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Sin and Forgiveness

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This article is excerpted from The Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 2 — the section in question was written by Rabbi Yael Ridberg. The full Guide may be ordered from the Reconstructionist Press.

Jewish tradition does not understand human imperfections as being the result of an “original sin” by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.1 Sin is the result of our negative human tendencies or inclinations,2 known in Hebrew as the yetzer hara (the inclination toward evil)3, which must be channeled in ways that affirm life by the influence of the yetzer hatov (the inclination to goodness). The word in Hebrew for sin (ḥet) literally means something that goes astray, like an arrow that misses the mark. When an archer misses the target, it is not a permanent failure. Rather, an archer can keep trying to get arrows closer to the target and ultimately to its center. There is no guarantee of immediate success, nor does success ensure that the goal will be reached in all subsequent attempts.

rain drops hitting a puddle

The story of Noah and the flood4 teaches that human beings are imperfect, even permanently flawed.5 The Torah imagines that upon reflection, God realizes that to destroy the world every time there is corruption and lawlessness would be an endless exercise. Human beings are flawed from the time of our youth, from our encounters with the world, and from the challenges we face as our lives unfold. Jewish tradition does not expect us to be perfect, although we are always responsible for our actions. Jewish practices provide ways of transforming our lives for the good. We understand the imperfections of our biblical ancestors as powerful reminders that, despite our flaws, we can be good people, even if we sometimes act in ways that conflict with kindness and justice. Our characters are shaped by how we respond to our failures more than by our failures themselves.


Repentance and Forgiveness

The Torah portrays the first collective sin of the Jewish people as the making of a molten calf (Exodus 32) and presents a model of forgiveness in the people’s healing from that sin. We first learn of the concept of s’liḥa (forgiveness) in this story when the Israelites ask God, “Pardon our iniquity and our sin.” (Exodus 34:9) This story and several others in the Bible establish the God of Israel as a forgiving, compassionate and even merciful God, in addition to being a God of justice and law. These two themes—justice and mercy—are at the center of the Yamim Nora’im.

The Bible expanded the concept of repentance and atonement with the institution of the ancient Temple’s sacrificial system, which held that atonement could be achieved through expiation rites. While one biblical understanding of reward and punishment holds that there are consequences for sinful actions, the goal of expiation rites was not just avoiding punishment, but a redirection of one’s life toward godly behavior. The choice of which way to go belongs to each person.6 In Deuteronomy, the Torah imagines God saying, “I put before you the blessing and the curse, life and death; therefore, choose life, that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Humanity is God’s partner in the betterment of the world, a process that must begin with each individual.

The word in Hebrew for sin (ḥet) literally means something that goes astray, like an arrow that misses the mark. When an archer misses the target, it is not a permanent failure. Rather, an archer can keep trying to get arrows closer to the target and ultimately to its center.

Kapara and m’ḥila (atonement and pardon) are introduced in the priestly and prophetic texts of the Bible, which speak of the atonement of the people Israel, their return to God, and God’s acceptance of them anew.7 Rabbinic sages believed that t’shuva was created even before the actual creation of the world.8 9 In the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 86a–b) the rabbis describe t’shuva as bringing redemption and healing to the world that reaches up into the heavens. T’shuva is possible for all who are able to acknowledge wrongdoing, express regret and ultimately change their conduct.

T’shuva opens us to change in our relationships to others and in our sense of ourselves.10 On the Yamim Nora’im, we have an opportunity to recognize the blessings, remember the challenges, and acknowledge the failures of the year gone by.11 We pray for the strength, courage and wisdom to enter the New Year and face the future without knowing what is to come. Through our quest for meaning, wholeness and holiness we can confront what weighs us down, makes us cynical and separates us from others. When we engage in this process of t’shuva on an individual level, in our families, in our local communities, in the Jewish community as a whole and in the global community, we can accept the imperfections in our past and become better able to face whatever lies ahead.

The rabbis teach that the work of t’shuva is two-fold. During the month of Elul, which precedes the Yamim Nora’im, we engage in t’shuva beyn adam laḥavero (reconciliation between human beings), and when we come together on Yom Kippur, we are seeking t’shuva beyn adam lamakom (reconciliation between human beings and God).12 The first kind of work is more readily understood. We make mistakes; we treat others badly; we are selfish and self-absorbed. We apologize; we repair the damage we have done; we seek forgiveness and forgive others.13 The medieval commentator Maimonides teaches in his code, the Mishneh Torah, that t’shuva is a three-stage process. First we must regret our actions, confront the reality of what we have done, apologize and make recompense. Then we must reject that flawed conduct for ourselves. Finally, we must resolve to live differently in the future, and if confronted with the opportunity to sin again, we must behave differently, for that is when we know we have really repented.14

Confronting our “sins against God” is a different matter, and the liturgy of Yom Kippur takes us beyond the actions that are between people to our actions that affect our interior, personal world. As mentioned earlier, the rituals regarding sin and atonement in the Torah were to be carried out through expiation and sacrificial rites, first in the portable sanctuary of the Exodus period, and later in the Jerusalem Temples. Only after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE did these rites fully evolve into prayers and individual actions of repentance, forgiveness and atonement.

Jewish tradition does not expect us to be perfect, although we are always responsible for our actions. Jewish practices provide ways of transforming our lives for the good. 

Of course, biblical and rabbinic understandings of God made the approaches to sin and atonement visceral and all encompassing. In our time, many Jews do not believe in a God who possesses personality, feelings, vulnerability and a will to act, punish and then forgive.15 How do we express our more global, human failures? How are our confessions “heard,” and how do we experience “forgiveness”? It is possible to conceive of God as the power in the universe that makes for unity and creativity and helps us to experience life as worthwhile. When we encounter the liturgy of Yom Kippur that deals with t’shuva beyn adam lamakom,16 we must grapple with actions that are “ungodly”—actions that have the potential to affect us on the deepest level. Judaism teaches that we are called to God’s service. The t’shuva that we seek goes beyond how we treat one another and into the very essence of who we are, into the realm of the soul.17

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have the opportunity to make amends, wipe the slate clean 18 and begin again with our loved ones, our friends and the larger community. We can change how we act in the world.

The “script” for these days is largely the same—many prayers that appear in the macḥzor, the prayer book designated for the Days of Awe, are standard prayers of the siddur, but there are insertions and piyyutim (liturgical poems) that are exclusive to these days.19  20 “Macḥzor” literally means “cycle,” and it reflects the very nature of the Days of Awe—how we cycle through the year, bring it to a close, and begin again, identifying the aspects of ourselves and our lives that are in need of evaluation and renewal. The prayers may be familiar, but very often our circumstances have changed, as each year brings its own unique story of our lives and our world.

There is a Hasidic story about a cantor who was studying the prayers before the holidays. He came in a rush to the rabbi in his community and asked to be dismissed from additional duties. The rabbi asked him why he was hurrying, and the cantor replied that he had to look at the machzor and get his prayers in order. The rabbi replied that the prayers were the same as last year, and it would be better if the cantor would look into his own deeds and put himself in order.

  • 1. Original sin is a fundamental principle of Christianity. In our Christian-dominated society, we tend to define sin through this lens rather than the lens of Judaism. Unless we first provide a Jewish definition of sin, this can cause the discussion of sin in a Jewish context to sound awkward and uncomfortable. We all “miss the mark” from time to time, but that is very different from the idea of original sin. —NHM
  • 2. According to one Jewish understanding, sinning is the act of becoming distant from God. That alienation in itself cuts us off from goodness. When we regret our actions, we return to God or to godliness. As Mordecai Kaplan puts it, “If we identify God with that aspect of reality which confers meaning and value on life and elicits from us those ideals that determine the course of human progress, then the failure to live up to the best that is in us means that our souls are not attuned to the divine, that we have betrayed God.” (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, page 165) —BP
  • 3. The yetzer hara has been much explained and much misunderstood. This “necessary enemy” is sometimes described in terms very similar to the definition of the Freudian id: our raw, urgent desires—“I want, I want, I want.” Similarly, the yetzer hara has been understood as our drive to preserve our separate, physical selves without understanding our connections to others and the world around us. Desire and self-preservation are important and useful, but they do sometimes lead to harm, even to evil. —JAS
  • 4. An early midrash suggests that even before the flood, God had learned that the world could not survive if it was held to a standard of strict justice and perfection. For the world to remain viable, God blended compassion into it during its creation. (B’reyshit Raba 12.15) —NM
  • 5. “Sin” is a difficult word for many Jews, who know it primarily through its Christian connotations. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has written about traditional Jewish understandings of sin: “Sin is viewed as a correlate of mitzvah; it is treated not as a separate, independent entity but rather as a shadow-essence or even, at times, a reverse image of mitzvah.” (Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, eds. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr) A useful Reconstructionist understanding of “mitzvah” can be developed from a Hasidic play on words that derives the word “mitzvah” not from the Hebrew “l’tzavot,” “to command,” but from the Aramaic root “tzavta,” “to bind together, to connect.” Thus, a mitzvah is that which connects us—to the ultimate, to our past, to our family and our community, to the earth, to our own deepest values and to others in need. Sin, then, is an action that leads to a disruption of these connections. —TS
  • 6. In the process of asking for forgiveness, we sometimes overlook the fact that the divine balance between justice and mercy also applies to us. Many of us who are well practiced in being judgmental of ourselves are less practiced in the enterprise of self-compassion. It is difficult to forgive ourselves for mistakes that we have made. When we ask God for mercy and forgiveness, we can also ask for divine support in helping us to have compassion for ourselves. —JJS
  • 7. In the Torah’s sacrificial system, an additional consequence of sinful action is the loss of God from the community; our personal transgressions are linked to the health of the group as a whole. —NM
  • 8. The Talmud (Pesaḥim 54a; N’darim 39b) lists seven things that were created before the world: The Torah, t’shuva (repentance), Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden or paradise), Gehenna (purgatory), the throne of glory, the Temple and the name of the Messiah. Why did the rabbis say that t’shuva preexisted the world as we know it? Mistakes are a part of the very fabric of our lives, as they were meant to be. When we see our capacity for reassessment, regret and transformation as part of our original design, rather than beating ourselves up for our mistakes, we can rejoice in our flexibility and in the gift of second chances. —VM
  • 9. What might they have meant when they said that t’shuva was created before the creation of the world? Perhaps this means that part of the perfection of the universe is that it is imperfect in all of its components, and that each imperfect creature (you and I) is born with an innate predisposition to fail and then to improve—that it is never too late, and that second chances are the warp and woof of creation. —JJS
  • 10. Sometimes we need to bridge the walls of separation between others and ourselves. At other times, we need to establish boundaries, so that we can become less enmeshed in relationships that are unhealthy and hurtful. —JJS
  • 11. True repentance is not sustainable if it is practiced only once a year. Franz Kafka commented, “Only our concept of time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.” The work of t’shuva must be a year-round process for us to truly transform our lives. —BP
  • 12. The Mishna clearly expresses the need to seek forgiveness from others: “Those transgressions that are between human and the divine, Yom Kippur does atone; those transgressions that are between human and human, Yom Kippur does not atone until one has appeased the other.” (Yoma 8.3) —VM
  • 13. There is a custom of saying, “If I have inadvertently hurt you in any way over the last year, please forgive me.” I personally dread such encounters. I have no choice but to say, “Yes, I forgive you,” whether or not that is accurate. If t’shuva requires acknowledgement of and regret for what we have done, then it would be much more transformative to ask, “Have I done anything to you for which I ought to ask forgiveness?” It would be good to ask that long enough before Yom Kippur to be able to find time to have a serious conversation. I really am not able to forgive you unless I have some assurance that we share a perspective on what happened, so that I have some assurance that it is less likely to happen again. —JJS
  • 14. Jewish teachings on t’shuva insist that true repentance is possible. However, even if an individual repents and is granted forgiveness by those whom she or he has wronged, this does not necessarily mean that things will go back to “the way they used to be.” Repentance does not mean erasure or reset, but rather a new beginning. —DW
  • 15. One way to experience forgiveness viscerally, even if I don’t believe in a God who is aware of my thoughts and actions, is modeled by the Slonimer Rebbe in his book Netivot Shalom (Pathways of Peace). In his eyes, divine love, compassion and forgiveness flow constantly and perpetually from God to each human being. t’shuva is the process of acknowledging my lack of control, my limitations and errors, and my yearning to be loved and held. At that point—the point of heartbreak—I let divine love in, unobstructed by my ego defenses. I am changed, even though God has not done anything other than what God always does. My t’shuva is the variable. —JJS
  • 16.Makom” is a name of God that literally means “place.” Perhaps we can understand the rabbis’ choice of this name for God as suggesting that our deepest inner work involves realigning with the place of godliness within us, a “place” in our inner landscape that is sacred and divine in essence. As human beings, we must work if we are to return to this place. —MK
  • 17. Grappling with our inner need for t’shuva requires that we pay attention deeply and fully so that we notice these innermost realms in which the reverberations of our actions are felt and absorbed. In Hebrew, “sim lev” means “pay attention.” This term literally means “to put one’s heart,” or “to attend with the heart.” The Yom Kippur liturgy asks us to pay attention from the depths of our hearts. The t’shuva, the turning of our lives that we seek on this day, is a turning that begins from the depths of the heart, not from the periphery of the body or from a mind disconnected from the more interior layers of consciousness and conscience. —MK
  • 18. Do we wipe the slate clean? That may be our intention, but it may be an overly ambitious goal that leads to frustration and disappointment. I may pray to begin anew, but I am also the product of every interaction that has created this reality. I would rather wipe a passageway for forgiveness and t’shuva across the slate than expect to wipe it clean. —SPW
  • 19. For those who do not regularly attend synagogue, the High Holy Day liturgy with its piyyutim can be challenging, unfamiliar and hard to access. I appreciate it when service leaders give me and others permission not to stay “on the page.” —NM
  • 20. The predominant imagery of the High Holy Day additions to the liturgy about God—sovereign, judge and parent—can sometimes obscure other conceptions of God that may speak to contemporary Jews, such as God as the source of life or God as an ever-renewing process. As we teach about the High Holy Days, drawing on other metaphors may prove helpful. —DW

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