Honoring Human Beings – With all Our Flaws

  1. Repentance communicates personal responsibility

No one is perfect. Each of us has faults and every person commits sins. One of the amazing aspects of the Torah is its response to this aspect of the human condition. Our sins and wrongdoings are not overlooked because of their inevitability. We are held responsible for our wrongdoings. But neither are our sins beyond forgiveness. We are encouraged to confront our flaws, make the commitment to address them, and strive to correct them. With this commitment we can secure Hashem’s forgiveness.


In other words the Torah communicates a message of personal responsibility. Our flaws and sins are not overlooked as the inevitable outcome of human imperfection. Neither are we rendered beyond redemption by virtue of our sins. We are responsible for embarking upon the path that will secure Hashem’s forgiveness. We must take the initiative and demonstrate commitment.


How do we take responsibility for our wrongdoings? We accomplish this through the process of repentance. This is not a simple process. Repentance is not easily accomplished. Authentic repentance requires harsh, sincere introspection, tenacity, and determination.


The process begins with recognizing and fully accepting that one has acted wrongly – that one has sinned. This is the aspect of the process that requires introspection. Repentance is not a mere superficial acknowledgment of wrongdoing. It is a sincere recognition of one’s flaws. This recognition is only achieved when a person actually feels a sense of deep regret or embarrassment regarding the behavior.[1] This intense regret is expresses recognition of the full dimensions of one’s sins. It reflects the sinner’s realization that he has violated Hashem’s Torah and defiled one’s personal sanctity.


Recognition is followed by commitment. Once a person has recognized that he has sinned and he feels the associated regret or disappointment, he must commit to change.[2] This aspect of the repentance process requires tenacity and determination. Change is never easy. Yet, repentance requires firm commitment to never return to one’s abandoned behavior.

In short, we can secure forgiveness for our sins through repentance but this process requires a meaningful commitment to introspection and change.



  1. Repentance requires concrete verbalization

There is another aspect to repentance. In addition to the internal aspects described above, repentance includes a verbal declaration. The person engaging in repentance must give expression in words to his commitment. This process is often referred to as confession but involves more than merely verbally acknowledging the sin. The declaration must verbally express all aspects of the repentance process.[3] In other words, the person must verbally acknowledge his sin. He must express his remorse or shame. He must declare his determination to not return to the abandoned behavior.


  1. The public element

Maimonides adds that this declaration should ideally be made in public. In other words, one should – essentially – declare his faults, regret, and intention to change in front of and audience of peers and neighbors. However, Maimonides qualifies this statement. He explains that public declaration is required only in regard to sins we have committed against others. Sins that we have committed against Hashem should not be publicly declared. The verbal declaration of sins committed against Hashem is required but it should be made privately rather than publicly.[4]


Maimonides’ ruling is difficult to understand. The sins that we commit against our peers or against strangers are also prohibited by the Torah. When we commit such sins, we violate the Torah’s laws and disobey Hashem. So, even though these sins are against our fellow human beings, we have also rebelled against Hashem and His Torah.


Let us consider an example. Sometimes, we become angry at a friend or peer. Maybe, in our rage we say terrible things about this person to others. We have sinned against this person. When we are prepared to repent, we must seek the forgiveness of the person against whom we sinned. We must also publicly declare the elements of repentance – regret, shame, and commitment to change. This is because we sinned against another human being. Therefore, our declaration must be public. But have we not also sinned against Hashem? Does He not command us in His Torah to not speak against others behind their backs? Are we not enjoined by His Torah against defamation of others? We have sinned against this person but also against Hashem. Why should our declaration be made in public? Our wrongdoing includes a sin against Hashem. Sins against Hashem are not to be publicly declared!


And if a man committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and you hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a reproach unto G-d; that you shall not defile your land which Hashem your G-d gives you as an inheritance. (Sefer Devarim 21:22-23)


  1. The public hanging of the body of the sinner

Before considering the above passages, some background information is required. When the most serious prohibitions of the Torah are violated the consequences are severe. In the most serious cases, the courts are authorized and required to apply capital punishment. There are four forms of execution available to the courts. The specific form of execution employed corresponds with the severity of the prohibition violated. Stoning is reserved for the most serious violations.


The above passages communicate two laws that are somewhat paradoxical. The first law is that after a person is executed through stoning his body is hung on display. However, the second law in these passages is that the body must be removed from display and buried by evening. In other words, although the body of the person committing the most severe sin must be hung and displayed, this display must be very brief. By the evening the body must be interred.


  1. The hanging body of the sinner is an affront against Hashem

Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur comments on the requirement to bury the body of the sinner after a brief display. He explains that this display is reserved for the bodies of only those who have been stoned — those who have committed the worst sins. Among the sins punished by stoning is blaspheming Hashem. The observer of the displayed body may reasonably speculate that this sinner had blasphemed Hashem. This speculation is described in above the passages as a “reproach unto G-d”. Entertaining the thought of blasphemy is in itself an affront to the glory and honor of Hashem.


Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur suggests that we envision a person who slapped his king. The king punished the person publicly for the affront. There are two consequences of the king’s public punishment of this criminal – one intended consequence and one not intended. The king’s intention is to demonstrate that one who dishonors his monarch deserves severe punishment and public humiliation. The unintended consequence is that those who view the spectacle of the punishment come to realize that the king can be struck and dishonored. They realize that, in fact, some people actually do so. Spectators who previously would never have imagined it possible to dishonor their monarch now know that behaviors unimaginable to them are performed by others. The king’s honor has been diminished and the awe in which his subjects held him has been compromised.


Similarly, the display of the body of a person who presumed to be a blasphemer does communicate the severity of his sin. But the display also communicates that some people do blaspheme Hashem and that this unimaginable affront is actually committed by some people. Hashem is dishonored and the spectators’ awe of Hashem is, to some degree, diminished.[5]

  1. Promoting Hashem’s honor

We can apply Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur’s reasoning to our question. When we sin against another human being, we also sin against Hashem and His Torah. When we hear the confession of one who has sinned against another person, we recognize that the sin was provoked by disregard for a fellow human being. We know that the sin includes an implicit sin against Hashem and his Torah but we recognize that the action was not directed against Hashem. Hashem’s honor and glory are “collateral damage” – unintended casualties of the behavior.  In contrast, when we sin against Hashem, the only element or aspect of the sin is the violation of His Torah. In this instance, the public declaration of the sin has an affect akin to displaying the body of one who was stoned. Yes, the declaration expresses recognition of the severity of the sin and it bemoans the defilement it engendered. But the declaration also compromises the honor of Hashem. Those who hear the confession learn that the sinner violated Hashem’s will and His Torah. Hashem’s glory is compromised and our awe of Hashem is diminished.

  1. Hashem compromises His honor for the sake of human sanctity

It is possible that Rabbaynu Yosef Bechur Shur’s comments suggest an alternative response to our problem. Perhaps, even when a person declares his repentance from a sin against his fellow human being, this declaration diminishes Hashem’s honor. After all, the sinner has also violated His will and Torah. Yet, Hashem allows – even requires – that His honor be compromised for the sake of reinforcing a message. We defile ourselves when we sin against others. In other words, Hashem compromises His own honor in order to encourage us to honor and respect one another.


[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:5.

[5] Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 21:23.