish.

  1. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005), p. 1,374; based on the new Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) translation

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, after having taught Jewish Studies at American universities for 29 years (Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, George Washington University in D.C.), relocated in 2006 to England for a five-year term as Principal of Leo Baeck College. His recently completed book, Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution and Mass Murder, will be published by Hebrew Union College Press.

We Met at Sinai
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

Mount SinaiOn my first Shabbat in Jerusalem, I was at the Kotel with three other first-year Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) students when Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach walked up to us, wished each one of us “Gut Shabbes,” kissed us and said, “We met at Sinai.” The time, the place, and the rabbi all quickened my curiosity about this sublime greeting.

Thus we greet Nitzavim-Vayeilech.

The double portion begins, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 29:9). The text then specifies everyone possibly there  ̶  big tent Judaism’s inception. God’s purpose was for all “to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (29:11). God then stretched the big tent well beyond Mount Sinai: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (29:13-14).

Subsequent generations of the Jewish people understood this to mean that God established the covenant with every generation of the Jewish people through the study and observance Torah. But in times of oppression and suffering, for example when Jewish communities were decimated in the Crusades and deeper meaning was sorely needed, our rabbis found it in the above verses. They interpreted these verses mystically, proposing that every Jewish soul was present at Sinai, and subsequent generations of the Jewish people are reincarnated souls of those who once stood at Sinai. To the Jews who had suffered, reincarnation promised a better life in their next incarnation, along with the guarantee that their tormentors would return in their next incarnation as lesser life forms, subhuman, deservedly so.

Thank God, such times are not our fate. But our good fortune should not debunk this Jewish belief in reincarnation. Our tradition calls it gilgul ha-nefashot, the “circle of the souls.” At the very least, reincarnation offers us the opportunity to try and try again to get things right. At the most, the possibilities are infinite, all because we first met at Sinai.

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills in Pittsburgh, PA.

9/16/2017
Reference Materials: 

Nitzavim—Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 29:9−31:30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.1,537−1,554; Revised Edition, pp.1,372−1,394
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,217–1,250
Seventh Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 61:10−63:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.1,618−1,622; Revised Edition, pp. 1,382–1,385