With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fast approaching, Jews around the world are supposed to be reflecting on our behavior over the past year by acknowledging our wrongdoings, asking forgiveness, and committing to doing better in the year ahead. It is interesting to note that I use the terms “acknowledge our wrongdoings” and “ask for forgiveness” instead of “confess our sins” and “repent” –-it’s language that is much more comfortable to many in the Jewish community than language dealing with sinfulness and repentance, despite the fact that this is the traditional language of the season.
There are several reasons for our discomfort with the language of “confessing sins.” Besides the general sense that it sounds like Christian rather than Jewish language, sin is a difficult concept for many, acknowledging that our behaviors may not be “merely” transgressions against ourselves or other people, but against God’s will. We can certainly acknowledge that some actions, like murder or child abuse are undeniably evil but, thank God, most of us have not done such things. So where does that leave the rest of the bad behaviors we’ve engaged in from lying to cheating to being emotionally absent from our children? Are these actions sins?
It is clear from the Torah that private actions are not in fact simply personal matters but have an impact on the community and upon God. Wrongdoing, unexpiated, contaminates the moral fabric of society. Moreover, Rabbi Maz Artz writes that sins “distort and diminish the divine image in which man was created.” In acting contrary to the divine image in which we were created, we alienate ourselves from God and community. Just as a factory that dumps pollutants into a river poisons those who live downstream, our private actions can poison our relationship to ourselves, to those we love, and to God.
The language and labeling of sin can be a very powerful tool and it is thus susceptible to abuse. When people point the finger at others of whom they disapprove, the language of sin becomes a rhetorical power grab, a way of labeling someone else’s behavior as unequivocally beyond the pale. The great potential for abuse that we have seen played out in our own times is the most important reason that sin is such an uncomfortable topic for many, breeding instead a “live and let live mentality.” The remedy is to focus less on what we believe to be sinful in others and more on what we find sinful in ourselves: those actions and attitudes devalue ourselves or devalue others as divine creations, thus diminishing the holiness in ourselves and in society.
If we are going to make a real change in ourselves we must start by recognizing, rather than minimizing, the importance of our behavior. It’s time to reclaim the language of sin–the power it has both to indict and transform–and to truly repent during these coming holy days.