But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his life
Rashi explains “Er’s sin was wasting his semen and not impregnating Tamar, and he did so lest he ruin her beauty.”
Er’s sin arose (as has been explained) from Jacob’s request to dwell in tranquility, ie. to avoid any potentially transgressive behavior. But this is not what God wants in the world. Therefore, God reveals to him “See that one of your progeny will also intentionally avoid actions that could cause a loss, only his will be from the loss of something physical. Open your eyes and mind to the importance of this!”
Jacob had this failure of character as well, only his was in his service of God. He did not want to ruin the beauty of his service. When this kind of internal flaw spreads and becomes actualized, it manifests as an explicit sin. So it is with all the thoughts of our forefathers. They put little stock in their own thoughts, but later God refines it and creates an entirely new soul/person to actualize that potential, and thus She clarifies the extent of this refining [and the incredible potential of their seemingly insignificant thoughts].
The sin of Er and Onan can be explained by the Mishnah (Avot 2:1),
Rabbi would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is
1) Harmonious for himself, and
2) Harmonious for humankind
Harmonious for himself – The action the person does finds favor in the eyes of others.
Harmonious for humankind – The action will be Good, down to his very core, such that it accords with the ideal of human existence.
A person has to look and make sure that all his actions line up with these two paths. If one is faced with a situation where there is not a synthesis of these two paths, then the disagreement between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai is brought to life (Talmud Ketubot 17a):
Our Rabbis taught: What does one say when he dances in front of the bride? The House of Shammai say: Praise her as she is, and The House of Hillel say: The bride is pleasing and pious.
Shammai holds that what is essential is being harmonious for himself, for if he says that the bride is pleasing and pious, then he will not find favor in the eyes of others since the Torah tells us to stay far from lies.
Hillel says the bride is pleasing and pious. Even though there is no harmony for himself due to his lie, one does not have to live according to the normative standards of others, for he is doing what is harmonious for humankind, and one is obligated in this, [as it is written (Proverbs 3:4), “And you will find favor in the eyes of God and (only afterwards) man.”] And as we explained there (Talmud ibid.),
The House of Hillel said to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one made a bad purchase in the market (and cannot replace it), should one praise it or denigrate it in his eyes? Surely one should praise it in his eyes!
Er governed himself according to the principle of harmonious for humankind.
It is known that new life cannot come to this world except through hiding and forgetting. Just like a planted seed cannot grow unless it first decays in the ground, so too with humankind. The Drop of Life that descends from the mind cannot be birthed into the world except through the process of thickening and materializing into semen. In this moment (of ejaculation) a person’s consciousness is suspended and forgotten, and if he were to always have God Consciousness, he would not be able to achieve this necessary forgetting that allows birth to occur.
Er was only in the state of harmonious to humankind. He always had clear insight into what God wanted of him and constantly stood in awareness of God. He never wanted to lose sight of this awareness. This is the meaning of Rashi’s explanation that he did not want to ruin her beauty, “her” being the harmony/beauty of Israel [which assumingly was achieved by his unwavering state of God Consciousness].
Onan took the second path. He saw that Judah wanted him to perform Levirate marriage with Tamar to preserve his brother’s name via his seed. This was wrong in his eyes, as it was only for his brother’s sake and he gained nothing from it, and so he bore a grudge. This way is characteristic even of great and righteous individuals, and this is referred to as harmonious for himself.
It is a sin to forget about God, but according to the Ishbitzer it is also a sin to never take any risks and not forget about God! This is big for the Ishbitzer. A sin for a higher purpose. It is still a sin, but it is built into the fabric of existence and necessitated by God. I’m going to posit though that this is not supposed to be some radical teaching all about holy sins (even though it is). It is about how we walk on our Path in this world. It is going to be mamash so hard. You may even have to lie to brides and your friends along the way. That’s just how it is. It is a character flaw to wish it wasn’t. By saying you have to forget about God sometimes, by allowing us to sin for God and make our divine service filthy and unattractive, the Ishbitzer is giving us one more tool to try and walk in this world. He is saying “Go for it, and don’t worry so much about how it is going to look. Just get started!” If we can forget about God, just for a second, it may allow for the I to come back into focus long enough to ask “What is it that I am supposed to be creating/bringing to the world?” Maybe that is why Er has to die, or put another way, why he is unable to exist in this world. There is simply no place here for a person who is so afraid to ruin something beautiful that he is paralyzed from doing anything at all. Of course God wants your absolute devotion! But when it gets to the point that you are not breathing new life into it, that you are unable to move from your current place to an unknown and potentially more difficult place of growth, what’s the point at all?
Link to the original Hebrew text (מ״ויהי ער״ עד ״אונן נקרא תפארת לעושיה״)