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Shiur #6b - The Significance of Ubiquitous Crimes

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

 Shiur #6b - The Significance of Ubiquitous Crimes

By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Rav Amram said in the name of Rav: "From three sins a man cannot escape every day: sinful (lustful) thoughts, iyyun tefilla and lashon ha-ra (speaking ill of others)." Do we truly think this about lashon ha-ra?  Rather, it refers to the dust of lashon ha-ra (but not lashon ha-ra proper). Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: "Most people are involved in theft, a few in sexual crimes, and all in lashon ha-ra."(Bava Batra 164b)


I avoided translating "iyyun tefilla," because no neutral translation exists that resists adopting a particular interpretation (thus revealing the potential flaw in all translations). The Rashbam explains that it refers to a person convinced that his or her excellent prayer cannot fail to bring the desired result. This is religiously problematic, as it converts prayer into a ritual guaranteed to manipulate God. Authentic prayer rather works with a healthy sense of humility before the inscrutable Divine will.


Tosafot object to this interpretation, because the gemara refers to common sins, and one who approaches tefilla in this fashion is unusual. Indeed, many people pray without assuming that their prayers will be answered. Instead, Tosafot explain that the gemara refers to lack of kavana (intent) during davening. This certainly reflects a constant problem. We can well understand a Talmudic suggestion that this fault applies to all people. 


            Why does the gemara feel compelled to point out the most commonly found transgressions, as if it was keeping score in some kind of competitive sport between sins? On one level, it warns us to take these challenges seriously and to dedicate time to struggling with such thorny issues. Knowing that a particular issue presents a great challenge can inspire more diligent preparation for confronting that challenge.


            On another level, this gemara instructs us not to become overwrought when we fail in these matters. Understanding that almost everyone struggles with these issues helps put our own moments of weakness in perspective. Treating every uninspired mincha, or each bit of gossip spoken, as a religious failure of terrifying proportions probably leads more to intense depression than to religious growth.


            The Maharal (Chiddushei Aggadot) sees the three frequent problems as reflecting three areas of religious endeavor. Iyyun tefilla refers to a person's relationship with God. Lashon ha-ra relates to a person's relationship with fellow humans. Lustful thoughts belong in the category of a person's relationship with himself, as these thoughts assault the dignity of the person having them.


            I believe that the Maharal, in his inclusion of the third category, describes an important area of religious life that often goes unnoticed. Certain actions are fundamentally wrong because of their impact on the actor, and what they reflect about that actor, irrespective of whether or not they harm others. It may be a mistake to criticize profanity, or looking at dirty magazines, as interpersonal crimes. Perhaps what is essentially wrong with these actions is that they degrade the human being involved. 


            While Rav Amram does not distinguish between his three ubiquitous crimes, Rav Yehuda states the contrasting frequency of three significant transgressions. The Rashbam explains that most people become entangled in theft when it comes to withholding another's profits in business dealings. Most people would not decide to enter someone else's property and make off with stolen goods. Yet the same people fail to understand that one can steal without a dramatic act of taking. Any business involves all kinds of temptations to more subtle forms of theft.


            According to Rav Yehuda, lashon ha-ra is more common than theft and sexual immorality. The Maharal offers a novel explanation for this phenomenon. He points out that both theft and sexual immorality come with a certain degrading quality that embarrasses the sinner. It is hard to work up much self-righteousness about committing theft or adultery. Lashon ha-ra, on the other hand, often involves an element of self-righteousness.  The speaker implicitly adopts an air of superiority in the relating of others' misdeeds. The Maharal sees this hidden self-congratulation as the root of the frequency of lashon ha-ra.


            A host of themes emerge from this brief aggada. These few lines animate our thinking about prayer, theft, lashon ha-ra, lustful thoughts and the problems of the most common transgressions. The challenge is to seriously confront our most difficult religious duties, without seeing every failure as proof of our utter wickedness.