Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 29 November 2014 / 7 Kislev 5775

The Shemoneh Esrei - The Sixth Blessing - Part 3

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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“Forgive us…, for we have sinned accidently; pardon us… for we have willfully transgressed; for You pardon and forgive.”

When one commits a sin there is a twofold effect: 1) the soul becomes blemished and will need to be cleansed. 2) The soul becomes separate and even distances itself from G-d, so to speak.

When we ask for forgiveness, the main focus is on the spiritual damage caused by one’s sins. The basis for our request is based on two things: 1) that the sin was done accidentally; thus, since there is no actual betrayal in the act the main concern is the spiritual damage to one’s soul. 2) One must also realize that, ultimately, he is responsible for the sin, since had he been more careful the sin could have been avoided.

Regarding a sin committed willfully, one must address the main issue, which is that he has rebelled against G-d. The focus of his teshuva should be on how to fix the damage done to the relationship one has with G-d, as a loyal son and servant, making every effort to reconnect to his former standing.

In the beginning of this blessing we ask first for forgiveness for accidental sins, and afterwards for a pardon for one’s willful sins. However, at the blessing’s conclusion the order is reversed, first mentioning pardon and then forgiveness.

It is well-known that the Sages were precise with both the wording selected for a blessing, as well as its order. Therefore, the question arises as to why the order was changed.

The intent in switching the order is to give the impression that both accidental and willful sins need to be treated with equal importance. This point, however, requires clarification.

While a willful sin is obviously more severe than an accidental one, in the latter one might wrongly conclude that since he did not commit the sin with intent he need not worry too much about fixing it. In his heart he will feel that he is still as devoted and connected to G-d as before. This reasoning is false. Furthermore, it can lead to a lack of carefulness, resulting in a relaxed approach to one’s Divine service, which will lead to more accidental sins. This can eventually lead to willful transgression. Regarding the downward spiral effect of sin the Sages explain that a person can even come to commit idolatry.

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