Build a Fence to Protect You From Yourself


OOPS! is no excuse

By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

“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)

Now this, of all commands, strikes one as troubling.  To seek atonement for errors and mistakes made consciously and even intentionally… that seems only right.  Every one of us must be held accountable for our actions.  But for “unintentional” transgressions?  How is it that God would demand atonement for something done inadvertently?  After all, to err is to be human, and to be human is to err.  In fact, there are those who might suggest that we are defined more by our “errors” than by our successes!

We all, as the saying goes, make mistakes.  Right?  We intuitively understand that when we make mistakes, there are consequences and that it is appropriate that we receive punishment for those mistakes.  But that understanding applies to mistakes we make consciously and intentionally.  How can we be held to the same standard for mistakes made not only unintentionally but also unconsciously?

Is that fair?

Such protests resonate and make sense if and only if one holds that there are truly such things as unconscious or “inadvertent” mistakes.  We would be wise to ask, Is anything we do truly inadvertent?   It might be true that to err is to be human but then we must look more closely at what that might mean, to be human.

Just as a drunk driver might be unconscious of an accident at the time of the accident his behavior and decisions long before an accident make him culpable.  So too our middos, 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 necessary outcome of 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.

The more we explore human nature and behavior, the more inescapable it is that we don’t “just” make mistakes.  Even the most “inadvertent” act does not occur in a vacuum.  Our missteps are driven by something within us.  When we look at any mistake, no matter how small or how accidental, we can see that avoiding those mistakes required only an equally “small” awareness of who we are, what our approach to life is, what our middos are.

“Inadvertent” mistakes result almost inevitably from our placing ourselves in circumstances which make the mistake possible or when we fail to consider consequences and outcomes of our thoughts and behavior.

Punishment is often directed at changing behavior.  But as we learn more about ourselves, we understand that actions are relatively easy to modify.  Character, on the other hand, is incredibly difficult to change.

The Rambam certainly agrees.  In discussing how one is to repent his aveiros, 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 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?

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.  Therefore both requiring the same atonement.

In other words, “Oops” is no excuse!

Not a “morning person”?  Then you would do well to take extra precautions so that you do not “accidentally” oversleep, causing you to miss your flight, or your meeting, or your shiur.

“I must have been half-asleep and I turned off the alarm…”

Then set a second alarm beyond arm’s distance!  Know thyself and anticipate that “inadvertent” mistake!  Isn’t that precisely the kind of action our sages meant in teaching us to build a gezeirah around the Torah?  Such a fence is not for the person determined to transgress but for the person determined not to.

If you do not want to transgress, you must find ways to assure that you do not transgress.  The best way to be successful?  To look inward and to understand what drives you to make the transgressions you do.  Isn’t that what Rambam is teaching?

It is our responsibility to make sure not that we succeed but that we do not fall short.  When we transgress by forgetting to do something we are obligated to do, or by failing to remember that something is forbidden – or by any other “inadvertent” act – it is clear we do not consider the matter significant enough to have built a fence around it.  For that failure as well as for the transgression, for that we are culpable.

Alshich refuses to allow that “ignorance is bliss” in regards to such transgressions.  He makes clear that any inadvertent act (b’shgaga) is always the result of a previous misdeed done knowingly.  It is, he insists, impossible for one to commit “a sin b’shogeg, if deep inside his inner being, there aren’t sins previously committed consciously and with deceit.  After all, he teaches, if the Talmud teaches (Chulin 5) that God would never bring about a sin through the animal of tzadikim certainly He would not cause tzadikim themselves to sin.  How then does the sin come about? Thus the Posuk says, “from among all the mitzvos HaShem asher lo taasena –the commandments of Hashem that may not be done.”

His “inadvertent” error – l’doogma, sleeping late – was predicated on a previous error b’zadon (knowing, conscious) – no alarm clock, or second alarm clock.  As a result, his error is not inadvertent at all, but b’shogeg.  This is what King David meant when he exclaimed, Shegiot mi yavin (Yet, who can discern mistakes?)

Indeed, who can understand the chain of events leading to the error?  Who can understand how a misdeed came about?  “M’nstaros nakeini!”  From unperceived faults, cleanse me!  No sin “just happens.”  There is always a history to sin, always a “trail of missteps.”

Alshich concludes that if you committed a sin b’shgaga then you’d better dig deep to discover the meizid act you’d previously committed that you have overlooked that had brought you to your current “mistake.”

There is no, Oops.

R’ Samsom 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.  Such a person is always careful about setting his spiritual alarm clock!

The Ramban too considers the posture and events leading up to a transgression.  He teaches that though sins might be unintentional, even so they inevitably blemish the soul and require purification.  Why?  Because if the sinner had sincerely regarded them with due gravity and consideration they would not have occurred.

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 Shabbos is all important, the days of the week are never forgotten; they are an inevitable pageant leading to that glorious day.  In other words, Shabbos would engage his entire thought process throughout the week, not only when he rushes home like a madman on Friday evening, 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.

For him, there is no “Oops.”