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Here’s a simple mashal- if you’re told that if you drive you’re car really fast you’ll guaranteed die, you’ll 100% not drive your car really fast.

But when it comes to religion, we’re told that we’ll be punished and go to Gehinnom if we do X sin, yet all of us continue to sin.

My question is what’s the psychological reason for this? Do any sources talk about this dichotomy, of how we believe we’ll be punished yet we still sin?

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    "Cognitive dissonance" is the phrase used a lot. Rav Moshe Feinstein actually wrote that angels could choose to disobey, but G-d's presence is so utterly obvious to them that it would be like jumping off a skyscraper without a parachute to us.
    – Shalom
    Nov 16, 2023 at 2:05
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    Chassidus often talks about the thief, about to break into a house, who davens for success. He believes in Hashem, but it's too abstract to influence his actions. Our job is to internalize the abstract to bring our behavior in line with our convictions.
    – shmosel
    Nov 16, 2023 at 2:51
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    People will absolutely still drive quickly even if they were told they were guaranteed to die. As long as they didn't see it happen immediately to people who broke the rules, they would certainly bend in that situation... and that's exactly what happens. A better example is smoking, because while performing it, the smoker knows it's bad for them but imagines they can turn it around and still live a long life, just as a Jew imagines that this sin won't mean they aren't still a relatively good Jew. It's also a good example because it has intrinsic enjoyment and release. Nov 16, 2023 at 3:06

2 Answers 2

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Answer number 2, with a few more points.

One of the main things that got us up in the morning for thousands of years is the peril of life. If we didn't get up early and milk the cows, collect the eggs, draw the water, and work on the crops for 12 hours, we were in grave danger of death. This attitude of "you have to do it otherwise you will die" was real, and convincing, and that motivation was something that we had available in our religious life as well.

In today's day and age a lot of people are far less convinced. Get up early or I will die? I won't die, I'll just miss the school bus, who cares? A day off never killed anyone and some abstract "you won't be able to pay your future mortgage if you continue to fail school and then you'll end up on the street and you might die!" argument makes no impression at all.

People being told that they "have to not sin!" doesn't make sense anymore. They tried it, it felt great and nothing bad happened, and being told it is abstractly bad for them in terms of nonspecific blessing or some future life doesn't make any psychological impact. Good, because it is not true.

In fact, being told that we have all these spiritual needs is the source of depression. Chassidus teaches us that the big mistake of some modern psychology is that it burdens us with more needs. Our mother never loved us and we hate our brother and we need to this and we have to that, and pile that on top of our religious needs and we can't breathe. Chassidus teaches us "hey, Hashem created the world, not you, despite what everyone is telling you. You didn't ask to be born because you didn't need to be born. Someone else needed you to be born".

Being told we must, we have to, we need to is making us mentally unwell and it is simply not true. Being needy is terrible for people, it's so closely associated with self centeredness and doesn't do well except when our situation is so dire that it gets us out of bed so we won't die. Above all, it is not true. We don't need anything.

The noble human soul knows the truth. It is on a mission and it is not needy, it is needed. Many people are taught the opposite: "you think Hashem needs you or your mitzvot? That's heresy! Of course He doesn't, it's for you. Don't you want Olam Haba? And blessings?" so they say, you know what, I've thought about it, and I don't really need it either. I tried it, didn't like it, and I don't really care.

The truth is that Hashem does need us, and He is real and wasn't created. This means that Him needing us to do the mitzvot is a real need. If people were told this, they would be excited to get up in the morning to serve Him, finding every moment of life a precious treasure of an opportunity to do something for Him. If Hashem needs me to not sin, then I can do it. I can let go of it for Him, if not for me, because it's true, He needs me to stop, and I don't need to sin.

We find a parallel in this in terms of other people too. We don't see how other people need us to stop sinning. We don't see or feel the consequences we have on others. A typical teenager is not thinking about his future wife and kids. He doesn't see how every sin he does is damaging his self control, his character, his strength, and squandering valuable preparation time, all of which his future wife and kids desperately need from him. Once he marries her and has kids, it is often too late. He has lost his empathy, his ability to love vulnerably, has gained a temper and bad habits, and can't teach them any Torah or good character because he didn't learn it himself.

If people knew in their youth how much they will one day be needed, and felt that pang of loving, noble, vulnerable responsibility in their heart as a dose of reality, they wouldn't sin. However, if they are not taught this, but are taught that sinning is bad for them, and their selfish neediness is appealed to, it won't make much of a dent, if any, on their psychology.

Being told that no, they are needed, by Hashem who made them, by their parents who made them, by their siblings and friends, by the whole world, all of whom are waiting desperately for them to stop sinning, it can't be ignored. The face of Yaacov appeared to Yosef when he was about to sin, and he couldn't do it. He couldn't let down his father. He couldn't abandon his mission. If a person thinks that nobody needs him to not sin, then nobody's face will come to them when they do it, and they will be stuck in the dark and the sin will be guiltless for them and become even something they are deeply fond of, and why not? It might be their only escape from the depression of all the "needs" they are "burdened" with by their religion, their parents and their psychologist...

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  • Even better than the first, thank you! Nov 17, 2023 at 15:51
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Apart from the obvious answer which is that they don't believe it is true, the comments have brought some good answers that show that this is a multi-faceted issue as the world of "sin" is very complex. I'd like to take what Ethan Leonard said and expand a little and connect it to tzimtzum.

I remember very well the impressionable story Rabbi Akiva Tatz brings in one of his books about how he had a patient who had a certain disease that meant when he smoked, his capillaries would get damaged, and prolonged smoking was forcing him to have his limbs amputated. He recalls wondering what that man was thinking, before lighting that cigarette and enjoying those 60 seconds of mild pleasure, and weighing that against the possibility of being able to hold and play with his children, as he saw the man being wheeled in to have his final limb removed.

What is going on? The man clearly has the desire to quit. Even people who are not in such grave danger generally want to quit. They know it stinks, it is a crux, expensive, and doesn't really even feel that good. They see the warnings on every packet with the graphic pictures of how they are destined to die.

The answer is that they are convinced that smoking will kill them, but they aren't convinced that this cigarette will kill them. A very similar thing happens with positive mitzvot, and is a general lesson we learn from tzimtzum: too much desire, raw desire that hasn't been put into a vessel, destroys the very project that it is desirous of.

A person is very inspired to learn. He just heard a great shiur that got him really motivated to learn and he runs to the beit midrash, but then finds he is paralysed. Why? Because he opens a gemara, and starts to learn and it's too slow! Why davka this daf? It kills it. A person is meant to be metzamtzem his ratzon; constrict his desire; put it to the background leaving behind nothing but an impression of the original desire, and fill the space with a concentrated, refined desire that is specific and targetted to what needs to be done in the moment. Once the project is finished, the desire comes back in full force to enjoy the fruits of the labour.

So one of the biggest reasons we sin is that even if we are convinced we will damage ourselves, and hurt people, and be punished, we don't believe that this sin will bring all that. This sin we can get away with. Our desire to be better people and stop sinning and hurting people is so strong, and raw, and unfocussed that it doesn't leave room in our heart to be able to concentrate on small minor details. The small minor details don't satisfy our desire to change and be heroes, so we continue to do small sins and it doesn't go against our psychological desire to be better people - we don't see how this one cigarette makes us a bad person.

Here is a wonderful shiur that explains this concept from first principles for the first 30-45 minutes, then spends the next 45-60 minutes giving practical examples.

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    The answer is that they are convinced that smoking will kill them, but they aren't convinced that this cigarette will kill them. In the words of Basi Legani, הגם דבעברו על אחת ממצות הוי' אשר ציוה לעשותן ואינו עושה, או שעושה אחת ממצות הוי' אשר ציוה הוי' לבלתי לעשותן, הרי עי"ז נפסק הנימא פרטית, ועוד יותר שפועל חלישות בכללות החבל ובכ"ז הנה להיותם רק נימין פרטים הרי אינו נרגש אצלו כ"כ
    – shmosel
    Nov 16, 2023 at 23:16
  • Interesting answer, thank you! Nov 17, 2023 at 2:33

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