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Failure to Sin

I. The Problem of a Failed Sin
We all fail at some point in our lives. Hopefully we can learn from those experiences and turn them into long-term
successes. But what happens when the failure is a good thing? If someone attempts to sin but finds his efforts
thwarted, is he lucky or does he still bear guilt?
This seems to be Yosef’s response to his brothers’ apology: “And as for you, you meant evil against me; but God
meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Rav Chaim ben Atar (Or Ha-Chaim, ad loc.) compares the brothers’ action to
someone who tries to give a poisonous drink to another but accidentally gives him wine. Because he did not poison
anyone, he is completely innocent. Similarly, Rav Yosef Bechor Shor (Gen. 45:5) says that Yosef told his brothers
not to worry that they sold him. It was a divine decree. Even if they intended to eat pig meat, it turned out to be
This last point of the Bechor Shor raises a problem. The Gemara (Nazir 23a) says that someone who intends to eat
pig meat but turns out to have eaten lamb still needs atonement. How could Bechor Shor quote the same Talmudic
passage but assume the brothers were completely innocent?
II. Interpersonal Sins
Rav Shmaryahu Shulman (Mareish Ba-Birah, Gen. 50:20) quotes those who differentiate between interpersonal
sins (bein adam le-chaveiro) and divinely directed sins (bein adam la-Makom). When you sin against God, for
example by eating non-kosher food, your intention is primary. If you intend to eat non-kosher, then your
accidental failure still counts as a sin. However, when you sin against man, as the brothers did when they sold
Yosef, the results are more important than the intention. Since Yosef’s sale ended in a positive way, there was no
Rav Shulman questions whether this is correct. The Gemara (Keshbos 66b) quotes the daughter of Nakdimon ben
Gurion, once a wealthy man in Jerusalem, explain to R. Yochanan ben Zakai why her father lost his fortune. The
story is told in two versions: either he gave charity for the sake of his own honor or he failed to give sufficient
charity. The Einei Yitzchak commentary (ad loc.), the reprinting of which Rav Shulman facilitated some 25 years
ago, explains that according to one version, intent is important when it comes to giving charity. Since Nakdimon
ben Gurion gave charity for his own honor, he failed to fulfill the mitzvah. According to the other version, intent is
irrelevant. Rather, he did not give enough charity.
According to this explanation, the Gemara debates whether intent is important in an interpersonal commandment.
According to the above answer about the brothers’ sale of Yosef, intent is not important in an interpersonal
commandment. Rav Shulman suggests that the Gemara is debating whether intent is important in a positive
mitzvah, a command to do something. However, the brothers would have violated a prohibition. An interpersonal
prohibition is about harming someone. If there is no harm, then regardless of intent there is no violation.
III. Failed Mitzvah
Rav Yosef Patzonovsky (Pardes Yosef, Gen. 50:20) offers another explanation of the Or Ha-Chaim’s comment. He
suggests the someone who intends to eat pig meat but ends up eating lamb needs atonement because he
intended to sin. However, the brothers intended to a mitzvah. Earlier, the Or Ha-Chaim (Gen. 37:20) explains the
brothers’ actions against Yosef legally. They judged him as a false witness and found him guilty, deserving of
Similarly, Rav Ovadiah Seforno (Gen. 37:18) suggests that the brothers were acting self-defense. They believed that
Yosef was trying to kill them. Either way, they believed that killing him was a mitzvah.
When the Or Ha-Chaim compares the brothers’ selling Yosef to someone who gives poison to another to drink, he
was referring to poison as a form of execution. They intended to execute him legally but God had a different plan.
For this attempted mitzvah, they did not need atonement.

A friend pointed out the danger in this approach. Every fanatic thinks his obsessive actions constitute a mitzvah.
Can we really suggest that positive intentions turn a violent act into a mitzvah? Even according to this approach,
the answer would only be yes if the fanatic fails. The failure would prevent his act from becoming a sin because
God had other plans. However, if the fanatic succeeds in his plans, he bears full responsibility for his actions.