“ . . . because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD , you will be clean from all your sins.” — Leviticus 16:30
A note to our readers: This week marks the continuation of the ten days between the start of Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, known as the Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance. It is a time of serious introspection in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which will be observed on Sept. 30. It is considered the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Our devotions throughout this week are tied to this biblically mandated observance.
A Jewish mother gives her son two ties for Hanukkah. After opening them up, the son puts one on and proudly comes to show it to his mother. She takes one look at him and says, “What’s the matter? You didn’t like the other one?”
Jewish guilt has been the source of many jokes, but the truth is that guilt is no laughing matter. Guilt is a very serious theme, and yet, like many important aspects of life, it is greatly misunderstood.
There are two kinds of guilt. The first is the kind that causes a person to think, “I am bad.” This kind of guilt is debilitating and unproductive. It has no place in Judaism. The second kind of guilt leads a person to realize “what I did was bad.” This kind of guilt is what is more properly referred to as “regret.” It is enlightening, empowering, and a great catalyst for positive change. It leaves a person feeling “what I did was bad, but I am good.”
The person who experiences this type of guilt believes, “Those actions are not really a part of who I am. I am so much better than that. I am created in the image of God – how could I do such a thing? I must make some changes so that my actions reflect who I really am.”
This type of guilt is the focus of Yom Kippur and the goal of our prayer service.
Did you know that there is no Hebrew word for sin? The closest we get to it is the word chet, which literally means “a miss.” When someone aims an arrow at a target, but fails to hit it, it is called a chet. He missed the mark; it was a mistake. Another word we use is aveira, which literally means “a cross over.” This word implies that while a person was supposed to stick to a certain path, she veered off from it and got stuck in the mud. In other words, that person made a mistake. These nuances are profound. They emphasize the idea that while we miss the mark, it doesn’t mean that the shooter is doomed. With time and practice we will get closer and closer to hitting our target and getting things right.
Yom Kippur is time for getting out of the mud, cleaned off, back on track, and refocused on our target. While we regret past mistakes, they do not hold us back from correcting them and moving on. Take the opportunity of the High Holy Days to consider your own path. Where might you be off track or missing the mark? What adjustments might you make?