By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld | Series: | Level:

Regarding this matter (the concept that G-d ‘hardens the heart’ of unrepentant sinners, withholding from them the possibility of repentance), the Prophets and righteous beseech G-d in their prayers to help them along the proper path. This is as David said, ‘Instruct me in Your ways’ (Psalms 27:11). Meaning, let not my sins hold me back from the path of truth, so that from it I will know Your ways and the oneness of Your Name. And so too that which he said ‘…and with a giving spirit sustain me’ (51:14). Meaning, allow my spirit to do its will and don’t cause my sins to hold me back from teshuva (repentance). Rather, let free will be in my hands until I return, understand and know the proper path. Along the same lines is everything similar to these verses.

This week’s paragraph in the Rambam is a bit cryptic but continues the theme of the previous few paragraphs. The Rambam earlier discussed the concept that G-d at times removes a person’s free will — when a person has become so thoroughly wicked that it is evidently clear he has no interest in improving his ways and returning to G-d. When that point is reached, G-d may stop gently (or even strongly) prodding such a person to repent. He may instead remove the person’s ability to repent in order to fully punish him, giving him once and for all just what he’s been asking for. In the case of Pharaoh, G-d hardened his heart in order to unleash the full might of His plagues upon Egypt — demonstrating to the world over just who the G-d of Israel is.

Here the Rambam uses this principle to explain several verses in the Scriptures. King David many times asks G-d to lead him upon the proper path in life, to grant him a good spirit, to instruct him how to behave, etc. Now, most such things are really not for G-d to freely hand us. Our task in life is to find the proper path and improve our spirits. We cannot just ask G-d to grant us such things for free. Yet David appears to constantly beseech G-d for such free handouts: “Create for me a pure heart, oh L-rd, and an upright spirit renew within me” (Psalms 51:12). Isn’t that almost asking G-d to fulfill our life’s mission for us through no effort of our own?

To this the Rambam explains that David was not simply asking G-d for a freebie, that G-d magically perform his personal growth for him. Rather, he was asking that his sins not interfere with his own ability to improve. Do not let my sins take away my clarity of perception, giving me a clouded, impure heart. Do not harden my heart on account of my faults, making it impossible for me to return to the upright path.

One point which becomes clear from David’s prayers is that this hardening of the heart is not limited to the most heinous of sinners. Although as we saw earlier G-d only removes the free will of the worst among us — which King David was most certainly not, the same phenomenon can occur even to the righteous in a much more subtle manner. G-d was not about to actively remove David’s ability to repent, but his sins might have very slightly clouded his ability to correctly understand himself. They may have dulled him to his faults or biased him in favor of his current behavior. Once we can no longer be objective about ourselves, it is extremely hard to recognize our flaws and improve. David prayed and prayed again that G-d never remove his aptitude for true introspection.

The Talmud (Brachos 10a) records the following incident. There were certain ruffians who lived in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood and who caused him much aggravation. R. Meir could no longer tolerate them and began praying to G-d that they die. His wife, the well-known scholar Beruriah (quoted several times in Talmudic literature), criticized him. Rather than pray that they die, why not pray that they repent? In fact, Psalms 104:35 states, “May sins cease from the earth, and the wicked will be no longer.” The verse does not state that sinners (“chotim”) should cease, but sins (“chata’im”) should cease. R. Meir heeded his wife’s advice, prayed that they repent, and so they did.

The episode is heartwarming, not least because it’s an excellent example of Beruriah’s ability to apply the feminine touch to rabbinical scholarship, to very positive effect. But there are some basic problems with it. First of all, Beruriah’s main point is not correct. It is quite clear throughout Psalms that “chata’im”, though technically translated as “sins”, is used to refer to sinners. As my teacher R. Moshe Eisemann pointed out, one need not go farther than 1:1 — “…and in the way of sinners (‘chata’im’) he did not stand…” — for evidence of this.

Second of all, how can one person pray that another one repent? If I pray to G-d for such, does it mean G-d will control the other person’s mind and make him repent? But doesn’t that fly in the face of free will — the subject of the last two chapters of the Rambam? As we know, G-d does not make us be good or bad; it is up to us: it depends how we exercise our own free will. This is the entire principle of free will which the Rambam spent so much time expounding upon. Yet now we have the Talmud telling us that R. Meir prayed that some local thugs repent and it succeeded? Does sincere prayer annul the entire principle of free will?

My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig offered the following answer. No, we cannot pray that G-d change someone else’s mind or force him to improve. But G-d can do one thing — and it takes us right back to the Talmud’s ambiguous use of the word “sin/sinner”.

In a bit of a simplification, we can distinguish between two types of sinners — those who are okay people who merely slip, and those who really become the sins that they do. Most of us sin more than we’d like, but that is not who we are. We are good people — honestly; we just sometimes act in ways inconsistent with our values, with the way we know we should and deep down wish we would behave

There are other people, however, for whom sin has become such a way of life that it becomes who they are. They are not just good people who slip; they are sinners through and through. Sin has become their essence. Such people Psalms refers to as “sins”. When a person’s bad behavior becomes him, he can be described as the bad behavior itself. Thus, such people are “sins” (“chata’im”), not merely “sinners” (“chotim”). They are not people who do sins, but people who are the sins that they do.

And these are the type of people King David berates in Psalms — not good people who engage in bad behavior, but people who become their bad behavior. Such people are walking sins, evil incarnate. And they must be shunned, ostracized, castigated, and ultimately destroyed. David uses the word “sins” to refer to “sinners” — but only when those sinners really are sins themselves.

This is what Beruriah meant when she criticized her husband. David only meant real sinners should be destroyed. And is that really the case with those “garden variety” troublemakers in their neighborhood? Are they really evil incarnate? Or are they just a bunch of good-for-nothings who spent their lives hanging out, who never really matured enough to think about life. Maybe they had lousy, abusive upbringings. Perhaps they have been using the street as a refuge from life, as a way to pass the time without ever really having to come to grips with who they have become.

And if that is the case, which Beruriah, better than her husband, rightly sensed, R. Meir can pray for them. Of course, he cannot pray that G-d make them repent: that is up to them and their own free will. But he can pray for one thing — that they perceive themselves properly. Just as King David prayed so often that his sins not cloud his perception of right and wrong, R. Meir could pray that the local toughs see themselves for who they really are. Let them not be fooled into thinking they are sins incarnate — as R. Meir almost did. Let them recognize that they are really human beings, possessing beautiful souls, who have just allowed themselves to be drawn in the wrong direction, who just never really stopped to think who they are and how great they can be. And once G-d grants them that gift of self-perception, once they recognize the beauty of their inner souls, they can so easily take control and start anew.

This is one of the great lessons which emerges from the Rambam this week. We cannot pray that G-d do all our hard work for us. But we can pray to Him for clarity. Let us see ourselves for who we really are. Most of what holds us back in life is not wickedness but plain old low self-esteem. We lack the ability to recognize our greatness and our potential for growth. We become accustomed to our flaws. We do not see ourselves as people capable of change, of doing great things. And this, like the vast, vast majority of all our shortcomings, are only in our mind. With only the briefest flash of heavenly inspiration, of true self-knowledge, we are capable of worlds of growth, of becoming the people who we know deep down we really can be.

Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and