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Posted on November 22, 2015 By Rabbi Yaakov Feldman | Series: | Level:


This principle provides us with a unique opportunity to explain our concept of “spiritual excellence”. Simply because it uses terms that are so off-putting to the modern mind and have us forget the Torah’s spiritual basis. Terms like “the seriousness of each sin” in the title for example, as well as the idea of suffering “punishment” for our misdeeds.

Most of us reject such terms. We might describe them as somehow Non-Jewish, Medieval, or a throwback to a different age with different values than our own. And some might even be so taken aback by them that they reject the Torah’s system of holiness and “spiritual excellence” altogether, G-d forbid. So allow us this diversion.

Rather than translate Hebrew terms like “onesh” for example as “punishment” (which is its usual rendition), I translate it as “consequence”. And I speak of “suffering the consequences” of having erred or sinned rather than enduring punishment for it.

It’s a subtle difference, but a vital one, I’m convinced. And I do that for a number of reasons.

Primarily because it’s clear to all of us that everyone enjoys or suffers the consequences of *everything* he or she does. And that nothing we do goes unreacted to.

My moving a paper clip across a desk has its consequences, to use a silly example, simply because *as a consequence of having done that* I’d changed the layout of my desk to some degree, and would have to adjust to that. My having eaten fruit for lunch has its consequences, simply because that affects my digestion a certain way, and also because it necessarily implies that I hadn’t eaten protein. And on and on.

The point is that everything we do has its consequences– petty, grandiose, or somewhere in between. And that while some of those consequences are benign or minor, others are serious. My having had *spoiled* fruit for lunch, for example, would likely lead to indigestion or illness.

The person in pursuit of spiritual excellence would understand that his or her moral actions also have their consequences. And that those consequences play themselves out in our soul and in our entire beings.

Simply because I’m no longer the person I once was now that I’ve done thus and such. I’m either somewhat besmirched or somewhat blessed– *as a consequence of having done it*.

Rabbeinu Yonah’s point is that the sensitive soul who’s indeed in search of spiritual excellence would do well to know the consequences of his or her errors. And would gauge his or her options accordingly.

After all, if I’m bound to lose my appetite for what’s expected to be a delightful and bountiful dinner by having a sandwich late in the afternoon, I’d forgo the sandwich. The loss– the “punishment” of having had that sandwich (i.e., missing out on that dinner)– would simply be too great. And it just wouldn’t be worth it.

Put spiritually, if the lie I might tell, or the act of petty thievery I might engage in will separate me from G-d to one degree or another (which it will), I as a person of spiritual sensitivity would simply not want to endure that. And I’d either not do it, or I’d do teshuva for having done it in the past, and thus return to G-d.

I use terms like “consequences” rather than punishment for another reason as well.

In the course of the years I’ve been studying, teaching, and writing about Mussar (the art and science of spiritual excellence) I’ve come to understand that while most of us are certainly willing to acknowledge that we’re capable of lowness and meanness, we’re likewise aware that we’re capable of loftiness and greatness as well.

The great and holy works of Mussar like our current one, “The Gates of Repentance”, and the ones we hope to get to in the course of our studies together, like “The Duties of the Heart”, “The Path of the Just”, and “Eight Chapters” recognize that dichotomy, too.

Their righteous authors knew only too well the depths and heights of human reach. But they wrote in eras *far* more attuned to spiritual stature than our own. And they addressed readers who could claim to know righteous and holy individuals up close, which few of us today can.

As such, the original readers of these holy works knew what they could attain– and knew as well how off the mark they themselves might be in comparison. So they were less inclined to be uncomfortable with terms like “punishment” and “the seriousness of sins”, simply because they placed them in a spiritual context, and had living examples from whom to cull.

For unlike many of us, they understood that what matters most is achieving spiritual excellence and thus drawing close to G-d Almighty. And that is what they strove for. Were we to make those our goals, we too would understand the terminology often used in Mussar texts, and we too would want to “examine, know, and recognize the seriousness of each sin” so as to avoid them.

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