The most common word for sin in the Jewish tradition, chet, is a term borrowed from archery, one meaning 'missing the mark.' Chet is the most common Hebrew word for sin but hardly the only one. For there are many ways in which human beings wrong one another. Often we sin by clumsiness or coarseness, by indifference or inadvertence. These misdeeds are, like the English word 'shortcomings,' best described as missing the mark. But we are also cruel, violent, at times vicious. The human soul has darknesses whose depths are not comprehended by 'oversights' or 'blunders.' If you take your soul seriously then you take sin seriously.
In the Bible Saul is plagued with manic states. The young David is brought to play a lyre and coax the king from his depression. The bible does not judge Saul's struggles. Only when he seeks to kill David, when he orders the slaughter of the Priests of Nob and when he disobeys God's explicit commands, is he condemned and stripped of the kingship. Sin is not who we are. Sin is what we do.
Judaism teaches that sin is an act, not a state. Everyone sins, and therefore everyone is a sinner, but that is not their essence. It is rather the condition conferred by their actions. We are not born in sin; we are each born with powerful tendencies to both good and evil and the drama of human character is in the struggle and balance between the two. The corrective mechanism is teshuva, repentance.
Repentance is an ongoing process because no one can move flawlessly through the world. Even our two impulses for good and evil are not separable from one another. The Rabbis of the Midrash insist that were it not for the evil inclination people would not marry or build houses or have children. In other words, ambition and the procreative impulse, drive and yearning, are all inextricably interwoven with both the good and the harm we do. Right and wrong in our lives are often clear but not always; our desires are powerful, our capacity for rationalization endless and the complexities of life often confounding. Tradition exists to help us navigate with as much fulfillment and as little damage as possible.
Sin is distance; teshuva is closeness. Sin is hurt; teshuva is healing. Maimonides teaches that at every moment we should imagine that our transgressions and good deeds are in perfect balance and the act we take now will tip the scales. Judgment is a dynamic and ongoing process.
What we do, more than what we feel, is who we are. The state of my soul is shaped primarily by my behavior. Judaism holds a theological version of the James Lange theory of emotions: rather than assuming we act a certain way because we feel something, our emotions arise as a consequence of our actions. Each mitzvah leads to another one; each aveirah, transgression, similarly leads to further transgressions. Emotions are not disregarded, of course. There is a literature of interiority in Judaism as in every great tradition. Our sages understood the struggle with darkness, but ultimately judgment rests not on inner demons but outer deeds.
Teshuva is an attempt to rectify our wrongs and reorient our lives. We apologize and seek to make amends. Understanding the hurt we have caused grants us insight into our selves. The older we grow the more apparent the patterns that we repeat in variations throughout the years. Difficult as it is to change, Judaism teaches that the ability to change is at the root of repentance. Teshuva is not an instant rebirth. It is a gradual growth, a commitment to improve.
At this time of year Jews are encouraged to look back on what they have done and what they have left undone. Reminded by the prayers and ceremonies of our mortality we refocus on legacy, for sin is usually the gain of an instant measured against later pain. Who is it you wish to be and in what way has your sin distorted your soul? What do you wish to leave behind?
Real teshuva is aspirational. It is guided less by who we have been than by who we might be. Sin slights both our Creator and those who care for us. Seek to undo the damage you have done; apologize, make amends, resolve. Return and be received in love. Each moment, each day and year we have this chance. God offers it to us. God offers it to you. Right now. May it be a year of goodness and growth, health and joy.