Of all the prayers people ask me about, none is quite so fascinating as Ashamnu and Al chet, the two confessions that highlight our annual Yom Kippur worship. Most synagogue goers recognize them — and are confused by them! The standard Ashkenazi version of Al chet, after all, is a double alphabetic acrostic listing two sins for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Do we really think we are guilty of all that?
Indeed, most of us think we are guilty of very little in the “sin” department. We hardly credit the antiquated word “sin” with any currency whatever. Even Evangelical Christians have softened their traditional message of fire and brimstone in favor of emphasizing the therapeutic side of human nature. We err; we fail; we make mistakes; but do we really sin?To figure this all out, I just edited a new book, We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing). Here are some of the things I found out, things that make me take sin very very seriously — albeit with a modern twist.
To begin with, it is not just Christians who took sin seriously in antiquity; the Rabbis too believed that sin is part and parcel of human nature. If not “original,” sin is certainly “primal” in the rabbinic view. But sin is just a word, until we clothe it in telling metaphors; and Jews have used many metaphors to express what sin “exactly” is. The usual metaphor by which it is explained today, “missing the mark,” is hardly the best or even the most common. Sin is a whole lot more burdensome than that!
I use the word “burdensome” because for biblical Jews, sin was exactly that: a burden that weighs us down. God lifts the burden off our shoulders. I find that useful. Don’t we, today, still feel the burden of a guilty conscience? Don’t we too strive to relieve ourselves of the burden of guilt? On Yom Kippur we discover the healing presence of God who relieves us of whatever it is that weighs us down, preventing us from moving forward.
By rabbinic times, the favored metaphor became “sin as a debt.” The more we sin, the more we go into debt. “Punishment” in Hebrew is puranut, from the Hebrew root para, “to pay off what we owe.” The Lord’s Prayer of Jesus asks God to “forgive us our trespasses,” but also, in a more modern translation, “forgive us our debts.” Here too is a metaphor that works as well now as it did 2,000 years ago. Debt grows exponentially if we do not pay it back; so too, sin begets sin until lying, cheating, and faking our way through every passing day becomes the normal thing to do. Atonement for the moral debts we owe wipes the slate clean that we may start again.
Modern thinking denies credence to the word sin, because the nineteenth century taught us all what paragons of virtue we human beings can be. Reason and science demonstrated, we thought, that all things are possible. To be sure, the world wars of the twentieth century gave some of us pause in that regard; but all in all, our faith in human promise has remained. We still believe in the eventual victory of dignity, decency, and nobility.
Are we not, then, guilty of at least this one sin: neglecting the ongoing struggle for dignity, decency, and nobility. Hence the third metaphor for our time: t’shuvah, “turning.” as the realization that we have lost our way, are heading in the wrong direction, and must reverse our path. Look around! Whether we take our stand on the left or on the right, can any of us find much nobility in politics, advertising, business ethics, government, or anywhere else at all?
I have not let the twentieth century’s horrors erase my faith in human nobility. If all of us rise from Yom Kippur committed to furthering human dignity and rewarding the decency of those who feel similarly, I believe we can have it once again.
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