Shiur #09: Nosei Avon Va-fesha Ve-chata’a

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            This shiur will deal with three different attributes, which the Torah combines with the shared verb of nosei (“forgives”) – “nosei avon va-fesha ve-chata’a” (“forgives iniquity, transgression and sin”).


One could have claimed that this phrase should in fact be counted as but a single attribute – “nosei chata’a” – and the words avon and pesha are simply synonymous with chata’a.  And even if we distinguish between the connotations of these three nouns, the act of nosei refers to only one act of kindness.  However, Chazal conveyed to us the tradition that these verses include thirteen attributes of mercy, thus compelling us to view this phrase as listing three distinct attributes, and to explain them as such.  The Ramban similarly notes in his Torah commentary, “Since forgiveness is not equivalent in [the cases of] iniquity, transgression and sin, but rather each features its special concept, each one is called an independent attribute.”  It therefore behooves us to explain the “special concept” within each of these three instances of forgiveness.


            Let us begin by addressing a different problem that occupied Chazal.  The Sages afforded great importance to the proper sequence of things.  The Gemara establishes rules regarding the sequence in which to perform multiple actions required at the same time (rules such as “tadir ve-she’eino tadir tadir kodem”), as well as the sequence of reciting berakhot and prayers (such as the berakhot in the amida service).  In Masekhet Yoma (35b), the Gemara discusses the sequence of the confessional text recited by the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur.  The Mishna records the text of, “Aviti, pashati, chatati lefanekha” (“I have acted iniquitously, transgressed and sinned before You”).  The Gemara cites a berayta which points to two instances in the Torah where this sequence – avon, pesha, cheit – is used in reference to sin.  In describing the kohen gadol’s confessional before dispatching the se’ir ha-mishtalei’ach (“scapegoat”), the Torah writes, “…and he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites, and all their transgressions including all their sins” (Vayikra 16:21).  The Gemara then cites the verse from the Thirteen Attributes – “nosei avon va-fesha ve-chata’a.”


            The Gemara then quotes a berayta, which attributes this sequence to the minority opinion of Rabbi Meir.  The majority view of the Chakhamim maintains that the kohen gadol confessed in the sequence of “chatati aviti u-fashati.”  The reason has to do with the precise meanings of these three terms.  The Chakhamim held that avonot denotes willful violations, while pesha’im refers to sins committed with the specific intent of rebellion and betrayal.  Finally, the term chata’a means unintentional violations.  Accordingly, the Chakhamim argued that the kohen gadol would confess in a sequence moving progressively from the less severe to the most severe: unintentional violations (chatati), intentional violations (aviti) and then acts of rebellion (pashati).  They point to a number of instances in Tanakh of confessions that followed this sequence (Tehillim 106:6, Melakhim I 8:47, Daniel 9:5).


            The problem with the Chakhamim’s view, however, is how they would explain the sequence in the phrase in the Thirteen Attributes – the phrase from which Rabbi Meir drew proof to his position.  Here, as mentioned, the sequence is avon, fesha, chata’a, with chata’a, the term which the Chakhamim understand to mean unintentional sins, listed last.  The Chakhamim answer this question as follows:


Moshe said before the Almighty: Master of the world!  At the time when Israel sin before You and repent, transform their willful violations into unintentional violations!


In order to justify the sequence in this verse, whereby shegagot (unintentional sins) appear last, after intentional sins and acts of rebellion, the Chakhamim introduce the concept of “transform their willful violations into unintentional violations.”  Rashi explains, “This is what [the verse] says: He forgives avon and pesha as a chatat – an unintentional violation.”


            It thus emerges that the term chatat appears at the end not because it is the third object of the verb nosei (“forgives”), but rather because it explains the forgiveness of the previous two kinds of sin – avon and pesha.  God forgives willful violations (avon) and acts of betrayal (pesha) – which the Torah lists in ascending order of severity – as though there were merely an unintentional violation (chata’a).  God’s “forgiveness” translates grave transgressions into accidental violations.


            This leaves us with three questions:


1)    According to this understanding of the phrase, we have only two attributes: nosei avon – God forgives avonot by treating them as unintentional violations; and nosei pesha – God forgives pesha’im by treating them as unintentional violations.  The enumeration of the Thirteen Attributes requires that we consider nosei avon va-fesha ve-chata’a as three attributes, and not just two.

2)    What does it mean that the Almighty forgives sins as though they were committed unintentionally?  This question actually consists of both a philosophical problem and a moral one.  Philosophically, how does a willful violation change into an inadvertent sin?  And morally, what is the purpose of this system?  If God wishes to forgive, then he should forgive completely.  Why is God’s attribute such that He views willful violations as shegagot, so that He reduces the severity of punishment without forgiving completely?  After all, shegagot also require atonement; the entire institution of korban chatat (sin offering) in the Temple applies to cases of unintentional sins.  How, then, do we explain the “partial” forgiveness achieved by this attribute?

3)    On the exegetical level, this reading is clearly not the plain meaning of the verse, according to which the verb nosei refers to three objects – avon, pesha and chata’a.  It appears that the Gemara’s reading entirely undermines the plain meaning, and is difficult to accept.


The Gemara concludes by ruling in accordance with the Chakhamim:


Rabba bar Shemuel said in the name of Rav: Halakha follows the view of the Chakhamim.  Is this not obvious – when the minority opposes the majority, Halakha follows the majority!  One might have contended that Rabbi Meir’s reasoning is more plausible, since the verse regarding Moshe [in the context of the Thirteen Attributes] supports him.  It therefore teaches [that Halakha nevertheless follows the view of the Chakhamim].


The Gemara clearly points to our verse as the primary reason to accept Rabbi Meir’s position.  Even after the Chakhamim suggested their reading, the Gemara still views this verse as a compelling reason to consider accepting Rabbi Meir’s view.


            Moreover, even after the halakhic ruling in accordance with the Chakhamim, the verse continues to support Rabbi Meir’s view:


A certain person went down [to lead the prayer service] in the presence of Rabba, and acted in accordance with Rabbi Meir.  He [Rabba] said to him, “You reject the Chakhamim’s view and act in accordance with Rabbi Meir?”

He said to him, “I hold like Rabbi Meir, as it written in the Torah of Moshe.”


            In order to understand the plain meaning of the verse according to the Chakhamim, and understand these three attributes, we must first explain the concept of “nosei avon.”  What is the meaning of this attribute, which comes on the heels of the nine previous attributes?  I would like to contend that this phrase marks a transition within the Thirteen Attributes, and brings us into an entirely different realm than the one in which the previous attributes operate.


            Until now, as I’ve emphasized on several occasions, the purpose of the attributes of kindness was to sustain the individual, to grant the sinner the possibility of existing by God’s will despite the sin.  The discussion revolved around the person, his life, his existence, and his ability to stand before God.  Now, however, the center has moved from the person, the one who committed the sin, to the sin itself.


            When a person sins, he forfeits his right to exist.  On a less extreme level, he deserves punishment.  The attributes serve to enable him to exist, to annul or at least mitigate his punishment.  The sin affects the person’s connection and relationship to God.  But the God of Mercy has the power to overcome the damage sustained by the relationship, and continue sustaining the individual.  However, in addition to the harm done to this relationship, and the person’s account with the Almighty, the sin has an intrinsic quality of its own.  According to Chazal, a sin does not merely anger God; it is something inherently negative.  Even if God would not care about the sin, it still contaminates the person himself, because the existence of sin in his life and in his personality has an adverse effect; it is harmful and destructive.  We find many different terms used to describe this aspect of sin: sin is filth, a stain, dirt, mud.  The Ramban speaks of how a sin “dulls” the soul.  This impact does not depend upon a person’s account with the Almighty.  One who has a sin on his record bears an overwhelming burden which accompanies him, and he suffers as a result.  Even once we reach the point where God will not punish us for our sins, the sin is still capable of damaging our soul, our world.


            It is here where the three attributes of “nosei avon va-fesha ve-chata’a” come into play.  After the successful effects of the previous attributes, we turn to the Almighty and declare: “It is good that I exist, but my spiritual health is at risk.”  We need God’s kindness to immunize us, to prevent the harmful impact of the sin within us.  The verse distinguishes between three different types of adverse effects caused by sin, corresponding to the three different types of sin – avon, pesha and chata’a.  The difference between them involves not only the level of severity (a quantitative difference), but rather the type of impact it has upon the individual; meaning, each category yields a different kind of effect (a qualitative difference).  If the difference related only to levels of severity, then the forgiveness would be one and the same for all thee kinds of sins, and we would have but one attribute, not three.  The Ramban comments that the manner of forgiveness differs with regard to an avon, pesha and chata’a.  This means that the Almighty forgives – or, in our formulation, “immunizes” against the effects of – each category in a different way.  When it comes to confession, the sequence is determined based on severity, because I confess for each sin in accordance with its degree of severity; the request for atonement likewise must address the gravity of the act committed.  Thus, in the viduy recitation, the sequence must certainly progress from the lightest to most stringent.  In the context of the Thirteen Attributes, however, we speak neither of confession nor of a request for forgiveness.  Rather, we speak of the request for protection against the harmful effects of sin.  Here, it is not the gradations of severity that determine the sequence, but rather the kind of harm caused, the kind of “poison” that the sin injects into a person’s reality.


            There are three different forms of harm caused by sin:


1) Avonot – intentional violations.  What is diminished by an intentional sin?  It damages goodness.  The world, the handiwork of the Almighty, embodies the divine good.  Sin is evil; it is a reality of evil, and its existence damages the divine goodness.  This is true both on the level of the world at large, and on the level of the miniature world – the person and his internal world.  Evil and sin damage and ruin goodness itself.  The world is less good than it was, and even the person himself, as a complete world of his own, is less good.  An existence that is not good is a deficient existence.  Thus, for example, Chazal claim that the Temple’s destruction had an adverse effect upon the flavor of fruits.  And the Torah describes the generation of the flood with the phrase, “Va-tishacheit ha-aretz” (“The earth was corrupted” – 6:11), which Chazal explained as referring to the harm caused to world’s natural order.  If even the biological and physical order is affected by the presence of evil, then certainly the spiritual order, the spiritual well-being of the world and the individual, is likewise harmed.


2) Pesha’im – acts of rebellion.  Rebellion, by definition, means opposing somebody or somebody’s authority.  Pesha’im, of course, are acts of rebellion against the kingship of the Almighty.  The Gemara, in citing Biblical sources for this meaning of the term pesha, points to instances of rebellion against kingdoms – Moav’s revolt against the Kingdom of Israel (Melakhim II 3:7), and the rebellion of Livna against the Kingdom of Yehuda (Melakhim II 8:22).  While avonot adversely affect the divine good, pesha’im adversely affect divine kingship.  One who intentionally commits a sin – and certainly one who sins inadvertently – does not infringe upon God’s kingship, because he had no intention to rebel against divine authority.  He did not position himself in opposition to the rule of the King of the world.  But some people transgress in order to rebel, to protest God’s authority.  Of course, every pesha also includes an avon – but not every avon includes a pesha.


            What, essentially, do we request with the attribute of nosei avon va-fesha?  A person sins, and then begins the process of repentance.  In the previous attributes, he requests survival; he does not address teshuva as a present reality.  But now, when the purpose is to minimize the damage caused to the divine good and divine kingship, the process of teshuva has at least begun to unfold.  The Gemara therefore places in Moshe’s mouth the words, “when Israel sin before You and repent…”  We ask God to neutralize the harmful impact of our sin.  How will He do that?  In Chazal’s words, He transforms them into shegagot.  The difference between willful or rebellious sins and inadvertent violations lay precisely in this point.  Shegagot are not evil by nature, because the transgressor had no intention to do evil, and certainly not to rebel.  The act is the same, but from the broader perspective there is a difference.  In the absence of evil intent, there is no harm caused to God’s goodness or His kingship.  I would obviously have preferred that God would forgive my sins altogether, but this is not up for discussion at the moment.  I am not trying now to save myself, but rather to prevent the harmful effects.  I therefore ask God to make my sins like shegagot, thereby preventing the metaphysical impact of my wrongdoing.


            You might ask, how does this happen?  With what force, with which attribute, does the Almighty protect and preserve the goodness and kingship from the effects of sin?  The answer is nosei avon va-fesha ve-chata’a.  “Nosei” literally means to “bear,” or “carry.”  God Himself bears the harmful effects we described above.  The damage caused to goodness, and, even more so, the damage caused to divine kingship, affect the Almighty.  But from the Almighty’s perspective, my sins cannot truly have an adverse effect, for God is boundless good and asserts absolute, unlimited kingship.  True, as we discussed in our first installment in this series, if we accept God’s kingship, then He is king, and not, then He is not a king.  This is an important concept regarding the Thirteen Attributes, as well as, of course, our observance of Rosh Hashanah.  However, the opposite is also true.  In our world, divine kingship depends on us; but in the world of Almighty, who was, is and will always be, His kingship and goodness are absolute and not dependent on any factor whatsoever.  The opening phrase of Adon Olam – “Master of the world, who reigned before any creature was created” – precedes the subsequent phrase – “at the time when everything was made in accordance with His will – then His name was called, ‘King’.”  If the Almighty takes the “damage” and evaluates it from His absolute perspective, then there is no damage at all.  In the world of creation, every misdeed harms the Shekhina.  But in the upper world, there is nothing man can do that could infringe one iota upon divine perfection.


            In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we recite two berakhot related to the theme of malkhut (divine kingship).  The second, which we call “Malkhuyot,” begins with the passage, “We therefore wait for You, the Lord our God, to soon behold the glory of Your might…to perfect the world through the Kingship of Sha-dai, whereupon all human beings shall call in Your name.”  This kingship is one of human acceptance, of coronation, and therefore, at that time “the Lord shall be king over the entire earth” and “on that day the Lord shall be one, and His name one.”  Before this berakha, however, we recite a different berakha of kingship, one which is embedded within the berakha of kedushat ha-Shem (the sanctity of the divine name): “And so, instill Your fear, O Lord our God, within all Your creations…and all evil, in its entirety, will disappear like smoke.”  God can also force His rule upon His subjects, and at that point evil is nothing, it “disappears like smoke.”  As we explained in our discussion of “rav chesed,” such an action would undermine the value of free will and human initiative.  For the same reason, and to the same extent, it negates the negative quality of evil.  Sin can cause harm to the immanent Shekhina.  But God, in His kindness, can rise above everything to the transcendent level, where nothing can be diminished, even though nothing can be added, either.  The Almighty will take the avonot and pesha’im upon himself.  He “bears avon” – and goodness cannot truly be harmed; He “bears pesha” – and His kingship cannot be undermined to even the slightest extent.


            There is, however, a third form of damage caused by sin – namely, the damage caused by unintentional sin.


            The Ramban has a clearly defined theory regarding the concept of shegaga, one which relates to his general approach to theodicy.  According to the Ramban, shegaga means an act committed without any guilt on the person’s part.  Thus, in his discussion of the question of tzadik ve-ra lo (the suffering of the righteous), he proposes (as one of his suggestions) that the tzadik commits transgressions inadvertently, but is nevertheless defined as tzadik.  Nevertheless, despite the absence of evil or guilt, the occurrence of sin itself necessitates atonement, because sin is inherently poisonous for the soul.  One who unintentionally swallows poison is no less at risk than one who does so willfully.  Elsewhere, the Ramban contends that forbidden foods “dull the soul.”  Sin sticks to a person’s soul and causes it harm.  An operation is necessary to remove the sin from the soul, and at times this procedure entails pain; hence the phenomenon of tzadik ve-ra lo.  It emerges that just as willful violations have a harmful effect on goodness, and acts of rebellion affect divine kingship, unintentional sins affect a person’s soul.  Shegagot ruin the divine image within a person.  The human soul is, at its core, a reflection of sanctity, and sin therefore affects the soul like poison affects the body.  The soul of a sinner is a soul that has taken ill.  Even if the Almighty does not care, either out of kindness or because the act was committed accidentally and without guilt, the person nevertheless suffers from the very presence of sin within his character, from the destructive influence that sin yields upon the soul.


            We explained that God can absorb the damage to goodness and kingship within His absolute, infinite goodness and kindness.  But what about the harm caused to my soul?  In other words, how does the attribute of “nosei chata’a” work?  With regard to avon and chatat, the solution is to consider them unintentional sins, thereby removing the harmful sting and thus neutralizing the harm.  In the case of a shegaga, however, when the harm does not depend on intent, and rather results from the inherent negative quality of the act itself, how can God protect the soul?  When the damage stems from the intent, we can offer a remedy that works by changing the outlook toward the act.  God’s kingship is immune to harm, His goodness is immune to harm – but what will protect the human soul?


            The answer is the same answer given earlier.  Only the Almighty Himself, who is perfect and absolute, can absorb the blow without enduring any effect.  This world can be ruined, and one can even damage the presence of sanctity in the world and in the human soul.  But sanctity itself cannot be ruined.  One can harm divine kingship in the world, but if the Almighty joins His kingship in the world to His kingship in the heavens, then no harm can be done.  The same applies to the human being.  The sanctity of the soul can be ruined, but if the Almighty connects the person’s soul with the divine soul above; if He once again blows a fresh soul of life in man’s nostrils, then man will be renewed as a new living creature.  The soul itself will retain its purity, unharmed and unaffected by the sin.  Of course, there is a fundamental Jewish precept not to confuse Creator and creature.  I am not part of God; I stand opposite God, He created me.  I am not God – but I am the image of God.  In a previous shiur I spoke of the fact that God identifies with the divine image, and this forms the basis of the attribute of chanina.  Here, we speak of a more extreme form of identity – not an attribute based on merely psychological identification, not the arousal of feeling and participation in pain as a result of that identification, but rather a degree of identity, or, more accurately, a degree of continuity.  To repeat for the umpteenth time – “Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say.”  God, through his identification and connection with the pure soul that He breathed into man,[1] changes the context from the lone individual, collapsing under the burden of his sins, to a person whose soul is bound at its center with the divine Throne of Glory.  And then, at least at his core, he is part of an infinite, absolute and perfect system.  This does not mean to say, Heaven forbid, that the individual should see himself as having perfect value.  The point of connection here is in potential; it is only a “point,” without any volume.  But this, as an act of divine kindness, allows for the possibility of purifying anew the damaged soul, to cure and heal it of its illness.  That non-dimensional point of connection is immune to the harmful effects of sin, and to the extent to which God attaches and combines His supreme existence with our existence, this can serve as a source for purifying the entire personality.


            Here, too, we encounter a contradiction of sorts between this divine attribute of kindness and the precept of bechira chofshit as the foundation of the world’s creation.  The world was not created to be connected with the immune, infinite world of the Creator.  To the contrary, we were created to be independent, capable of making decisions autonomously, with the ability to pollute and ruin, to destroy and to detract from the world – but in the hope that we instead choose to build and purify, to improve and become holy.  “Nosei chata’a” is the response to an illness, and it indeed signifies a withdrawal of sorts from the purpose of creation.  In order that you will be able to choose and become holy tomorrow, you must now be purified by the sprinkling of purifying waters.  If God allows creation to operate only according to the rules of free choice and independence, it will become polluted in such a manner that does not allow for any progress.  The cancer of sin will ultimate kill the patient.  It is therefore necessary for the attribute of kindness to get involved, and this involvement is based upon the truth – that the human soul is a part of God from above.  “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved – for You are my glory” (Yirmiyahu 17:14).


            God does not allow goodness to be harmed, divine kingship to be humbled, or the soul from God above to be polluted.  God transforms the intentional sin and the act of rebellion into a shogeig.  And even the shogeig – the inherent, negative impact of every sin – He eliminates.  This final stage is not expressed in the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Yoma.  But the sequence is as it appears in the verse, and after God forgives the avon and pesha as though they were just as a chata’a, He forgives the chata’a.  The sequence is therefore arranged from avon to chata’a, because with respect to repairing the damage, the person’s soul is the last item repaired.  First God repairs goodness, followed by kingship and then, finally, the human being.


            I would like to suggest an analogy to help clarify the difference between these attributes and the next attribute – ve-nakei (“He cleanses”).  Sins are stains.  Nosei chata’a protects the body so that it does not become polluted by the filth on the garment.  The stain remains, but it does not harm the person himself.  We do not speak here of atonement, which demands sincere repentance.  “For on this day He shall atone for you from all your sins; you shall be purified before the Lord” (Vayikra 16:30).  As Rabbi Akiva famously comments in the final Mishna in Masekhet Yoma, “Who purifies you?  Your father in heavens, as it says, ‘Mikveh Yisrael Hashem’ (Yirmiyahu 17:13).”  The cleansing, the removal of the stain, is reserved for Yom Kippur, when the process of repentance and atonement is completed.  Here, as in the other attributes, we speak of preserving existence, the promise of existence.  But in contrast to the previous attributes, we now speak not only of the existence of life as opposed to death, but of a healthy existence, an existence of spiritual force and capabilities.  At this point, there is still a ways to go before reach kapara – atonement, the complete removal of the stain.


            The Ramban explained that nosei avon, nosei pesha and nosei chatat all signify different acts of mercy.  They all share the same foundation, and are therefore combined by a single verb – nosei.  But the acts are different, because the divine connection occurs with three different realities: the immunization of goodness, the immunization of kingship, and, finally, the immunization of the human soul.


            The Talmud Yerushalmi suggests interpreting nosei avon as though it were written nosheh avon.  “Nosheh” comes from the word that means “forget.”  Earlier in this series we encountered the Yerushalmi’s comment, “Whoever says that the Almighty ‘relents' – his intestines shall be ruptured.”  The Almighty does not simply “give in” and forego, and He certainly does not forget.  It seems to me that the Yerushalmi refers to the Almighty’s casting of sin into the abyss of forgetfulness; He turns it into something of no significance.  This means that, as we explained, the sin will have no effect upon the individual or upon the world; it will be like something altogether forgotten because it has no substance in the world.  Sin loses its weight, its color, and becomes transparent; it dissipates like a cloud and leaves like a passing breeze – not so that we need not assume responsibility for it, but rather so that we can continue existing with spiritual perfection.  And then, to the contrary – we will assume responsibility and repent.  But in order to repent, we need our full spiritual capacity.


            There are two stages in the Thirteen Attributes.  From “Hashem Hashem” through “rav chesed ve-emet,” we deal with the evaluation, the weighing of the person’s merits against his demerits, and how the scales will be turned in his favor.  The essence of these attributes relates to the power of goodness to overpower evil.  But when we reach notzer chesed la-alafim, a new verse begins – and with it a new stage in the process of divine mercy.  The essence of the attributes at this stage is dealing with evil itself – neutralizing and repairing it.  The attributes of nosei avon va-fesha ve-chata’a continue this second stage: “Do not just keep me alive, but also cure me.  Do not only preserve existence, but preserve the completion of goodness, divine kingship and the soul.”  For this, too, there is an attribute of kindness.  Why?  The basic point here is the same as it was in the beginning of the Thirteen Attributes.  We carry the Almighty’s name and serve as the “chariot” for the Shekhina and the Shekhina’s presence in the world.  Reciting these attributes strengthens the Shekhina’s presence and strengthens it within us, upon us.  This closeness, this identification, sustains the individual and also cures him.  In light of this, we might suggest a new meaning to the expression we encountered at the outset of this series: “The Almighty wrapped Himself as a sheli’ach tzibur…”  God does not stand opposite us listening to what we say.  Selichot are effective because He stands among us, He serves as our sheli’ach tzibur.  As a result of this connection, we are told, “they shall perform this service before me and I shall forgive them.”  The forgiveness comes from within, from my soul’s attachment to its source.  The tallit worn by the Almighty covers us and joins us with the sheli’ach tzibur, together with all Am Yisrael.


[1] Commenting on the verse, “He breathed a living soul into his nostrils” (Bereishit 2:7), the Ramban writes, “One who breathes, from himself he breathes.”