For the week ending 28 May 2016 / 20 Iyyar 5776

Service after Sin

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jackie

Dear Rabbi,

Like everyone, I mess up sometimes and do things I know I shouldn’t be doing. The problem is, rather than doing teshuva and relying on Gd to forgive, an inner voice convinces me that after what I’ve done it would be a chutzpah to serve Gd, and that rather than getting a reward for trying, out of Gd’s anger over what I’ve done and where I’ve fallen to I’ll actually be punished for “serving” Him in such an impure state. I know I need to stop falling, but until I become a tzaddik, how can I keep getting up again?

Dear Jackie,

I admire your honesty and courage to admit what you’ve done, to evaluate where you are and to be troubled about what to do about it.

I’m sure G-d feels the same way.

The verse says, “A tzaddik falls seven times and gets up” (Prov. 24:16). This shows us that what makes the tzaddik different is not that he doesn’t fall, because he does, and many times. Rather, it’s that no matter how many times and in how many ways he falls, he always gets up.

Of course, the inner voice you describe is the evil inclination, which, after causing a person to fall, then tries its hardest to keep the person down. This voice takes many different forms and presents many different convincing arguments to sever a person from Gd. The ways of the tzaddik to regain balance are thus also many, as in the verse, “With subterfuge shall you wage war” (Ibid 24:6), which the commentaries identify as the war against the evil inclination.

It is beyond our scope to outline all of the various tactics one may use to dodge and defy this enemy within and without. But based on the specific persuasion you describe, I’ll present one approach which should help you break the strangle-hold and empower you to serve Gd despite the inclination’s very strong argument to the contrary.

Pirkei Avot (1:3) states: “Be as a servant who serves his master without condition to receive reward”. This means we should serve Gdwithout anticipating reward, even though we know we’ll get it. Another version of this teaching states that the servant should serve his master “on condition that he receives no reward”. This describes an even higher level of service where we desire no reward for serving, other than the privilege to serve — and any other reward would detract from the purity of that service.

A person who has fallen, and whose evil inner voice insidiously dissuades him from getting up with the claim that he’ll actually be punished for attempting to serve Gd in such an impure state, actually has an opportunity to perform an even higher and “purer” form of service than described above. Because now, not only is he serving without an eye to reward, and not only on condition that he receive no reward, he’s actually serving despite the anticipation of punishment.

This then should be the answer to such a claim of the evil inclination: If serving Gdin this state will bring punishment, I am willing to suffer to serve Him, which makes my service all the more pure. And what’s more, if I’m to suffer for transgressing, what better form of atonement is there than being punished on account of serving Him!

To such a claim, the evil inclination can have no reply. And once one returns to Gdwith such self-sacrificing love and commitment, he can certainly rely on a merciful reward, whatever it may be.

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