Making Up for Wrongdoing

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on June 4, 2011
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged. (Numbers 5:5-7)

Although the later Jewish tradition articulated a much more developed procedure of making up for wrongdoing, the process of teshuvah, in these verses we already see some of the principle features of it. That later tradition - and our lives as Jews - may make us think that everything that these verses and that the later Jewish tradition say about this process is obvious and shared worldwide, but that would be a bad mistake. So let us take apart the major claims of these verses to see what they are telling us about how Judaism understands the human condition and how we can do the best we can.

First, notice that these verses presume the following about who we are as human beings:

  1. We will sometimes do wrong.

  2. We have a moral sense so that the person in question "realizes his guilt."

  3. We Jews do not live in our own human sphere alone, but rather inhabit God's world, so an act against another human being is also an act against God.

  4. Once one has realized one's sin, to make up for it the first thing he or she must do is confess it.

  5. The wrongdoer must then repay the principal amount and add a penalty of 20%, paying the money to the victim(s).


Let us take these premises one by one. I shall try to make clear that none of them is obvious, that, indeed, other traditions have thought about human sin in very different ways, and that the Torah here, and the later Jewish tradition in general, are making some really important claims about who we are as human beings and the nature of our moral life.

  1. We sometimes do wrong. We are not perfect; God and angels may be, but we human beings are not. On the other hand, we do not always sin, for the Torah here speaks of "when a man or a woman commits any wrong against a fellow man..." This is very different from those theological systems that maintain that we always sin, either because we are born with Original Sin or are constructed in some other way that makes it impossible for us to avoid sin - that we are, as the title of Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon phrases it, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Rather, we sometimes do wrong - and, presumably, we sometimes do the right thing too.

  2. We have a moral sense and therefore can realize our guilt. This, in fact, is what I take to be the plain meaning of being created in the image of God, for the Torah maintains that once Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, the only thing that continued to distinguish them from God is their mortality. They therefore had to be expelled from the Garden of Eden to maintain that difference. Still, our moral sense is exactly what makes us God-like. Guilt is obviously not a pleasant experience, but it is the barometer that indicates that we know when we have done something wrong. Guilt makes sense, though, only when we have the free will to do otherwise and instead choose the wrong path, and some of the world's traditions - including major expressions of Islam -- think that all of our acts are predetermined.

  3. When we harm another person, it is not only that person who is affected, but the entire society and even God. This belies the rampant individualism that characterizes some elements of Western ideology; as Jews, we are intimately tied to the community and to God, and everything we do - right or wrong - affects not only the individuals directly involved, but the whole community and even God. A sin causes a tear in the fabric of society and in the relationship that we have with God. The Japanese have a similar doctrine: When one assaults another, in addition to compensating the victim and asking for that person's forgiveness, the perpetrator must ask forgiveness from the Emperor, for each act has broad implications for society as a whole. In the Jewish tradition, the whole world belongs to God (e.g., Deut. 10:14), and so a sin not only harms the people involved, but stains God's world and fractures the relationship we have with God. (The Peshat commentary of Etz Hayim, on p. 794, maintains that "The crime consists of defrauding another person and then committing sacrilege against God by denying it in a false oath," but it seems to me that what the Torah is asserting here is that the very crime itself, quite apart from a subsequent denial [if there is one], constitutes an offense against God as well as the people involved due to God's ownership of the entire world.)

  4. The first response demanded of sinners is confession. This is directly contrary to the advice most American lawyers give their clients to deny everything. Even without worrying about liability, confession is very difficult because we must confront the fact that we have done wrong, and that is a blow to our ego. We can no longer think of ourselves as being as good as we thought we were. Furthermore, confession opens us up to the righteous fury of the one we have offended or harmed, and it is never pleasant to be the object of such deserved anger. Still, the Torah demands confession if the slate is ever going to be wiped clean and the offender brought back into the good graces of the community and of God. (For more on the difficulties of confession, of asking for forgiveness, and of forgiving, see the chapter on Forgiveness in my book,Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics.)

  5. Finally, the Torah here requires compensation and a penalty of 20% given to the victim. Advocates of "victims' rights" in America must be wondering why it is so difficult for civil law to compensate victims of crimes when the Torah demanded it millennia ago.

The later Jewish tradition added the steps of remorse and of acting otherwise when the same opportunity arises, but even these five steps constitute a robust response to human wrongdoing. They together take us seriously as moral agents and as adults - indeed, as people created in the image of God. May we sin as little as possible, but when (not if) we do, may we have the courage and morality to respond to it as the Torah bids us to do.

Shabbat shalom.