The Hebrew word for sin in this verse is cheit. According to Rav Hirsch, cheit is related to chatah, which means to “to take something out of the sphere to which it belongs, especially to take burning coals out of a fire” – hence the word machtah, a coal pan. To sin is to remove ourselves from “the glowing rays of the Divine Word, the eish dat, the eish ochelet” which is supposed to “radiate our whole being.”
Rav Hirsch continues: “As long as…the Divine fire burns brightly in us and through us, we are lechem ishe laHashem, food and fuel for godliness on earth. But as soon as anything falls out of this fire, it becomes dull, dark, and evil,” just as glowing coals removed “from a fire burn out and become lifeless.”
A famous New Testament verse instructs people to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto G-d the things that are G-d’s.” Unfortunately, even some frum Jews operate by this principle. They think that studying general knowledge in school or spending time at work is a “secular” pursuit, and they yearn to return to the beis medrash; only there, they believe, can they serve G-d in an ideal fashion.
Rav Hirsch rejects this bifurcation of existence. All of life, he argues, should be a divine service, and everything we do should be animated by the fire of G-d’s Torah. If we fail in our duty – if we pursue an activity divorced from this fire – we have committed a sin.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) – head of the Jewish community in Frankfurt, Germany for over 35 years – was a prolific writer whose ideas, passion, and brilliance helped save German Jewry from the onslaught of modernity.
Elliot Resnick, PhD, is the host of “The Elliot Resnick Show” and the editor of an upcoming work on etymological explanations in Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Chumash.