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Read more from the interview about the Jewish High Holidays with Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College:
Sin is central to the holiday of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is literally the Day of Atonement, and so to atone for sins is the centerpiece of Yom Kippur. The most common Hebrew word for sin is Cheyt. Cheyt means something akin to going astray. It’s actually a term that is used in archery, so if you can imagine an arrow being shot from a bow that is directed towards a bull’s eye that is the trajectory of our lives. Unfortunately, our lives don’t go straight towards that bull’s eye. We get pushed to the left, to the right, up, down and those are the sins, the ways that we have gone astray. We have stepped away from the path that we should ideally be on. The purpose, then, of Yom Kippur is to come back to the path, to repent. Teshuvah means return. Repentance really is return and to come back to that path so that our arrow is again directed towards the bull’s eye.
Teshuvah, repentence means that we have really become a different person. Once we have repented, we are no longer the person that we were who would have committed such an act. In order to become different people — this is quite a task. The steps of teshuvah are this: First, we have to come to an understanding that we have done wrong. Then we need to approach those people who have been harmed by our mistakes. If I, for example, hurt you in some way, I would need to approach you and ask you for forgiveness for specifically how I had hurt you. If there was some damage, I need to make restitution. If I had stolen something that was yours, I need to return it. My repentance is not even begun until I have made peace with you.
The steps of teshuvah, of repentance, involve understanding how you had hurt someone and then approaching that person for forgiveness. That person would need to grant forgiveness; the request for forgiveness must be full and sincere, and the granting of forgiveness needs to be sought after. Once forgiveness has been achieved between the people, then there is still an understanding that the mistake, the error, has caused a rift, a separation between myself, let’s say if I’m the sinner, and G-d. So the repentance then needs to include asking G-d for forgiveness as well. This is the holiday of Yom Kippur, the holiday on which we ask G-d for forgiveness.
There are times when it is impossible to get forgiveness from other people, people whom you might have harmed. This does not mean that G-d will not forgive you. You need to have sought that forgiveness from other people, but if you have truly sought that forgiveness, the true mark of repentance is, have you made yourself into a different person? And if you have truly made yourself into a different person, then absolutely G-d forgives. This is one of the great promises of Jewish life, of Jewish religion, that G-d is a forgiving G-d, and if we earnestly and honestly ask for forgiveness, forgiveness is granted. But let’s understand what that means. It means we are different people. So, if I have become a truly different person, not the person who would have done those acts, then yes, G-d forgives.
There is in Judaism no idea of original sin. Rather, there is an understanding that we as human beings are in a challenging situation. We make mistakes, we err, and it is then our responsibility to learn from our mistakes, to grow from our mistakes, and to become better people from our mistakes. But at our base, our essence, we are not understood as sinners.
You can be sinful in thought. Some Jews actually don’t think that is covered, but it is. They think that it’s only actions, but thoughts, too, can be sinful. There are ways that our thoughts may lead to actions or our thoughts can create a climate in which sin is more readily available to people. So, yes, even our thoughts, which are very difficult to control, can be understood as sins.
Our society does not readily accept this idea that there should be a prescribed period of time in which you ask for forgiveness. To ask for forgiveness takes a level of humility, to be able to say I have done wrong and to say it out loud. It’s not enough that I realize I have done wrong; I have to say it out loud to you. I have to tell you what I did or tell another person what I did, and that is a very difficult thing for us to do. The process of remaking ourselves is a very difficult process, but when we remake ourselves we truly do look back and say, how could I have done such a thing? We actually want to seek forgiveness for those actions.
Heshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, literally, is a process that we engage in 40 days before Yom Kippur, from the start of the month preceding the month in which Yom Kippur occurs, and we use that time to examine our deeds, to examine ourselves, and to seek out ways that we can improve.
Judaism understands that we have a variety of inclinations within us, including what’s called the Yetzer Harah, the inclination or the urge to do evil. Now, this urge leads us not only to do evil, but also to do some things that are good. So it is a complicated urge. If we did not have a Yetzer Harah, if we did not have an urge to do evil, we might be saintly all the time. Then we wouldn’t be human beings, but it is the great privilege of being a human being that we could do battle with the various inclinations that we have and successful ultimately overcome the Yetzer Harah and put it to good purpose only.
The al Cheyt is done in the plural. It is understood that the community is collectively responsible for all of the sins of the community. When I recite the al Cheyt prayer, I may be reciting a litany of sins, some of which are all my very own, but some of which are not mine. Physical violence, for example, is not a sin that I can turn back and imagine when I hit my child — I don’t do those things.Yet, we say the prayers in the plural because we understand if these things have occurred within our community, in some ways we are responsible. We are responsible together to create a community atmosphere where these sins would not occur. If somebody has sinned, I actually have a share in the responsibility for that sin.
Tashlich is done on the second day of Rosh Hashanah This is an introduction to the themes of Yom Kippur which occur shortly after Rosh Hashanah. Tashlich is a ceremony which Jews will traditionally join together casting breadcrumbs from their pockets, as it were, to symbolize the sins. The idea is that we are casting our sins out. We are casting them away from ourselves, and this physical action is an important piece of the process to get us to take this process of Teshuvah, repentance, seriously.
In the al Cheyt prayer, there are many descriptions of sin that actually use very concrete, physical, bodily formulas. The sins aren’t just, oh, I’m arrogant, but I have a stiff neck — stubborn, I have a stiff-neck. So the neck, the eyes, the ears — all of these are imposed upon the words of the prayer. It is as if we have been physically deformed almost by our actions, and so what we want to do is physically re-form ourselves. So the physical act of Tashlich, of casting sins out, is all part of this sense that these sins are very much bodily. They exist within us, and we need to change ourselves in a very basic way.
The al Cheyt prayer is a list of sins that are, for the most part, sins that we could easily identify with, and many of these sins deal with misuse of speech, ways that our words have in fact done ill effect, and so this kind of garden variety of sins is what makes up the al Cheyt.
One explanation of why Jews beat their chests during the recitation of the al Cheyt prayer is that all sins come essentially from hard-heartedness, and so in some way as we recite this confession, we want to remind ourselves constantly to soften our hearts, to open our hearts.
In the place in which a person who is truly repentant stands, a person who has never sinned cannot occupy that same place. The idea here is that a person who has sinned and repented has actually done something that is better than never having sinned at all. This person has improved themselves; they’ve made themselves a better person. Well, if you’ve never sinned, you don’t have the opportunity to make yourself a better person, and that is such a struggle and so difficult that having achieved success is seen as a very exalted level.
If I do something that is wrong, and I hurt someone else, one of the things that this does is it distances me from G-d. My relationship with G-d is such that G-d and I both know that I have not been the person that I should be. Not only have I wronged that individual, but I have also placed a barrier between that relationship; it’s not that G-d loves me any less, but rather I have placed a barrier into that relationship. Similarly, I think, as we can understand, if we lie to somebody maybe they never know that we have lied, but we placed a barrier in that relationship. They may not know it, but you know it.
Some people think Yom Kippur is a very somber, unhappy day. They are wrong. It is a very somber, happy day, and it’s happy because the existence of forgiveness, if we come to it in the appropriate way, is guaranteed. So, after Yom Kippur we are truly reborn as new people. We are completely new people, completely free from sin, completely, indeed, reborn. One of the images of Yom Kippur is that of enacting, actually, our physical deaths. This is one of the reasons for fasting. We don’t eat and drink; we pay no attention to our physical bodies. It is as if we die on Yom Kippur and at the end of Yom Kippur are reborn. Wearing the kittel, fasting, abstaining from sexual relations, that’s all part of ignoring the body and having the body, in fact, become reborn.
We all make mistakes. Yom Kippur divides sins into sins we have done intentionally and sins we have done unintentionally. Most of us don’t know many of the sins we have committed over the course of the year, and yet we carry around a general sense that we haven’t always done the right thing, and so being able to purge that sense of guilt that we walk around with as a condition of being human is a great blessing.
When I was a pulpit rabbi, one of the sins that is most difficult to gain forgiveness for is leading others astray. When you are in positions of leadership you are in a very good position to lead others astray, again not intentionally but unintentionally. Have I been perfect in my leadership? No, never. As a rabbi that has always been a very awesome responsibility for me. As a Jew, this process of repentance is central to my religious life. It allows me to continue on a path of growth, to understand that G-d is with me on that path, that all of my efforts will be met on the other side, indeed, by G-d. Those are central to my life as a Jew.
If the person you hurt is not around to ask for repentance, you have a difficult situation. There are Jewish teachings that, in fact, if somebody has died, there is a ritual that is not I think observed in its strict sense, but I imagine it is often observed in a looser sense, where you would go to the grave to the person that you had harmed, traditionally with a group of 10 people. You would actually take off your shoes and be barefoot, making yourself humble in a sense before that person, and you would recite out loud at the grave of the person that you harmed, in the hearing of the 10 people accompanying you, what you had done to that person and asking for forgiveness. I don’t think this ritual is observed today typically in the way that is traditionally described, but I do think many people when they visit a grave will recite either out loud or silently to themselves the ways in which they would seek forgiveness from a person who has died.
The Saturday evening prior to Rosh Hashanah there is a selichot service that accustoms us to saying the prayers of forgiveness and putting ourselves in the rhythm of seeking forgiveness. There are then selichot services that are done on a daily basis actually leading up to Yom Kippur.
One of the interesting Jewish teachings on seeking forgiveness is that you are obligated to ask a person for forgiveness three times, and even if they don’t forgive you the first time, you are obligated to go back up to three times. If you have honestly asked for forgiveness three times and the person has denied that forgiveness, then it is understood that in fact they have become the sinner. This all has to take place in a communal context that encourages asking and granting forgiveness. One of the difficulties I think many people have with Yom Kippur is the idea that there would be a special time for asking for forgiveness. Is it really sincere if you just do it because the holiday is coming? The analogy I make is to a birthday. When you give a gift to somebody on their birthday is it really sincere? Well, yes, it’s really sincere. Their birthday is a special time for gift-giving, and in the same way Yom Kippur is a special time for seeking forgiveness.
Seeking forgiveness is actually part of the daily liturgy, so we don’t save up for Yom Kippur and wait to ask for forgiveness. If we have done a wrong, we are asked at that moment, as soon as we realize it, we should be seeking forgiveness, and seeking forgiveness from G-d is done in the daily liturgy as well. But Yom Kippur is a special time dedicated to looking at one’s own deeds and taking a personal account of oneself and remaking oneself.
In the ancient times, this was when the High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies and actually the one time of the year recite G-d’s name, G-d’s name which we don’t know how to recite. And the understanding is actually that each year, with that recitation, it was as if the relationship with G-d was being renewed. There was a new name for G-d that parallels almost the new name we take for ourselves as new people having undergone repentance.
I think part of this is actually a matter of faith, that somebody can truly change themselves. If I look back at the person I was 20 years ago, the kinds of things that I would do and say, and I look at myself now, I don’t feel that I’m the same person.
Different people are going to begin the process of teshuvah at different times. The teaching is that you should repent the day before you die, and since we don’t know when that is, you should repent every day. The High Holiday period is a special time that begins the process of repentance with the first day of Elul, the month that precedes the month in which Yom Kippur takes place, and during that 40-day period, that is a time of intensive accounting of one’s deeds and one’s soul and repentance.
The shofar is understood in many ways, but one of the ways is wake up! It is time to pay attention. The shofar at one time was actually a call to a community gathering. In the same way it is, “pay attention, we have something we need to attend to.” The blowing of the shofar begins in Elul, goes through Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur ends with a long blast of the shofar.
The appropriate state of the universe is a state of unity. A monotheistic G-d understands unity as a core concept, and sin implies separation. So if in some ways we have separated ourselves from G-d, from others, from ourselves, then we have sinned.