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Parashat Masei: "Therefore Does He Instruct Sins in the Way (Tehillim 25:8)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion



This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.


ParAshat Masei



Rav Itamar Eldar



            In parashat Masei we read about the laws that govern a person who committed inadvertent manslaughter, and learn about the cities of refuge that are set aside for his protection before and after his trial:


Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you come over the Jordan into the land of Canaan; then you shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer who kills any person unawares may flee thereto. And they shall be to you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment… Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments: and the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he has fled: and he shall abide in it until the death of the High Priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. (Bamidbar 35:10-25)


            The biblical commentators already discussed the spiritual state of a person who committed inadvertent manslaughter in the first place where the Torah relates to such a case:


He that smites a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death. And if a man did not lie in wait, but God allowed it to happen to him, then I will appoint you a place to which he shall flee. (Shemot 21:12-13)


            Rashi cites from the Midrash as follows:


"But God allowed it to happen to him" – But why should this go forth from Him? This is just what David tells us: "As says the proverb of the ancient 'Wickedness proceeds from the wicked' (I Shemuel 24:13)…


            In the continuation, Rashi offers an explanation of this ancient proverb, but according to its plain sense, the proverb is trying to deal with the pungent expression, "But God allowed it to happen to him." For if the Torah itself "accuses" God of murder, or at least of causing it to happen through the inadvertent killer, why should the latter be punished? The Midrash offers an answer: "Wickedness proceeds from the wicked." That is to say, that it was not by chance that God arranged that this particular person should commit inadvertent manslaughter, for he deserved to have been placed in that position on account of his previous conduct, actions, and the like.[1] This is also how the matter is understood by the Rebbe of Cracow, the author of the Ma'or va-Shemesh:


The idea is that when a person commits an inadvertent transgression, and certainly a severe transgression like manslaughter, though he acted inadvertently, nevertheless the blemish is exceedingly great. This only happened to him because he had committed transgressions from the outset, and did not set his heart to repent from them. Therefore one transgression led to another transgression, until this great transgression, namely manslaughter, came to his hands. As our Rabbis of blessed memory explained in tractate Makkot regarding the verse, "But God allowed it to happen to him": "As says the proverb of the ancient 'Wickedness proceeds from the wicked.'" (Ma'or va-Shemesh, Masei)


            The direction taken by both Chazal and the Ma'or va-Shemesh is to examine the past of the inadvertent killer and reveal that he is not an innocent lamb, who by chance, fell into this situation of inadvertent manslaughter. God directs His providence in such a manner that one who has sinned encounters other sins against his will, in the manner of "A person is led along the path that he wishes to follow."


            Even though we are dealing here with the specific and severe transgression of manslaughter, this solution seems to cast light on the entire concept of inadvertent sin, the argument being that inadvertent sin gives expression to a spiritual and practical blemish. Thus, it should not be seen as a one-time, accidental event, which does not teach about and reflect the spiritual personality of the sinner. If a person inadvertently desecrates Shabbat, it falls upon him to examine his actions and ask himself why it is that God allowed this sin to happen to him.[2]


Sin Blemishes


            The Sefat Emet goes off in an entirely different direction in his attempt to deal with the problem of the punishment of the inadvertent killer. He says as follows:


In the Midrash regarding cities of refuge: "Good and upright is the Lord: therefore does He instruct chataim in the way (Tehillim 25:8)." The Gemara infers from the verse: "The chataim will be consumed out of the earth" (Tehillim 104:35) – chotim ("sinners") is not written, but rather chataim ("sins"). This verse should be read in a similar manner: "Therefore does He instruct sins in the way." For sin leaves an impression, as the Sages of blessed memory have said that every sin gives rise to a destructive force (mashchit). This teaches that the punishment for sin comes not only for having rebelled against God, for the sin itself gives rise to a destructive force. Therefore, even an inadvertent sinner requires repair, and this is by way of exile. As my revered grandfather of blessed memory said about what it says that Betzer is a city of refuge – when he is in narrow straits (kebetzar). For God, blessed be He, provided cities of refuge for one who knows that he has no place because a great sin like this of killing a person befell him. This itself gives him a place, for God, blessed be He, provides a place for someone who lacks it. But when a person relies on such a place, he is not given it, etc. We see then that a person's primary place is knowing that he has no place. This itself is a repair of the sin; in accordance with his regret before God and his inability to find a place, so too his sin and the destructive force find no place, and God, blessed be He, gives a place to all of them. This is: "Therefore does He instruct sins, etc." And in the book Tomer Devora of Rav Moshe Cordevero, he writes that this is a great act of lovingkindness on the part of God, blessed be He, that he gives a place to the destructive force that arises out of a person's sin." (Sefat Emet, Masei 5634)


            The Sefat Emet opens with an important distinction made in a different context.


            When R. Meir's hooligan neighbors disturbed his rest, he wanted to curse them, but his wife Beruriya directed his attention to the verse: "The chataim will be consumed out of the earth" (Tehillim 104:35), noting that the verse refers to chataim ("sins"), rather than chotim ("sinners"). Therefore, one ought to pray for the removal of sin from the world, but not for the removal of the sinners. In other words, Beruriya reproached her husband, saying: Why do you pray for the death of these sinners, rather than for their full repentance?[3]


            The distinction between sin and sinner, in the context of the incident involving Beruriya and R. Meir, benefits the sinner, for it establishes that sin and sinner are not identical, or in other words, it is not the sinner, but rather his sins that constitute the evil. Thus, the road of repentance lies before the sinner, and from the moment that he desists from his actions, his sins will be consumed, and he will cease to be called a sinner. This is the most wonderful opening to repentance, that a person is defined according to his actions, and therefore his actions draw him close and his actions set him apart.


            The Sefat Emet makes use of the same distinction, but he deepens it. And it is this deepening that gives rise this time to a great stringency regarding the sinner, one that is sharply revealed with respect to the inadvertent sinner.


            As we have seen, both Chazal and the Me'or va-Shemesh try to explain the exile to the city of refuge imposed upon the inadvertent sinner, despite the fact that his offense was unintended, with the assumption that this inadvertence is itself a sort of punishment for the killer's previous conduct.


            The Sefat Emet goes off in a different direction. The inadvertent sinner does not have "a criminal record," and the inadvertence is total. However, the distinction between intentional and unintentional sin relates to the two-fold nature of sin. One level may be designated as the level of discipline. The intentional sinner rebels against God, breaks His word, and disobeys His command. The punishment for such behavior is a sanction imposed on him "who has rebelled against God," as the Sefat Emet puts it. This level relates not to the sin itself, but to the sinner. It is the person who sins when he rebels against God, and he is punished for this rebellion.


            The second level is the ontological level. On this level, the Sefat Emet sets the sinner aside and deals with the sin itself. Sin, asserts the Sefat Emet, has real substance, and therefore, one who sins gives rise to a destructive force, as the Sefat Emet puts it.[4]


            Sin, according to this understanding, creates a real dynamic and occurrence in the world.[5] Sin gives rise to a certain atmosphere that is born out of the act, but from the moment that it exists in the world, it itself gives rise to actions of its own. A group of scoffers who assemble together create an atmosphere and give rise to a dynamic, but from the moment that these are created, they themselves influence the group, vitalize it, and serve as a source of inspiration even for those who have just joined the group.


            This level relates to the sin and what results from it, the "destructive force" that comes into the world as a result of the sin. Thus, this level does not relate to the sinner, but to the objective world that is sullied by the birth of the sin and its entry into the world.


            The Sefat Emet goes one step further than Beruriya and says that the prayer, "Let the sins be consumed," does not seek that the sinner should cease performing his sinful acts, but rather that the "destructive forces" – the negative energy that comes into the world in the aftermath of the sin itself - should be destroyed.


            This level does not relate to the sinner, and therefore the question of intention is irrelevant. The question whether the creation of the "destructive force" is intentional or unintentional has no ramifications regarding the need to destroy the force that was created. From this perspective, even the inadvertent sinner requires great repair, and the question of intention has no impact on the need to deal with the existential implications of the sin.




            The inadvertent sinner, then, requires repair, both he and his sin, and even the destructive force arising from that sin. All these are repaired through the sinner's exile to a city of refuge. Here we come to the Sefat Emet's great novelty: "For God, blessed be He, provided cities of refuge for one who knows that he has no place because a great sin like this of killing a person befell him."


            The inadvertent sinner loses his place, as the Sefat Emet writes also in a different teaching:


Regarding the verse: "The child is not, and where shall I go?" (Bereishit 37:30). We find that Reuven opened first with repentance. And therefore the prophet Hoshea who descended from Re'uven also opened with repentance. For this is perfect repentance which finds no place or existence in the world alongside sin. (Sefat Emet, Vayeshev, 5664)


            We are dealing with a psychological experience that drives the repentance process – the feeling of a loss of place.


            In order to understand this process, let us begin with the inadvertent sinner, and then move on to all sinners, as is implied by the Sefat Emet in Parashat Vayeshev, which is not necessarily talking about an inadvertent killer.


            Someone who inadvertently commits a sin, and certainly the sin of manslaughter, enters into an undefined category. On the one hand, he is not a murderer, and he doesn't belong in jail with premeditated killers. On the other hand, he cannot get up in the morning as does any other person, as if nothing has happened. Something happened because of him, an injustice was performed in the world, a destructive force came into being. How then can he continue with his ordinary routine?[6] Where does he belong? Is his place among the righteous who have never sinned, or perhaps he belongs in the company of those who have sinned against God and made Him angry?


            Such a person experiences detachment, an absence of place, a lack of belonging. The sin that God allowed to happen through him turned him into a person who has no place, no definition, and no belonging – he has lost his resting place and his inheritance. The Sefat Emet teaches us that when this person loses his inheritance, in a certain sense he gets to sit in the company of others who also lack an inheritance – the Levites. And just as they, in the absence of an inheritance, merit a different type of inheritance, in the sense of God being their inheritance, so too such a person whose sin has caused him to lose his place and his inheritance, merits that God should be his inheritance.


A city of refuge is the habitation of those who are homeless, who cannot properly be catalogued. It is the place of those in search of an inheritance, after a terrible sin had ousted them from their land and their clear, stable, and well-defined place.


In the wider sense, this is true regarding every sinner and ever transgressor, when he wakes up from the stupor of sin. He contemplates his sin, the new situation in which he finds himself following his sin, the atmosphere surrounding him, and all those destructive force that surround him and stand him up at this time, against his will - even if just a short moment ago, he intentionally cooperated with them - in a world with which he does not identify, and in which he does not feel at ease, a world from which he is estranged and alienated. He lacks a place and has no identity.


Am I that person? Are those garments that I have been wearing in the aftermath of may actions really my garments? Where am I?, he asks himself, searching for an outstretched hand and a place.[7]


The Sefat Emet asserts that just as sin creates a reality and a place in which a person dwells, so the feeling of a lack of place, a lack of belonging, the loss of one's home, are actualized in the form of a place, namely, the city of refuge: "A person's primary place is knowing that he has no place."


The experience of sin, teaches us the Sefat Emet, is an experience of loss of place, and it is precisely this detachment that stands a person before God – God being his inheritance. The experience of being uprooted, of being severed from the well of living waters, and of being afraid that "anyone that finds me shall slay me" (Bereishit 4:14), stand a person up against God, as one who shelters himself in His shadow, for he has no other haven: "For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in" (Tehillim 27:10).


A person who sins becomes alienated from his surroundings, from his friends and family. All he has is his Father in heaven who gathers him in and receives him with lovingkindness. However, the condition for taking shelter under the wings of the Shekhina, is readiness to waive all other places and absolutely devote himself to the experience of the absence of place.


The foundation of repentance is the loss of one's way, the powerlessness, the almost despair. Any tiny gnawing at this total experience prevent a person from taking shelter in God's shadow, from reaching the city of refuge, as the Sefat Emet hints in our passage and as he states explicitly in a teaching in Parashat Vayeshev:


He explained the difference between them. For in truth a repentant sinner who knows that because of his sin he has no place – God, blessed be He, gives him a place, as it is stated: "Then I will appoint you a place to which he shall flee" (Shemot 21:13). This is Betzer that was given to repentant sinners. But if he relies on this it is called Betzara, for he relies on this place and then it does not provide refuge at all. (ibid.)


            Knowing from the outset and being aware of this knowledge that God is our inheritance, and that in the end He will gather us in under His wings, impair the experience of detachment, and prevent a person from dedicating himself to wandering and being prepared to march off into exile.[8]


            It is necessary to "forget," as it were, the knowledge that God will gather us in, so that we should totally lose the stability under our feet, and sin should totally undermine our place. Only then will we merit to be gathered in to the inheritance of God and will God's place become our place.




            The Sefat Emet wants to follow the path of Beruriya and read chataim, and not chotim. But here the verse is "Therefore does He instruct chataim in the way." Not the sinners, or at least, not only the sinners require guidance to the right way, but also the sins themselves, the world that comes into being in the wake of sin, need guidance to the city of refuge. The city of refuge becomes the dwelling place not only of the sinners, but also of the destructive forces created by the sins: "This itself is a repair of the sin; in accordance with his regret before God and his inability to find a place, so too his sin and the destructive force find no place, and God, blessed be He, gives a place to all of them. This is: 'Therefore does He instruct sins, etc.'"


            Also the destructive force, the negative energies that came into being in the wake of the sin, the atmosphere that arose around the sinner and the sin – all these need a home, a place, an inheritance. Their entire reality comes from their being connected to a place, a house, a person, a community. An atmosphere of scoffers requires a seat, and when the seat becomes scattered, the atmosphere becomes scattered as well. The sin and the destructive force arising from it need the sinner, his habitation, and his routine lifestyle in order to apply, to operate within them, to receive a garment and tools of influence.


When the sinner lacks a place, when he wanders from place to place, when he is uprooted, when he does not get up the morning after the sin as on any other day, when he does not continue his routine life, then neither does the destructive force find a place to hold fast to, and it too lacks a place. It does not become part of the world, because it itself brought the person to become cut off from the world, and the person's detachment from the world becomes the sin's detachment.


The person's return to the world will of necessity bring the destructive force to dwell in it as well, to operate within it and to blemish it. However, when a person is detached, when he is cut off from the world, when he has no place in the world, then also the destructive force does not find its place, and it has no way or ability to influence the world.


The feeling of detachment in the wake of sin, teaches us the Sefat Emet, is necessary in order to bring about the destruction of the destructive force and the dissolution of the atmosphere that arose in the aftermath of the sin. Immediate return to the regular course of life would perhaps allow a person to forget his sin, and return to the good path, but he and the world in the midst of which he lives would always carry with them the destructive force born in the wake of the sin, the excessive load that is cast upon his shoulders following the sin.


It is possible to ignore the negative energies, the atmosphere that I have created in the wake of my sin, but they can only be cancelled and destroyed when they are brought to the inheritance of God, to the place where they stand together with me before God – in the city of refuge.


            The return to normal routine may perhaps repair the person, the sinner, for it involves total severance from the sin; I am no longer a part of it, and it is no longer a part of me.[9] However, it does not repair the sin itself and the reality that has arisen in its wake. For that, it must remain a part of us, we must not cut ourselves off from it so quickly, we must feel its burden on our shoulders, and sense that this burden turns us into people without a home and without a place. Then God will gather us in to Him, us together with our sins - "and God, blessed be He, gives a place to all of them. This is: 'Therefore does He instruct sins in the way.'"

            These words contain important guidance regarding the path of repentance. Often a person stumbles in sins, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes intentionally. The instinctive wish is oftentimes to return to routine and forget the sin – this being the greatest repentance of all - to cut oneself off from the sin and to return to life. A person's ability to do this is based on the faith and the knowledge that God is his inheritance, that His gates are open to repentant sinners, and that His hands are stretched out to those who regret and repent from their sins.


According to the Sefat Emet, however, this involves a concession. Sin created certain circumstances and these circumstances will accompany the person even if he returns to the routine of his life, and precisely if he does so. Because that very atmosphere, that all-embracing feeling that accompanies a person who has sinned, becomes assimilated into his daily routine, dons garments within it, and sows its poisonous seeds, which one day will send forth roots that bear gall and wormwood.


According to the Sefat Emet, the sinner must experience the feeling of "where are you?" Where am I in the world?


He must feel as Kayin did that "anyone that finds me shall slay me." I left the warm and protective bosom of purity and holiness, and I was cast out, against my will – through inadvertence – or by choice – through intention, to a different place, in which I do not wish to dwell, where I do not find my place, where I cannot build my home. And I am searching for a place, I am searching for a home, I know not how I will return to my life, after I have fallen in this sin. Who will receive me? Who will be prepared to forget my sins, to ignore them, to accept me as new? And the destructive force that is merely looking for a place to dwell, the transient sin that is looking for a permanent home, that wishes to get used to the routine of that sinner who stumbled for a moment, that wishes to turn the sin, the feelings, and the energies that arose from it into the person's lot and an inseparable part of his personality, that very destructive force waits for that place that will allow him to actualize all of these, to build and to be built - but in vain! The person is detached and cast off, and with him the sin and whatever it has led to are also homeless, lacking attachment, together with the sinner.


The Sefat Emet teaches us that this "no place," this great space that has been created, this empty vessel that has become totally dry – this is the new place of that sinner, God being his inheritance.


Out of the tempest, out of the powerlessness, out of the lost way, he seeks for himself the city of refuge, he seeks a secure place, a place that will accept, contain, allow; and only God, in His lovingkindness, is ready to allow all of this to that sinner – God is his inheritance.


And then to the inheritance of God come also the sin, and the feeling, and the energy. All are gathered under the wings of the Shekhina, and become effaced in its light, and absorb its splendor. There is no more sin, and no more atmosphere, and no more negative energy. The light of repentance fills the person and allows him to build his home anew, little by little, brick by brick. In cleanliness, in renewal, without excessive and previous baggage - "Good and upright is the Lord: therefore does He instruct sins in the way."




[1] The Radak offers a similar explanation in his commentary to this verse in the book of Shemuel (24:14): "And our Rabbis of blessed memory have explained: 'The proverb of the ancient' – the proverb of the Ancient One of the universe, the Holy One, blessed be He. This is what the Torah says: 'But God allowed it to happen to him,' that is, he deserved to die, but good things are brought about through the agency of good people, and bad things are brought about through the agency of bad people." 


[2] As is well known, a sin-offering is brought only for inadvertent sins, but not for intentional transgressions.


[3] It seems that it could be said in general that when a person prays for the death of another Jew, no matter how wicked that other Jew is, he must ask himself whether he is motivated by the pure desire to improve the world or by anger and pride. It is not by chance that the Anshei Keneset ha-Gedola searched high and low before they found somebody who was fit to compose the "May the slanderers have no hope" blessing, which contains a prayer for the destruction of the wicked. They finally found Shemuel ha-Katan, who was known for his statement: "Rejoice not when your enemy falls" (Avot 4:19). Only he was fit to compose that unique and exceptional blessing.


[4] See also Degel Machane Ephrayim, Vaera, s.v. kaved: "… And from this sin there arose a destructive force and from that the plague of blood came upon him." And similar statements in many passages of Chassidic and kabbalistic thought.


[5] In kabbalistic-Chassidic terms, we can talk about a mashchit, destructive forces, mischievous angels, and the like. In the spirit of the East, we can talk about negative energies that operate in the world and surround us.


[6] In the case of inadvertent manslaughter, there is the objective level on which one person comes to harm because of another person, but even where there is no tangible injury to another party, e.g., where a person inadvertently turns on a light on Shabbat, we can still talk about an intermediate position, between an intentional Shabbat desecrator and one whose Shabbat is clean of all sin and transgression.


[7] In great measure, we can explain in this manner the question posed to Adam in the wake of his sin, "Where are you," he not knowing now where he was. And in great measure, we can interpret in the same way Kayin's wanderings, he having lost his place and being forced to wander to and fro across the earth.


[8] Therefore, on the halakhic plane, he who relies on a city of refuge may not derive benefit from it.


[9] Many who have dealt with repentance describe it as a process of severance from sin, and thus there is no need for atonement, because the sinner has already disassociated himself from his sin and is no longer connected to it.


(Translated by David Strauss)