Halacha Date: 2 Elul 5779 September 2 2019
Our Sages in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 5) taught: “Anyone who causes the public to sin will not be afforded the opportunity to repent.” It seems from this that if one causes the public to sin, he has no possibility of repenting, he shall die bearing his sin, and retribution will be sought from him in the World to Come.
However, this is not necessarily the case for nothing stands in the face of true repentance. What our Sages mean to teach us in Pirkei Avot is that one who causes the public to sin shall not be granted Heavenly assistance to repent. Indeed, the verse in Mishlei (28, 17) states, “A man oppressed by bloodguilt will flee to a pit; let none give him support,” i.e. Heaven will not assist him in repenting.
The reason for this is because it is improper for this individual to end up in Gan Eden and the people who he caused to sin in Gehinnom. However, if he strains himself to perform Teshuva, his Teshuva shall be accepted. Indeed, the Rambam writes that all those who we know do not have a share in the World to Come, including those who cause the public to sin, will indeed enjoy a share in the World to Come if they repent fully for their wickedness before their death, for nothing stands in the way of Teshuva as we see in the first chapter of Masechet Pe’ah in the Talmud Yerushalmi.
Maran zt”l supports this idea based on the verse, “If your sins will be as red as red-dyed wool, they shall be as white as snow” (if you repent fully). This means that if the sins are only your sins, i.e. belonging only to the sinner, only then will they be as white as snow. However, the continuation of the verse states, “If they shall be as red as red string, they shall be like wool.” Interestingly, the verse does not state, “If your sins will be as red as red string”; rather, it states, “If they will be as red,” which in Hebrew grammar can also imply that one has likewise caused others’ sins to be red. In this case, it will only be like wool and not like snow, for snow is whiter than wool. Nevertheless, if one has already repented, one’s Teshuva shall be accepted. (Anaf Etz Avot, page 372)
Included in this prohibition of causing people to sin are those who influence others against the Torah luminaries of the generation and cause the honor of the Torah to be diminished. This includes people who work in the media, even religious media outlets, who have the ability to influence the masses for the good or bad. Also included in this category are people hurt Torah institutions and the honor of the Torah as well as those who sell forbidden products, such as selling regular, non-greenhouse-grown or non-pre-checked lettuce to unassuming customers who do not know any better. All of these are considered people who cause the public to sin; their punishment shall be severe and their repentance process difficult. Nevertheless, if they do indeed repent with all their heart, their Teshuva shall be accepted by Hashem.
It is proper though that they “repent relatively” by bringing about merit to the public; this shall atone for their sins and cause their repentance to be more readily accepted.
This “relative repentance” is, for instance, if one caused the public to sin by disseminating evil ideas, one should then go and instill correct ideas and views that are true to Hashem and his Torah in the hearts of people. Similarly, if a woman caused the public to sin due to her lack of modesty, she should then accept upon herself from now on to dress more modestly and guide her friends and daughters to dress modestly as well and so on and so forth. This will, in turn, atone for their sins and cause their repentance to be accepted by Hashem.