Moshe had grown up a Jew his whole life. He had learned the law, practiced the prayers, and participated in every annual campaign. He was a model congregant! One day he showed up to see the rabbi in a state of distress. What is it, my child? The rabbi asked. “I realized that a few weeks ago,” he said, “I didn’t wash my hands before I ate, and I am very upset about it.”
“Well,” said the rabbi, “that’s not the most severe sin in the world I guess. But you could have still said the blessing.”
“Well the food itself wasn’t kosher.”
“You ate non-kosher food? This is much more serious. Why would you do such a thing?”
“Well Rabbi, how was I supposed to eat kosher food in a non-kosher restaurant?
You couldn’t find a kosher restaurant to go to?” asks the rabbi incredulously.
“What on Yom Kippur?”
Let’s face it, folks. As Reform Jews especially, each of us has our own relationship with the tradition, we find a comfortable place to practice those rituals and observances that are meaningful to us. I did not mean to open my remarks by drawing undo attention to the practice of kashrut, and if I have already embarrassed anyone here, in the spirit of these days of repentance, I apologize. In truth, Jews have always defined their own sense of right and wrong through their practice of the halakha, Jewish law and ritual.
Today, we sit here preparing to enumerate the many ways we have “gotten it wrong’ in the past year – our errors, our mistakes, our missteps, and misdeeds. We will contemplate the albatross, the ball and chain, our cruel words and insensitive actions. Perhaps even a Jewish ritual or two we wish we had taken more seriously. When we are brought before judgment for our lives and our relationships, there is not one among us who will claim to be blameless.
I am comfortable with all of these ideas. Each word is a window into an entire theology of right and wrong, good and evil. I believe we have all made mistakes, I believe every one of us has something to apologize for. But there is one word, one idea – fundamental to the High Holy Days, and yet so foreign, strange, and inaccessible I have never been able to relate to it. Many of us have never even stopped to consider what this word means, and for years we may have accepted it at face value.
The word is “sin”, it appears countless times in our machzor, and I have to tell you, it turns out there is very good reason for my discomfort.
The word “sin” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew, a corruption of our theology, and when we use the word “sin”, we evoke an entire world of meaning not inherent in the original text.
If we are to embrace these days, and take seriously the work of teshuvah before us, we must start by understanding this one, troubling little word. And if we can reclaim this word from the Machzor, it might just lead us to open new doors for ourselves – to actually find healing and repair for ourselves and each other.
“We have sinned.” When you consider this statement, what associations come to mind? Do you imagine, as I do, a fire and brimstone preacher, taking his flock to task?
It is not enough (this word seems to suggest) to make peace with your fellow, your spouse, your neighbor. To sin encompasses no ordinary mistake! We imagine a sin as an act against God, a terrible thing you have done intentionally which has damaged your connection to the Eternal, and that is the breach which must be repaired.
What we don’t realize is that this definition of sin comes from every religion other than Judaism. St Augustine defines sin as a loss of love for God – only moral failings are called sins. The seven deadly sins are vices – more troubling for their effects in heaven than on earth. Thomas Aquinas, who learned everything he could from Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides or the Rambam, but disagreed with him on this point, argued that sin was the opposite of virtue, and he included those things which destroyed a person’s moral character in his list. He wrote, “Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in that man condemns eternal things for the sake of temporal things.” (Summa Theologica)
On the other hand, we know from the words in our prayer book, the ones we have already read, and the ones waiting for us next week, that if we do the work of the High Holy Days, we are asking forgiveness for far more, and far less than our moral failings. The extensive list includes just about any wrong action we can imagine on every scale, be they against another person, against God, or even against ourselves. “Teach us to forgive ourselves for all these sins, O forgiving God, and help us to overcome them” says the Gates of Repentance (pg. 329). We include narrow mindedness and falsehood, arrogance and hatred in our list of wrongs. Hypocrisy and hostility. These are not moral failings but the daily dramas of civil society. There must be a better word for them than sin.
Every year we recite these ancient words, and every year we consider our behaviors. We judge ourselves, and we are judged. We ask for forgiveness, and we give and receive second chances. The entire process of teshuvah, or returning to our true selves, hinges on our ability to define and understand the complexity of our behaviors. Then teshuvah, the active process of turning, unlocks the door that holds us back from being the people we are trying to be. What is the right word, then, to define and understand our mistakes, our misdeeds, our missteps?
According to Adin Steinsalz, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the 20th century, we don’t actually have any concept analogous to the word “sin” in Judaism. While we have many words describing wrong action and evil, we have no concept of sin in the way Christianity does. To start, Steinsalz explains, a bad deed is simply the opposite of a good deed – a mitzvah. Mitzvot are those actions which bring God into the world, so sin, if we must call it that, are those actions which remove God from the world. Mitzvot are avenues for us to partner with God in the completion of Creation. Sin is the neglect of that partnership, our covenant, the Brit.
How should we best use these ten days to better ourselves? The Jewish path to absolving “sin” is through the performance of mitzvot, including the mitzvah of teshuvah, of turning, or repentance. In one of the more well-known passages in the Mishnah the ancient rabbis declare: “for transgressions against God Day of Atonement atones; for transgressions of one human being against another the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another. Yom Kippur can only be meaningful for you, once you have made peace with others, and within.
Rabbi Elyse Frishman offers a radical understanding of where we might find that inner peace. (pg 111 in We Have Sinned, “Finding Ourselves in God”) Imagine two drawings, she writes. In one, you are in the center, some trees surrounding you, perhaps; you are outlined clearly against the bright blue sky. In the other, infinite sparks of light fill vast heavens, and you are a speck of a speck of a speck within that grand cosmos.
The first, Rabbi Frishman says, is your point of view as someone in the center of the universe. In the second, you are infinitely less important, almost invisible. We normally see ourselves in picture number one: the person around whom the universe revolves. It takes a good deal of effort to imagine our existence in the infinite space of picture number two.
It is possible, however, so our perspective vacillates between these two extremes: from utter self-importance to utmost humility. We experience both.
So where is the center of the universe? Physically we know there is no center, so perhaps the center is everywhere. We call God “haMakom, the place” meaning “every place” for if God is everywhere, wherever there is place there is God. Rabbi Frishman concludes, we sin when we confuse those centers, as if the only proper picture is the first one, with the sun, moon, or stars shining just for us. This egocentrism leads us astray, off target, away from God, the true center. We miss the reality of a God-centered universe and insist instead on a self-centered one. We naturally think of ourselves as part of picture number one; in reality, we are part of picture number two, part of a larger whole.
Here is a beautifully Jewish understanding of sin. Not as venial or mortal, not as a list of evil actions,but the negation of beauty, honesty and truth; the thought that we are all-important; even the denial of others’ feelings. We ignore the effects of our actions, because we are too self-absorbed to notice. The sin is against others, but in many ways we end up hurting ourselves, and God in the process.
If we were to hand out a blank journal instead of a prayer book, and ask you to pray this year by compiling a personal list of people with whom you should reconnect, events from the past year which keep you up at night, I doubt all of our lists would intersect. Such a list does exists. And without realizing it, you and I have both contributed to it. It lives in the Machzor where we read, “al chet shechatanu lifanecha” – for the sin we have sinned against You. We admit to failures of truth, failures and justice, and failures of love. We confess to chet – to sins, mistakes. And when we say these words together, out loud, in the collective, then we are reminded that our own heartfelt list is writing itself, even as we speak.
If I was living in a God-centered world, every conversation, every friendship and relationship with members of my family would be an opportunity to bring the Divine into the world by honoring them. In my self-centered world, I miss that chance and think only of how the words sound to me. In a God-centered world our actions matter to everyone around us, in a self-centered world all I can see is how everyone else affects me. My sins are the fault of others, transgressions and mistakes are misunderstandings. I can avoid responsibility, and I do.
As we look deeper into our tradition, there are at least four Hebrew words found throughout our prayer book – all metaphors for wrongdoing. The qualities of these words can help us understand not only the words we say today, but also the very nature of these days. Understanding what the rabbis meant when they talked about sin can help us understand our own lives and the goals that we set for ourselves during the next 10 days.
Those of us who attended a Jewish summer camp in our youth will undoubtedly remember the song, “Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah” – one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah. The second line declares, “Averiah Goreret Aveira” – one bad deed leads to another bad deed. Aveira comes from the word Avar, which means to cross over, literally to transgress. Consider the imagery of this phrase even in English. To transgress means that once we were walking on the path, and that path had clear boundaries. We were walking in the right direction, perhaps we were even doing our best to stay on the path but for reasons both large and small we found ourselves crossing outside the boundary.
You are walking the same path today you walked yesterday. Starting a new year does not mean starting over. Last year we veered off the path. All that is required of us now is to straighten out our steps, regain our bearings, and turn. The turn isn’t all that much, we weren’t headed in the wrong direction to begin with. What is required in not a 180 degree turn, the path is much closer to us than that.
We are almost there, if we allow ourselves to be deliberate, and choose our direction.
Very often we find ourselves in minor disputes, or confronting simple miscommunication. Every time that we gossip or tell a lie, or bend the truth even a little bit, we are negating a commandment, that’s an Aveira, making a mistake, straying from the path. One Aveira does, in fact, lead to more Aveira. But the repair of those missteps is as simple as adjusting the steering wheel to stay in your own lane.
Of course we know there are more serious offenses, burdens that weigh more heavily on our hearts and minds. The machzor refers to these sins as “Peshah.” In modern Hebrew, this is a word used for crime. We recite the litany of sin in our prayer book, with the hope that those guilty of such actions, are brought closer to the light by confessing with the community. We are all responsible for one another. For this type of sin, the Day of Yom Kippur has great power, but can only be part of the healing process. Speaking the words out loud does not absolve each of us from addressing others face to face.
There are other words for sin, but the most common, the one we might connect to more than Peshah, or Aveira, , is the simple word “Chet.” “Chatati lifanecha” I have sinned before You – we offer, and rather than identifying those serious offenses, immoral or illegal things, we concentrate on something far more personal. “Al chet she chatanu” these are the sins we carry most closely guarded. Not sensational, not intentional perhaps, but also not inconsequential. Chet refers to the kind of wrongs that might not be a big deal to others, but they are very, very important to us.
Take out your journal, make your list. What “Chets” do you need to write down, to release from your marriage, your relationship with your kids or your parents, your dear friends or partners – sins you have been holding onto for too long?
The word Chet comes from the root Cha-Tah, meaning to miss the mark. It is a bit over-simplistic to think of an archer’s bow. We aim for the bull’s eye, but we go off target and we miss. But this can be a useful metaphor, because it points out very simply all of the many things we do right, and it also points the way toward teshuvah, making the next year better, by taking better aim.
Yes, we all have sinned. But Chet tells us we know how to aim, how to find the bullseye, how to practice and to get closer and closer. It takes awareness, and intention. When we miss, we know we used the right kind of bow, we even knew how to hold the arrow. We just missed the mark by aiming a few degrees off. There are clearly terrible injustices and crimes committed each and every day, times when we need to learn the fundamentals of the game we play. But a Jewish view of sin, for the High Holy Days, would direct us toward a very personal journey of the heart. Review your life, and your relationships.
Consider the work you then must do. All the prayers, all the ritual of these days, simply give you a chance to practice your aim.
Our ancestors had many thoughts about the process of repentance. Ultimately their wisest words remind us that to live is to fail and make mistakes. Our goal is not to avoid sin and wrongdoing altogether, but to grow from our past and to strengthen our sense of self and our connections to others. To remember we are a part of something greater than ourselves, and that every moment is an opportunity to bring God into the world, rather than feed our own ego. Teshuvah is not defined as “atonement” any more than Chet should be translated as mortal sin. Teshuvah is our turning, and returning to God, to the community, and to our best sense of self.
Some translate Chet as the act of stumbling. I like that. It feels like the right tone for the aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the ten days of Teshuvah which start today. We walk, we stumble, but we keep moving through the woods. Rabbi Chaim of Tzanz used to tell this story: A person had been wandering in the forest for several days, unable to find a way out. Finally in the distance he spotted someone approaching. With a heart full of joy, he thought to himself, “Now I will surely find a way out of this forest.” When the two neared one another, the first asked the second, “Will you please tell me the way out?”
The other replied: “I also do not know the way out, for I too have been wandering here for many days, but come, let us search for the way out together.”
We are, all of us, searching for a way out of the woods and into the light. We stumble, we make many missteps and follow many wrong paths. But the Gates of Teshuvah are always open, and today we might join hands and learn from one another to find new paths forward. “Cause us to return, O God, and we shall return,” we pray. This year as in the past, may our prayers be heard and answered. L’shana Tovah.