I did not grow up in a house where if I did something gravely wrong I would hear words from my parents like, "You're a sinner," or, "What you did was a sin." Yet, I knew that when I did something really bad I would feel the wrath coming my way like a tsunami. Usually it died down to a stern admonishment or being banished to my room, which, of course, led me to let out a great sigh of relief.
The truth is, I only heard about sin when the rabbis talked about it in the abstract from the pulpit. I later learned about the history of the idea through five years of study to become a rabbi. That is not to say that I have not sinned; what I am saying is that it was never part of the language I used growing up or part of the parlance in my social circles or from my religious education.
Yom Kippur will arrive next week, and I shall speak about the meaning of sin from the pulpit. The High Holy Days maintain a tension between sin and repentance. The purpose of the Days of Awe is to create a bridge from sinful to godlike behavior. The challenge is to cross over that bridge to receive divine pardon and embrace spiritual renewal. This process begins on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and concludes 10 days later on Yom Kippur.
Judaism urges its followers to begin a serious period of introspection into sinful behavior, which we may have committed against ourselves, our neighbors and family as well as God. If we accomplish this spiritual trek then we will be, according to the Talmud, written and sealed in God's book of life for another year of goodness and blessing.
The biblical word for sin, "hatah," literally means to miss the mark. That is, human beings sin when they disobey the sacred commandments that God set down for them as individuals and as a community to follow in order to lead a life of holiness. The first part of the journey to return to God is to acknowledge our transgressions. That process of return is called repentance and by doing so God will pardon us, which leads us into a state of atonement.
"I, I alone, am he who wipes away your transgressions for my sake" (Isaiah 43:25). The prophet Isaiah spoke of God's role, which is to grant pardon to us as long as we do our part to admit sinful behavior and be committed to not repeating it again. Isaiah continued by saying, "I have carried away your transgressions like a thick cloud and your sins as a mist" (44:22). The amazing part about this act of forgiveness is that the day itself, according to God, provides forgiveness.
That is not to say that this day is the only a time a Jewish person may repent and ask God or her neighbor for forgiveness. It simply is the day ordained by the Torah, in which the community is commanded to engage in one communal act of atonement and God agrees to forgive us.
This day requires everyone to purify ourselves in order to achieve this spiritual state of returning to God. That is why Jewish people are forbidden to eat, work, attend school or engage in any activities that are considered mundane. We devote ourselves exclusively to communal prayer from sunset to sunset. When we, as the Torah says, "afflict our souls," with confessions and acts of contrition, we prepare ourselves to be worthy of Divine mercy and ultimately forgiveness.
The beauty of Yom Kippur is that God gives us a second chance to make amends and get things right. By the end of the 24-hour fast we greet each other joyously with "Happy New Year" or "Shana Tova" and feel that wonderful sense of spiritual renewal. We break the fast with a festive communal meal celebrating the underlying feeling that life will get better and that we are making a difference in the world by starting with our own lives.
Happy New Year to the Jewish community in the Lowcountry.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.