I started to title this piece “What is Sin?” and then something tickled in the back of my mind. Hadn’t I written on this topic before? Indeed, I had! I reread that piece. It is not bad, but it is also not – as I see it now – quite right. And the results can lead to significant misunderstandings of what the Torah means by sin.
The problem is that we have colored our understanding of this word with many concepts and implications that are not in the text of the Torah itself.
The word for sin, chet, is first found not in the Garden, but instead with Cain. G-d says to him:
Surely, if you do right,
There is nassa.
But if you do not do right
Sin (chet) couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.
The text creates an opposite pair: “sin” is not contrasted with “good.” Instead, it is contrasted with the word nassa, which is much more perplexing to understand.
Nassa, unlike “sin,” is first found in the Garden. When Eve declaims responsibility, she says “the snake nassa me, and I ate.” This work may be translated as “duped,” or “fooled” or “deceived,” but its use elsewhere suggests a connection with carrying or lifting. And the way it is used other places in the Torah suggests a different meaning: “The snake took responsibility for me, and I ate.” Eve is trying to shuck the responsibility for her action onto the snake. G-d is not buying, and everyone in the story who tries to blame someone else for their own choices is punished for doing so. This is the first in an endless series of stories in the world of someone claiming victim status in order to absolve them of their responsibilities.
The key is that G-d wants mankind to take responsibility for our own actions. G-d is telling Cain (and us) that sinning is the opposite of nassa; it is refusing to be responsible for what we have done.
Before he sins, G-d tells him that doing good becomes a credit, a nassa, a responsibility. But then after he sins, the word appears again: “Cain said to G-d, “My punishment (nassa) is too great to bear!” Cain thinks he cannot bear the consequences of his actions. The entire story is framed around this word, this key question.
This may seem to be a bit abstract, but these two words pop up time and again in the text, and they make much more sense if we seem them in this light. For example, when G-d commands that a census be taken, the actual Hebrew is “nassa the heads of the people.” It can be understood as a census, or, as Rabbi Sacks does, a “lifting up.” And, given that this verse starts the book right after Leviticus (containing the lion’s share of commandments), it can also be understood as empowering the people with responsibility.
The commandments are indeed a challenging responsibility. A great many more Jews in history have decided to walk away from G-d rather than have tried to follow His Torah. I have heard from a great many people that the commandments in the Torah are simply “too hard.”
The text seems to address this all the way through. In the beginning, Eve declaimed responsibility for her actions and then Cain said the nassa was too much to bear. The text’s use of both words all the way through the Torah seems to consistently reflect this understanding centered around taking responsibility.
It is a subtle but important step away from the more conventional understanding of sin as an immoral action.
P.S. The biblical census is rarely repeated. There is a concept in Judaism that people should never be considered commodities, merely one person among many (one of the reasons the numerical Auschwitz tattoos are so meaningful to us). But it bears remembering that when the people left Egypt, they were compared to insects swarming over the land. Being a number in a census would have been a step up at that point. People were part of the whole, and had not yet begun to assert the individual independence that is now assumed. I think that G-d knew this, and “lifted the heads” in order so that each person might realize that they might be more than merely reactive organisms. Today, a census would be a reduction in our status – but in the wilderness, it was an elevation.
[an @iwe and @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]