When I was a teenager, I attended an Israeli folk dance camp in North Carolina. Anticipating the cool mountain mornings and evenings I packed my favorite article of clothing — a hot pink Peanuts sweatshirt that summed up my feelings about the summer. Emblazoned across its front was an image of Snoopy, his arms spread wide, his dog’s muzzle broad with a smile. Above him were the words, “To dance is to live; to live is to dance.”
Now, when you dance, even if you’ve been dancing for a while, you sometimes step on your partner’s toes. Or you miss a cue and come into a formation late. Or you turn the wrong way, lose your direction and end up completely forgetting your left from your right. To dance is to misstep. To dance is to lose your way. It’s a pretty apt metaphor for life.
Yom Kippur is many things. The prayer book tells us it is a great and awesome day full of dread. When we were young our parents told us it was the time to think about al the naughty things we did during the year and to promise to do better. Over the next twenty four hours and hopefully during the weeks leading up to this day we have looked inward and examined where we went astray, the times we confused and even ignored right and wrong; the times we stepped on the toes of those we love most.
Before I go any further, however I want to set aside the word sin. It calls up images of wrongdoings that are with us from birth. It’s instructive to note that the English word, sin , derives from the Proto-Indo-European word fragment, es, meaning to be . The concepts of “born sinner” and “original sin” are foundational to Christianity; Judaism has a different approach.
In Hebrew there are three words we use to identify the concept of “sin.” The Hebrew understanding of these words is very much in keeping with the purpose of this day. Chet is a term used in archery to refer to missing the mark or aiming off course. There is the word avon which refers to an act committed out of the pull of desire. And third is the word pesha to refer to the rebellious transgression or act committed as if thumbing one’s nose at God’s Divine authority.
Thus at a most basic level we Jews view sin not as a birthmark upon our humanity, but as a regrettable action whose effect can be remedied. That Judaism is forgiving of our human nature should give us courage to forgive and ask forgiveness of others during these Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement.
In theory, Judaism’s path towards atonement, correcting the hurt of our missed marks, is clear and simple — we go to the person(s) whom we have hurt and ask forgiveness. A person approached by someone seeking forgiveness must not turn him away, unless, of course, the transgression is so severe that it resulted in irreversible damage. We are taught that repentance is complete when we find ourselves on the verge of misstepping once again and deliberately choose a new path: a path of self control; a path of understanding; a path leading to peace not strife.
As I’ve grown older, these ten days seem to unsettle me more and more. Our lives hang in the balance and the imagery of these Days of Awe — of gates closing, of the Book of Life awaiting the inscription of our names if only we atone properly — are intended to get us right into the core of who we are and how we have behaved. What have we done? What haven’t we done? Whom have we hurt? What mitzvot have we ignored? Whose plight have we witnessed and stood idly by? How will we right these wrongs?
The sages teach that the world, too, is in balance and one mitzvah has the power to set things right. It’s not so hard to do. One mitzvah. One action can bring down the world. And one action can also restore it. Few of us are totally rasha, total evil and few of us even, if we don’t want to admit it, are true tzaddiks, true righteous ones. We are a balance of both qualities.
The Yom Kippur morning service sets aside time for silent confession which is then followed by the “Al Chet”, a public recitation of our transgressions against God. Each transgression is phrased in the plural — for the chet we have committed against You . The community’s acts against God are these: malicious gossip, sexual immorality, gluttony, narrow mindedness, fraud and falsehood, hating without cause, arrogance, insolence, irreverence, hypocrisy, passing judgment on others, exploiting the weak, giving and taking bribes, giving way to our hostile impulses, running to do evil. Now no one, hopefully!, hits all these in a single year and for many not even in a lifetime. But I think there is something valuable about praying as a community for one another, asking God to forgive us all because each of us is necessary member of our individual communities.
Although the prayer book proclaims this a day “awesome and full of dread” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers another lens through which to view Yom Kippur. In his book Jewish Literacy he writes, “The holiday’s goal is not self-mortification but rather to bring about reconciliation between people, and between individuals and God. ” Telushkin goes on to quote the rabbis of the Talmud who understood Yom Kippur to be a happy day since it is affords us the opportunity to turn our lives around, to open our hearts to granting and receiving forgiveness.
If we perceive of Yom Kippur as the day to atone for the chet of missing the mark, for the avon of allowing our desires to pull us off course; and even for the pesha of thumbing our nose at God’s commands, then perhaps it might become easier to look at the Holy Day as did the Talmudic rabbis. We think of ourselves as a sinners and we immediately feel shackled by deeds so heavy we might never return to a path of goodness. If we think chet, avon and pesha, we understand that with proper and sincere atonement — return is possible. This switch in focus doesn’t negate the gravity of the transgression. It merely acknowledges the possibility of being redeemed. Yom Kippur becomes not a day of dread, but a day filled with hope and anticipation.
We earn this hope and anticipation by doing tshuvah. Tshuvah comes from the root for turn and it can have many meanings. We turn inward for self reflection; we turn to those whom we have wronged and ask for forgiveness; we turn away from unhealthy patterns or paths that once served our needs but not longer do.
Tshuvah has another meaning as well. Tshuvah also means answer. A teacher asks a she’elah, a question, and expects a tshuvah, an answer, from his or her student. Our tshuvah or repentance can also be our tshuvah or our answer, our response to God for our actions in the past year.
Tshuvah is one theme during these days of awe. Forgiveness is surely another one. We are instructed to go to those whom we have wronged and ask for forgiveness. And not just offer up a generic, “If I have done anything to have hurt you please forgive me” but to get down to brass tacks and say, “Please forgive me for the time I exploded in anger when you didn’t clean your room. Please forgive me for bringing work home from the office and not helping with the kids.” And when someone comes to us and asks for our forgiveness, we are commanded to give it.
But what of those who have hurt us, who have stepped on our toes and are either too blind, arrogant, or perhaps too afraid to ask for forgiveness. What then? We cannot forgive those who do not ask of us forgiveness. What then do we do with the hurt? The anger? How can we forgive those who are oblivious or even worse, don’t care about the hurt they cause and care even less about changing behavior. Is forgiveness the answer? Is forgiveness even possible?
We are told the story of a woman who for years and years carried a hot coal in her hands wherever she went. When asked why she replied, “One day I am going to see my ex-husband again and when I see that rotten louse I am going to throw this coal right in his face!” “But don’t you see,” the rabbi of this story asks, “That coal has burned a hole right through your hand!”
Who of us hasn’t carried hot coals of anger towards those who continue to step on our toes, continue to hurt us? And of course, we usually have these hot-coal relationships only with loved ones. Who really bothers to hold onto such great anger against passing strangers? If only they would ask forgiveness! If only they would see the errors of their ways, how ready we would embrace them and forgive!
But sometimes the only thing to do with people like this is to do a different kind of tshuvah. To turn towards a new path. We answer by moving our feet out of the way so they can’t be trampled. Perhaps we turn away from the hot coal partner and leave the dance floor alone. Or we do a less intimate line dance or a square dance which requires that we only see this person fleetingly; we move on to other more satisfying relationships.
In his tractate on the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides wrote that there are acts that can be atoned for immediately and others which can only be atoned for over the course of time. Tshuvah is a lifelong endeavor. If I may modify my Snoopy sweatshirt, “ To err is to live; to live is to err.” As long as we live we are going to step on some toes; we are going to be hurt and cause hurt. But as Jews we also have the blessing of t’shuvah. Each year, each day even, we have the opportunity to answer God with our heartfelt efforts to aim not only higher, but truer.
May you all be inscribed in the book of life in the coming year and may forgiveness, both in the giving and the receiving, be yours. Amen.