Missing the Mark: What Is Sin?

“Speak to the Children of Israel, saying, When a person will sin unintentionally from among all the commandments of Hashem that may not be done, and he commits one of them.” (Vayikra 4:2)

This is a troubling command. To seek atonement for mistakes made consciously or intentionally… that seems only right. After all, each of us should correctly be held accountable for our actions. But for our “unintentional” transgressions? How is it that God would demand atonement for something we have done inadvertently?

Isn’t there a difference between throwing a rock through a window and a ball we hit while playing with friends accidentally breaking a window? The outcome is the same in both instances – a broken window. But certainly, there is a difference between an act performed consciously and intentionally and an outcome that we could not foresee. How can we be held to the same standard for mistakes made not only unintentionally but also unconsciously?

How can that be fair?

Of course, such a protest makes sense if and only if one holds that there are truly such things as unconscious mistakes. Perhaps while the mistake itself is unintentional and unconscious, our actions leading up to the mistake might be less so. Throwing a rock through a window might be malicious but doesn’t the decision to play a game where such an outcome might occur also demand consideration? What might be inadvertent at the time of the accident might have an antecedent in behavior and decisions that make the person hitting a ball through a window also culpable.

The more we explore human nature and behavior, the more inescapable it is that even the most “inadvertent” act does not occur in a vacuum; it is inevitably the result of an entire sequence of “barely noticeable” missteps. So it is that our midot, our character traits, make us culpable for behaviors that might seem inadvertent. The more we understand our behavior, the more we understand that our transgressions are the logical outcome of who we are, our arrogance and envy, our ego and our selfishness. Certainly, no matter how “inadvertent” our transgressions if they are outcomes of such a nature our atonement is worthy and necessary.

It is in this context that we evaluate what we mean when we say someone has “sinned.” Our larger understanding of sin is colored by a Christian sensibility, which associates sin with evil. Because of this understanding, it follows that someone who sins must, by definition, be “bad.”

But that is not the Torah’s understanding.

In Torah, the Hebrew word often translated “sin” does not mean “sin” at all. Chet appears most often in reference to a slingshot that has “missed its target.” That is, chet is something, or someone, who has gone astray, who has missed the mark. Rather than suggesting evil, chet is a matter of straying from the correct path. Like an arrow that misses the bull’s eye, there is nothing “wrong” with the arrow; it has simply not arrived where it is optimally desired.

It is important to note that it is the intent for the arrow to hit the mark. But sometimes, whether by faulty aim, gravity, an unanticipated wind gusts, etc. it does not. Likewise, when we err it is not because we maliciously or consciously do wrong. No, it is rather that we have “misfired,” we have fallen short of the ideal we aim to hit. We want to hit the bull’s eye but something in our stance, in our posture, in our midot has altered our path.

Perhaps the soul’s “voice” has been muted by the din of the distractions around us. Perhaps a text message draws our focus at an inopportune time. Perhaps the lure of the ambient cultural roar pulls our thoughts away from what is good and holy. In other words, the yetzer hara momentarily gets the better of us and, in that moment, our path is altered in some seemingly minor way, causing us to miss the mark further down the road.

Even as we miss the mark, even as the yetzer hara gets the better of us, our tradition teaches that our essence remains pure. We can wake up and realize we are on the wrong path; we can wake up and make the necessary spiritual adjustments to get back on target. We can do teshuva!

That is why, in the parasha, even though we do not intentionally sin we must still bring a sacrifice. Not because we are bad, but because at some point we inadvertently began to go astray; we did not pay attention, we have fallen asleep at the wheel, and we must wake up! Therefore, we ask forgiveness not for the unintentional sin, but rather for what is going on inside, for the distraction that began the process that resulted in our going astray.

These “minor” missteps are, of course, easily addressed when we are aware of them. The more challenging correction is to our character, which allows us to make these minor missteps to begin with.

The Rambam certainly agrees with this. In discussing how one is to repent his aveirot, he goes on to explore another, deeper aspect to true teshuva. And do not say that there is only teshuva for sins that have an action such as immorality, stealing, and theft. Just as one must repent from these, so too he must search for his bad character traits and repent from them; from anger, from hatred, from jealousy... And these sins are harder than those that have an action to them, because when a person is engulfed in them it is hard for him to refrain [from them]”.

In this view, and in that of the Vilna Gaon, who taught that every sin is the result of a bad trait, Rambam is making clear that it is not enough to atone only for our errant actions. For if a conscious transgression emanates from a character flaw, how much more so must the unconscious transgression be caused by such a flaw, and how much more so should that be a focus of our atonement?

For the Rambam, every sin demands two levels of repentance – one for the behavior and one for the midda at its root. The conscious and the unconscious. Both from the same midda. Both requiring atonement.

None of us is of perfect character and yet we want so much to “hit the mark.” So, how do we avoid the “inadvertent” outcome that inevitably follows a misstep dictated by our character? By following the example of our sages and “building a fence” around the deeper weakness.

For example, if you’re not a “morning person” then you would be wise to take extra precautions so that you do not “accidentally” oversleep, causing you to miss your flight, or your meeting, or your shiur. Set a second alarm and place it beyond arm’s distance! Know yourself and anticipate that “inadvertent” mistake!

Isn’t that precisely the kind of action our sages meant in teaching us to build a seyag around the Torah? Such a fence is not for the person determined to transgress but for the person determined not to.

As we see, every “inadvertent” error is predicated on a previous, “minor” error b’zadon (knowing, conscious). Ultimately then, no error is inadvertent at all, but b’shogeg. This is what King David meant when he exclaimed, Shegiot mi yavin (Yet, who can discern mistakes?)

There is always a history to the mistake, to the sin, always a “trail of missteps.”

R’ Samson R Hirsch explains that the word shegia (mistake) denotes an error due to imperfect understanding and reasoning from which no man is immune and of which he is unaware. Only Divine assistance can protect a person from these inborn human flaws.

The one who is consistently tuned in to the Ribono shel Olam will therefore rarely “forget” or “just make a mistake.” He has built his fence around correct and righteous deeds. Such a person’s behavior does not easily allow him to make a shegia.

People are careful, serious and thoughtful about things that matter to them. They tend to be less so to things that don’t matter much. To someone for whom Shabbat is all important, the days of the week are never forgotten; they are an inevitable pageant leading to that glorious day. In other words, Shabbat would engage his entire thought process throughout the week, not only when he rushes home like a madman on Friday afternoon, hoping to arrive before candles are lit.

One who is scrupulous about every morsel that enters his mouth, does not have to worry about inadvertently confusing forbidden fat (chelev) with permitted fat (shuman). He has built his fence. He does not allow the “distractions” of life to distract him for his all-encompassing Godly obligations.

Build a fence! Protect against the small, character flaws that cause us to begin to go astray and you will protect against the larger transgression!