Rabbi Robin S. Sparr:
Last year in this slot, I talked about forgiveness, and how difficult it can be to forgive in a genuine and healing way.
This year, I’d like to take a step back, look before forgiveness, and to focus instead on the idea of SIN. What is a sin? What does the word really mean? The dictionary defines sin as “an offense against God, religion, or good morals.” But somehow, the word “sin” makes many of us uncomfortable. We may bristle, or cower, at the word “sin.” It feels like an old fashioned word, a descriptor for truly unspeakable acts, something dark and ominous.
In our old, recently retired, machzor, Gates of Repentance, we encountered the word “sin” dozens and dozens – perhaps hundreds – of times. Surely, each of us is deeply flawed, entertaining dark thoughts and feelings, and often acting in ways that do not represent our highest ideals. But the multiple recountings of our long lists of sins throughout the many services of Yom Kippur is hard to take. Sometimes these recitations leave us feeling a little defeated and overwhelmed, unsure how we can possibly find favor and grace again. At other times, we become almost inured by the barrage of misdeeds, a little numb, and the words bounce off and fall away from us without meaning.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a Professor at Hebrew Union College and author of numerous books on liturgy, addresses our discomfort with the word “sin,” acknowledging that,
…we prefer the language of making mistakes, falling short, or missing the mark, as if life is target practice and sin is just an arrow gone astray. But some errors are morally repugnant. When harm is unleashed at a magnitude that exceeds a mere mistake, we need a word like “sin” to do justice to the immoral act.
All the prayers we’ve just read are an accounting of our errors, the many ways in which we’ve fallen short, missed the mark, failed to fulfill our potential, and, yes, some are morally repugnant.
We may shrink from the idea that we’ve committed wrongs so grievous that they fall into the category of “sin.” Each of us wants to believe that we are, at our core, “a good person.”
The word “sin” with all of its dark and ancient connotations of evil becomes a stumbling block to our reflection and repentance.
So how does Judaism view the idea of “sin”? Let us again visit with Rabbi Hoffman. He teaches:
The Bible likens sin to a burden that weighs us down. For example, the biblical attribute of Divine pardon was nosei avon (Exodus 34), meaning, literally, “lifting the sin” from off of us. Sin was also perceived as a stain that must be wiped clean. “Be your sins like crimson,” the prophet Isaiah says, “they can turn snow-white” (1:18).
The metaphor of sin as burden rings true today. We all know what it’s like to be weighed down by work or responsibility. We can also be weighed down by the guilt that accompanies knowing we have done something terrible—or realizing that we regularly do things wrong but cannot manage to change course. That is the very essence of addiction, after all; many of us are dependent on alcohol or drugs, unhealthy foods, overwork, gambling, or any number of bad habits that may lead to outright sins. Sometimes we just cannot get out from under by ourselves; we need Divine help. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are times to say, “With God’s help, I will change course. I need not be weighed down any more.” And, hopefully, by the close of the High Holy Days, we will feel relieved of the burdens we have carried for an entire year.
The rabbis who canonized the Bible in the first two centuries C.E. preferred another metaphor: sin as debt. The rabbinic term for “punishment” is puranut, from the root para, meaning “to pay off or collect a debt.” They pictured us as building up a bank account of good deeds through “acts of loving kindness” (gemilut chasadim), which were then set upon a heavenly balancing scale to see if our good deeds outweighed our sins. Christianity, which arose at that time, employed this same image of “sin as debt” in the “Lord’s Prayer”: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
The metaphor of sin as debt is also apt for our time. Many of us know the fear of going so deeply into debt we may never be able to crawl out. We can think of the Day of Atonement, then, as the opportunity to say, “I have committed many sins—fallen deeply in debt—but can now start again with a clean balance sheet.”
Rabbi Sol Scharfstein offers another interpretation, on page 94 of our machzor, based on the Moses Ibn Ezra quote, “Our sins are like veils upon our faces, hiding us from our Maker!” Rabbi Scharfstein states:
Ibn Ezra gives us a striking image: our sins are like a veil covering the face, separating us from God, from the people in our life, and from our true self. The process of teshuva is meant to return us to our core, the person we really are, the good and worthy human being masked behind the veil. T’shuvah represents an optimistic outlook on life: change is always possible; wrongdoing does not stain us forever; a veil can be removed.
And so we gain an understanding of sin as a weight or burden which can be lifted or cast off, a stain that can be washed away, a debt which can be erased, or a veil which can be lifted.
The important thing to note here is that there is a distinction between the sin and the sinner. Our sins are not our essence. Sin is something we DO, not something we ARE. This is a central tenet of Judaism. We are not permanently stained by the terrible acts we commit, because our deeds are not essentially who we are. That’s not to say our apology equals our absolution. But the opportunity to repent, repair and make restitution exists, and ultimately, the door to forgiveness, return and restoration is always open.
On Yom Kippur, we take an “accounting of the soul,” known in Hebrew as “cheshbon hanefesh.” It’s very much a sort of spiritual PET scan – only instead of examining every cell of our corporal being, we examine every strand of our spiritual and ethical self. We list and reflect upon our deeds – both those of commission and of omission, those we commit with our bodies and with our words.
In Judaism, it is our deeds that are judged, not our thoughts or intentions. However: we know our thoughts and intentions can become manifest in our deeds – ‘thoughts become things,’ as motivational speakers like to remind us. Therefore, it is vital that we also examine those negative intentions and thoughts, that we purposefully peruse our feelings and attitudes.
The purpose of the Viddui, the repetitious confessional of the many ways we have failed or sinned, is not self-flagellation. It is not the aim of our liturgy to leave us feeling so steeped in failure that we are immobilised. It is instead an opportunity to acknowledge and examine our errors, to pore over the ways in which we have been found wanting, and ask for God’s guidance and strength as we strive to change, to grow, and to be better, even to be GOOD. We do not fast as punishment, but rather to remove the distractions of our corporal selves that we might nourish our spiritual selves.
The editors of our new machzor recognized all of this, and also understood the visceral reaction that we, hearing and reading them in the 21st century, might have to the word “sin.” Their intention was to provide texts that would not turn us off and away from them, but rather to offer us interpretations that would resonate with us, and would incite within us deep self-examination and the opportunity for genuine teshuvah.
While the word “sin” appears often in our revised interpretations, we also are offered other, sometimes softer but sometimes harsher, words in considering our misdeeds. They are framed here as failures, as harm, as wrongdoing, as errors. Sins, too, are enumerated in this book. But its authors, recognizing that there is no harsher judge than our own conscience, provide us with these other terms as well. We are left to ponder our shortcomings with words that might feel more contemporary and applicable to us.
The Vilna Gaon offers us this: “The entire purpose of our existence is to overcome our negative habits.”
We have 21 hours yet on this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, to consider our shortcomings, to ponder, again and again, “al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha” – for the sin we have committed against you. Throughout this evening and all of tomorrow, we will examine ourselves under the harsh light of judgment, acknowledge our many faults and failures, and try to find our path away from our negative habits, to turn back toward Torah, toward God, and toward our highest selves.
So let us soften our hearts toward ourselves for just a few moments, and consider the ways in which any judgment against us may be tempered.
Let us consider, “al hatikun shetakeinu l’fanecha – for the acts of healing and repair we commit….”
We continue on page 93, For Acts of Healing and Repair….