Many Jews will point to the Hebrew word het for sin, which is an archery term, and insist that Judaism teaches that sin is just “missing the mark.” That simplification does a grave injustice to the Jewish tradition. There are other words for sin in our liturgy — pesha, avon and more. Judaism has too keen a sense of evil in this world to consider all sin a mere misfire. Murder is not missing the mark. The rape and torture of women is not missing the mark. There is sin in this world, and from our long and beleaguered history we Jews know that all too well. Judaism takes sin seriously.
Granted, much of what we do is indeed missing the mark. We speak without thought, wound by inadvertence, expose our vulnerabilities and insecurities in ways that slight others. We thrust our hands in the heartstrings of our friends with heedlessness and sometimes cruelty, even when we do not mean to wound. There is a lot of missing the mark.
Whatever term we use, generally we think of sin as an injury to someone or a violation of a social rule that enables us to live with one another. Jewish law is largely an attempt to understand and spell out the ways in which we can coexist and create community. To live in sacred community is what our tradition teaches God wants of us.
To change in a deep way is extraordinarily difficult. The literature on teshuvah explains that there are two ways to change: one is to never put yourself in the situation that led to the infraction in the first place. So an embezzler should not take a position as a CFO. Here self-knowledge is crucial — knowing not to test yourself in ways you may fail. The more radical form of teshuvah is to be able to face the same situation and not sin.
The latter possibility tells us that the tradition does believe in change. Maimonides emphasizes the centrality of free will to the process of teshuvah — you can choose what to be. There are limits, of course. Change is difficult and arduous. Nonetheless, we are not prisoners of our past.
The same traits that upend us can often be redirected. We have seen too many people turn their lives around to be cynical about human possibility. In the Talmud, Resh Lakish, one of the greatest of our rabbis, started out as a thief. He learned to use the same focus and passion for Torah. Theodore Herzl spent his early years as a bon vivant, unconcerned with the fate of the Jews. Later he turned his charm, his ability to engage others and his skill in writing to a great cause. We can change for the better.
Are we forgiven? In this world, making amends to one you have hurt, apologizing and seeking to redress the wrong are all crucial not only to the process of teshuvah, but to any soul growth. As for God? God forgives. We are told that is so again and again in the Torah, in rabbinic writings and in our prayers. In the wry but touching words of Heinrich Heine, the great German Jewish poet who converted to Christianity so that his books might be sold and his poems read, “Of course God will forgive me, c’est son metier” — it’s God’s job.
As we are forgiven, so we can forgive. Each of us harbors resentments and anger in our hearts. Not forgiving has been compared to drinking poison in the hope the other will die. Forgiving does not mean letting another in your life; it means understanding that human nature is a blessing and a curse and others need to live with who they are, but you need not live with who they are. You can be free.
The holidays are a time of transformation. Each year we suffer losses and learn wisdom. The Torah calls us not to be perfect, but to be better.
Learn more, grow more, forgive more, connect more, love more. Hayom harat olam — Today the world was created. We say that on Rosh Hashanah. It can be true every day of our lives. God offers us a new beginning. So we resolve, we forgive — we try once again.
Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.