If you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now quiet, they’re about to announce the lottery numbers.
– Homer Simpson<1>
People are always looking for the get-rich-quick scheme, the magic bullet, the bandaid solution. So with the approach of Yom Kippur, which is the best time for searching our souls, confessing our sins, and begging people and God for forgiveness, at least some of us are probably wondering, “Isn’t there a way to get atonement (kapparah) without all that effort?” As we will see, there is indeed a way – but there’s a catch.
The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah declares, “If someone is ma’avir al midotav, [in Heaven] they remove (ma’avir) all his sins.”<2> Excellent! Just like in a commercial, you can clean up sins in no time at all!<3> Now all we need to do is figure out exactly what the Talmud is asking us to do. What is the meaning of the strange expression “ma’avir al midotav“? Let’s look at three possibilities.
The same phrase appears in a different context in the Talmud. It happened once that at a time of drought in Israel, two of the greatest rabbis stepped up to offer prayers for rain. Rabbi Eliezer’s prayer went unanswered, but Rabbi Akiva’s prayer succeeded and brought rain. The rabbis were all atwitter, since it certainly looked as if Rabbi Akiva had won a spiritual smackdown. Suddenly a heavenly voice (bat kol) corrected them: “It isn’t that this one is greater than that one, but rather this one is ma’avir al midotav and that one isn’t.”<4>
Now, aside from our first question of what this phrase means, another question comes to mind. Wasn’t the heavenly voice contradicting itself? If Rabbi Akiva did this ma’avir al midotav thing, doesn’t that mean he was in fact greater than Rabbi Eliezer? This question appears in the 1500s, in the book entitled Beit Elokim by Rabbi Moshe Trani of Salonika and Tzfat. He answers that while objectively speaking, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer were equally great, Rabbi Akiva deserved more credit. Rabbi Eliezer was a naturally nice person, for whom it was easy to do the right thing.<5> Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, was a naturally nasty person; he himself admitted that before he became a talmid chakham himself, he wished he could bite a talmid chakham like a donkey – whose bite can crush bones!<6> For Rabbi Akiva, doing the right thing was very difficult, because he had to overcome (ma’avir) his character traits (midotav). In the merit of that extra effort, his prayer for rain was answered.
A different understanding of this story is offered by the Chokhmat Mano’ach, a little commentary that’s printed in the back of the Talmud. He suggests that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer were equally great in following the letter of the law, but Rabbi Akiva went beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mishurat hadin). For example, even when a court ruled that he didn’t have to pay someone money, Rabbi Akiva reasoned that the law is only a minimum standard for him (midotav), and he would go beyond (ma’avir) it and pay anyway. In that merit of that extra effort, his prayer for rain was answered.<7>
The third explanation of ma’avir al midotav appears in the Talmud itself. Once Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua was so sick that Rav Pappa advised the next of kin to prepare for the funeral. Later, Rav Huna made a total recovery, and Rav Pappa felt pretty silly! Rav Huna reassured him that in fact he had been about to die, but in an NDE (near-death experience) he heard God saying, “Since he doesn’t insist on his own rights, don’t insist [on taking his life].” This is attributed to a pasuk which says “He forgives sin and [passes by] offenses” (Mikhah 7:18). The Talmud clarifies: Whose sin does He forgive? The one who passes by offenses.<8> In other words, if you can forgive other people for offending and hurting you, then God will reciprocate and forgive you for your sins. Rashi elaborates: Let’s say people hurt you so much that you can carry around a measurement (midotav) of how much pain you’re suffering and how much pain they deserve to suffer. If you can bring yourself to let it go (ma’avir) and forgive them, the Heavenly Court will do the same to you and let go of your sins, so you’ll be forgiven. This is what we pray for when we say, at the end of every Amidah, “To those who curse me, let my soul be silent and like dirt (velimkallelai nafshi tidom).” Not that we want to turn the other cheek when attacked, but that afterwards we want to be able to forgive and forget.
However, there’s a catch. As the next words of the Talmud put it, it’s like a sheep’s delicious fatty tail that has a thorn caught in it (alyah vekotz bah). The next words of the pasuk are “to the leftovers of His inheritance,” and the Talmud explains that this amazing power of forgiveness works only for someone who can act like leftovers. To put it a little differently, whether ma’avir al midotav involves overcoming your bad character traits, going beyond the letter of the law, or truly forgiving other people, the only way you’ll be able to do that is if you’ve developed a deep humility.<9> And that’s not easy! To paraphrase Homer Simpson above, if you really want humility, you have to work for it.
So this instant atonement isn’t as simple as we might have hoped. But at least it beats confessing all those sins!<10>
- The Simpsons, Episode 8F24: “Kamp Krusty,” original airdate 9/24/92. Written by David M. Stern.
- Rosh Hashanah17a.
- Compare the tongue-in-cheek product called “Wash Away Your Sins – Moist Towelettes.”http://www.neatoshop.com/product/Wash-Away-Your-Sins-Moist-Towelettes
- Rabbi Moshe Trani (1505-1585),Beit Elokim,Sha’ar HaTeshuvah, at the end of Chapter 4. http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14113&pgnum=65
- Rabbeinu Manoach (13th century),Chokhmat Mano’achon Ta’anit 25b.
- Rosh Hashanah17a. This appears right after the other quote (note 2 above).
- Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1901-1978),Sichot Mussar, Section 2 (5732), #38 (p. 140).
- For further discussion ofma’avir al midotav, see Rabbi Micha Berger’s two articles: “Ma’avir al Midosav” (http://www.aishdas.org/asp/maavir-al-midosav) and “Ma’avir al Midosav – The Pragmatics” (http://www.aishdas.org/asp/maavir-al-midosav-pragmatics). Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) presents a list of ten practical suggestions in his Mikhtav MeEliyahu, Vol. 4, p. 234. These can be found in Hebrew at http://www.tzemachdovid.org/michtav/michtav10.pdf and in English at http://www.aishdas.org/maavir.shtml. Interestingly, this list is based on the classic guide to interpersonal behavior, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie (1936). For more on this unusual overlap of ethical worlds, see Rabbi Yoel Katan, “Kabel HaEmet MiMi SheAmro,” Hamaayan, Nissan 5752, pp. 54-56 (https://web.archive.org/web/20050520111652/http://www.yasharbooks.com/hamaayan%20article.pdf).