A Smaller Sin
“השליכו אותו…למען הציל אותו” (בראשית לז:כב)
Zevulun Frankel lived in a luxurious upper class neighborhood. His neighbors, the Boors, were traditional Jews who went to their shul every Shabbos. A regular Davening was held there, albeit without a Mechitzah between the men and women. Not only was there no Mechitzah, but the men and women actually sat together.
One day, Jeff Boor was mowing his lawn when he saw Zevulun pull up, and the two started a conversation. Jeff mentioned that he had just been elected shul president, and was thinking about implementing different changes in the shul. With a ray of hope in his heart, Zevulun asked what type of changes he was planning on making. “Well,” Jeff said with authority, “One thing that has really been bothering me is the kiddush. I mean, there is really nothing substantial served there, and don’t tell me that herring and cake is a suitable effort at tikun olam!”
“Hey, Jeff!” Tracy Boor called out from her deck chair. “You missed a spot!” “Sorry,” Jeff said, “I’ll get to it in a second.” It was at this point that Zevulun mentioned to Jeff his own suggestion about his presidency. “Maybe you should try to make some changes in the seating at the shul.” “Certainly!” Jeff said, “Those old seats in the front row have to go.” “No,” Zevulun said, “I’m referring to having the men and women having separate sections. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to daven without anyone disturbing your davening, or telling you that you missed a prayer?” The two smiled. “Well,” Jeff said, “Maybe we’ll talk about this again a different time, so I can get a better understanding, besides of course the basic understanding I already have, of why this is important.”
After excusing himself from Jeff’s thoughts of “tikun olam,” he thought about whether or not he should try to influence Jeff to make minor changes in the synagogue. For example, perhaps he could influence him to have the men and women sections separated as he had suggested, even if it would not be with a Mechitzah. Then again, he thought, they will still be sitting without a Mechitzah and I will be the one to sanction and encourage it. He therefore called his Rav to get a better perspective whether or not he should instruct Jeff on how to commit a smaller sin.
The Pasuk quoted above notes that Reuven did not really think that Yosef should be thrown in the pit at all. Rather, he thought that this was the only way to get out of the situation. By instructing them to throw him into the pit, he was essentially telling them to commit a smaller sin in order to save them from a bigger sin of killing him, and to return Yosef to his father.
The truth is that there is a clear source to lessen a sin, even though the people in question will continue to sin. The Gemara in Sotah (48a) says that when men sing and women answer them in song, it is promiscuous behavior. When women sing and men answer them in song, it (the evil inclination) is like a blazing fire. The Gemara asks, what is the difference? Why discuss which sin is worse? The Gemara answers, the difference is in order to abolish one before the other. In other words, if a person has the power to stop one of the behaviors, he should stop the practice of women singing and men answering. This shows that we do lessen the sins of sinners.
However, as Zevulun thought above, why isn’t this considered agreeing and condoning sin? Moreover, telling a sinner that his behavior is appropriate is a transgression of “Chanufah” — “flattery” which is forbidden.