When I was a child in England, I often used to see men and women standing at street corners holding placards saying such things as “The End of the World in Nigh--Repent before it is loo late” or some variation on that theme. It struck me as silly. Even in the era of the atomic threat I had much more important things to worry about, such as the next soccer game. And repent? What exactly had I done that was so terrible? A few little lies to my parents? “No, I did not eat that chocolate.”
Every Shabbat afternoon my father made us learn one brief quote from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, and that was where I came across “Repent one day before you die.” It seemed our religion took the idea seriously after all. So what did it mean?
The Hebrew word “Teshuvah” is used in the Torah with regard to God and Israel in the context of “returning” to each other after Israel betrayed its covenant and suffers exile. It is not used as we do today to mean personal repentance. That doesn’t mean there is no such concept in the Torah, but it is implicit rather than explicit (now there’s a linguistic distinction too many people are ignorant of nowadays).
The sacrificial system talks about sin offerings and the need to confess one’s errors before seeking forgiveness and atonement. Kapara, atonement, has the same root as the name of Yom Kipur. The Torah requires a process of confession, Vidui. Unlike the Catholic concept, it does not require confessing to a priest or other person, but directly to God. And in true Freudian terms, it requires one to give full expression to what it is one has done wrong. That completed and any restitution effected, forgiveness is effected. There is some debate then as to why one also needs a Yom Kipur, be it for individuals, serious crimes, or the community. Maimonides adds a rider: Only when one finds oneself in exactly the same position as one was when one did wrong and with the capacity to do it again, but this time one desists, can one then be said to have completely wiped away the misdemeanor.
But there is no actual, specific command in the Torah to repent, do Teshuvah, in the obligatory sense. I believe this has a lot to do with the “psychology” of sin in early Judaism, before we were influenced by Greek and then by Christian and Muslim theologies.
The three main Biblical words for sin are instructive. “Cheyt” derives from “missing the mark or the target”. “Aveyra” come from the word to pass off the straight and narrow. “Avon” means to be deficient in some way. All of them imply an error of judgment that can easily be rectified by adding a quality to our armory, by standing in a better or more appropriate position, or by acting more skillfully or wisely. It is no wonder that the Talmud (Sotah 3a) says, “A person only sins when he is possessed of stupidity.”
There is no hint here of a “state of sin”, so beloved of hellfire and brimstone preachers. No heavy, awesome weight that can be debilitating and psychologically damaging. Just recognition that people make mistakes that can usually, and often easily, be rectified.
The idea of “fearing sin” plays an important part in rabbinic literature. But is this anything more than simply an instruction to always be aware, on the lookout, and sensitive to possible mistakes?
Judaism does not have a concept of “Original Sin”. It is usually much more relaxed about such issues (except for the extreme Mussar self-denialists). Certainly not in the Christian sense of believing that humanity is born naturally evil and can only be redeemed by faith (specifically in Christian dogma).
We do have the idea that Adam’s (emblematic) sin in the Garden of Eden changed the course of human history. This is often referred to in the Talmud. However, I understand this only to mean that the recurring tendency to make the wrong decisions, to undo all the good that others achieve, to bring selfishness in to dethrone altruism, are features of human beings in general that make this world a less pleasant place to live in.
In theory the most evil jihadi throat-slitter has the capacity to change and to repent. Perhaps that is what we should all be praying for over Rosh Hashana, instead of weighing ourselves down with our own relatively minor mistakes, which we can decide to do every morning when we pray and meditate on our actions. Instead of that, when we come to a public festival like Rosh Hashana, as the Talmud says, “All God’s creatures pass before Him.” So let us pray for all the sad human beings, all the evil people in this world who are involved destruction, and hope they might see the light. Gosh, I love optimism!