Putting the Squeeze on Sin
"It is found in the Midrash," the holy Rebbe of Belz used to
there is a mountain just outside the Land of Israel called the Mountain
of Faith. When Moshiach arrives, the Jews will encounter this mountain
on the verge of entering the Land. They will stop there, and sing song to
Hashem, and then they will enter the Holy Land."
Why, he asked, if they are already so close, would they not put off their
song for a few more moments, in order that the song be sung in Israel,
and not on the impure soil of the Diaspora?
The Torah, in commanding us to take the Four Species on Sukkos,
writes (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40), "You shall take for yourselves on the
first day, the fruit of a beautiful tree (Esrog), branches of a date palm
(Lulav), braided tree branches (Hadasim), and brook willows (Aravos)." The
Midrash (Tanchuma Emor 22) asks:
Why does the Torah refer to the "first day?" Isn't Sukkos on the fifteenth
day (of Tishrei)? It is called "first," because it is the first day for
the counting of sins.
The Tur (Orach Chaim 581) explains that on Yom Kippur we were
absolved of our sins. Since then, we have been so busy getting ready for
Sukkos that there was no time to sin. In this sense, Sukkos is the "first
day that sins are counted," for the coming year.
Aside from the obvious discomfort some of us may feel at having
squeezed-in a sin or two over the past few days in seeming
contravention of this principle, we might also ask why the Torah would
go out of its way to mark the date from when the sin-tally commences.
Is this cause for celebration? Also, why does the Midrash refer to the
first day of the reckoning of sins, as opposed to the first day sins are
The holy Kedushas Levi, R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov zt"l, explained that
the Gemara (Yoma 86b) teaches that depending on the type of
repentance (teshuva), different types of absolution are granted. One who
does teshuva out of fear (of punishment), any intentional sins he has
committed are given the status of accidental sins. There's still a blemish,
it's just a lot smaller. One, however, who repents not out of fear but out
of love for Hashem and extreme regret for having done something that
displeased Him, not only are his sins completely forgiven - they are
commuted to mitzvos!
At first glance, this concept seems difficult to understand. Forgiveness is
something we can grasp; we express regret, remorse, we accept not to
sin again, and we are forgiven. It's something we practice with our
children and our friends all the time. While Divine forgiveness is far more
complex, the concept is a familiar one. But what is the logic, and indeed
where is the justice, in taking sins and converting them into mitzvos -
thereby increasing the sinner's reward due to his having sinned!
When one repents out of fear for punishment, he wishes nothing more
than to bury his sins beneath the ground and pretend they never
happened. Teshuva me-ahava, repentance borne by love, has nothing to
do with sweeping the dirt under the carpet. It's not even like giving the
dirt a really good scrubbing. Love motivates the penitent to revisit his
sins - time and time again - not to agonize over them, but rather to
examine them and extract an important lesson; the extent of his desires,
and the lengths he's willing to go to achieve them. The insight that can
be gained by analyzing our least-auspicious moments has the potential to
transform the passion and desire to sin into a holy fire that burns to
study Torah and do mitzvos with more zest, energy, and enthusiasm than
we may ever have realized had we never sinned. This is why (Berachos
34b), "Where the penitent stand, even the most righteous can't stand."
Perhaps, then, it is not that through teshuva out of love one's sins are
per se converted to mitzvos gratis. Rather the teshuva me-ahava process
elevates and rectifies the sins by allowing the ba'al teshuva to grow in
his service of Hashem and achieve far greater levels than he would have
During the Days of Awe, from the beginning of Elul until after Yom
Kippur, the teshuva process is generally undertaken out of fear of the
approaching Days of Judgement. We repent, but since it is driven by fear,
we do not yet have the opportunity to take our pitfalls and turn them
into merits. When Sukkos - "zeman simchaseinu/the time of our joy"
arrives, we rejoice with the Yom Tov's special mitzvos like no other time
of the year. It is only then that we are fully able to strive for the
higher level of teshuva, through love, through which sins become credits.
This is what the Midrash means, says the Kedushas Levi, when it refers to
Sukkos as "the first day that sins are counted," i.e. it is the first time
that we go back and "count up" our sins that we previously swept under the
rug; we examine them, take out of them what we can, and hopefully
become better Jews as a result.
The Ba'al Shem Tov uses this concept to explain the verse (Jeremiah
50:20), which, speaking about Moshiach's times, says, "In those days and
at that time, says Hashem, the iniquity of Israel will be sought, but it
will not be there, the transgressions of Judah, but they will not be
found; for I will forgive those whom I allow to remain." If Israel's sins
will be forgiven, he asks, then why go looking for them? He answers: To
convert them into mitzvos!
Yet this begs the question: If they're being sought in order to convert
them into mitzvos, why does Scripture state that they won't be found?
"So remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil
days come, and those years arrive of which you will say, 'I have no
pleasure in them.' (Koheles/Ecclesiastes 12:1)" The Ramban
(Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:6) writes that the "days of no pleasure" refers
to the period of Moshiach. They are called this, because we will no
longer desire worldly pleasure, and keeping the Torah will become easy
and matter-of-fact. The verse warns us that we should remember our
Creator in "the days of our youth" - before Moshiach's times, for now we
have the opportunity to perfect ourselves and hopefully accumulate
reward in the World to Come. Once Moshiach arrives, free-will will
lapse, and that opportunity will be gone forever.
Perhaps this is what the Ba'al Shem Tov meant. In those times, when we
no longer have to contend with the yetzer hara (perverse inclination), we
would very much like to re-examine our previous sins, grow through
them, and convert them into mitzvos. But we will have missed our
chance. Once the challenge is gone, there is no longer a need, nor a
benefit, in teshuva, and the opportunity to earn reward ceases to exist.
It is a scary thought.
This is why, says the Belzer Rav, before entering the Land, we will stop
to sing song on the Mountain of Faith. We realize that once we enter
Israel in the Messianic state, there will be no more opportunities for
trials and challenges, no more tests of our faith, which at times made us
feel so bleak and distant. From then on, we will serve Hashem with
clarity and vision. There will be no need to buffer our hearts against the
onslaught of unanswered questions and doubts that plagued us in the
past. And we realize that in a way, we will miss it. We will miss the
opportunity to believe in Hashem even when life was so difficult. And we
will take one last moment to sing to Hashem - from hearts full of faith on
the Mountain of Faith - before we enter the Land of Clarity.
While we anxiously await Moshiach's arrival every day, this Sukkos it's
important to remember the galus-specific opportunity of teshuva with
Wishing our readers a most joyous Yom Tov.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org