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What is Sin?

We think this is a stupid question. It must be a stupid question, right? After all, “sin” must be doing what G-d tells you not to do. Right?

Not necessarily! And certainly not if you read the Torah carefully. For example, Adam and Eve did not, using the words of the Torah, actually sin when they ate the forbidden fruit. And even though, after they were expelled, G-d told Adam to “work the land,” it is Abel and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who gained divine favor: they were all shepherds, not farmers. It appears that sin is not – after all — defined as “disobeying G-d.”

The word is first used when Cain is angry at Abel, and, smoldering in that fixation, deciding what he should do next. G-d says to Cain,

Surely, if you do good, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, Sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you. Yet you can be its master.”

What is sin in the case of Cain? It is following his baser instincts: jealousy and rage. Sin is that voice inside our heads urging us to do what we want to do. It is about giving in to animalistic desires to murder in the service of selfishness and greed, pride and lust. It is what leads us to harm others.

Later in Genesis, when Jacob is pursued by Laban, Jacob shows us that a “sin” is not necessarily just something that just offends G-d:

Now Jacob became incensed and took up his grievance with Laban. Jacob spoke up and said to Laban, “What is my crime, what is my sin that you should pursue me? (Gen. 31:36)

Sin happens when we do something unacceptable, something that is so bad that its act calls out for a response, some kind of mitigation. Sin must be dealt with.

Still later, Joseph’s brothers also invoke the word. Terrified that Joseph will, now that their father has died, take revenge on them, they claim that their father made a deathbed request:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and sins of your brothers. (Gen 50:15-17)

Joseph’s brothers are admitting that they gave in to their selfishness and pride when they conspired to sell him. They are openly associating their actions with those of Cain and Sodom, accepting that sin has consequence. They even propose the consequence, a punishment for their sins: “His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are your slaves.’” (Gen 50:18)

Joseph’s reply, fascinatingly, was not that he forgave his brothers, OR that they should not be his slaves, but that dealing with sin was above his pay grade: “Am I a substitute for G-d?” (Gen 50:19). Joseph’s response underwhelms. If there was any time to openly and completely forgive a sin, this would have been that time. But the opportunity was missed.

The process in the Torah appears to be that after someone sins, there is a need for correction, a cry that forces a response, either from man or from G-d. Cain did not master Sin, the animalistic voice in his head, and so he killed his brother. The murder of Abel could not be overlooked: it demanded a response. The Torah tells us:

The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth. (Gen 4:10)

This phrase sounds poetic, but it is much more than that. The “cry” in the Torah is the same word used the very next time the word for “sin” is mentioned:

Then the LORD said, “The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! (Gen 18:20)

and

[The angels tell Lot] For we are about to destroy this place; because the outcry against them before the LORD has become so great that the LORD has sent us to destroy it.” (Gen. 19:13)

The message here is straightforward: when someone does something that is egregious, there is a “cry” – and that cry demands that G-d – or even His people – responds. Sodom was a place of selfishness and greed (and possibly also sodomy), and human cruelty, like the murder of Abel, leads to cries that reach G-d.

The use of the word is consistent, and it actually helps show us the conditions through which G-d intervenes in our world. The presence of a “cry” also shows the conditions in which we, G-d’s people, are also meant to roll up our sleeves and take action.

Through the rest of the Torah, the pattern remains: an outcry, such as Esau’s in Gen 27:34, the Egyptians in the famine in Gen. 41:55, and especially that of the people in Egypt (starting with Ex. 3:7), always prompts a response. Cries cannot be ignored. These are the cries of injustice, the cries of those murdered, wronged, or otherwise oppressed by people who give in to their baser instincts, who give in to sin.

In the Torah, sin is something that needs to be addressed, either by the sinner or by an external responsible party. We must always keep in mind that while sin crouches at the door, we can – and should – master it and the baser instincts that would turn us from a holy people into a mere collection of high-functioning animals.

Comments are welcome!