Does Judaism believe we’re all wretched sinners? — By Ben

There’s been a bit of controversy this past week with the Supreme Court’s decision and, though I’m not commenting on that issue, it has stirred up a lot of debates on the ol’ social media concerning religion.  Much of the material referenced is from Jewish sources, but virtually none of it is being relayed or discussed in a Jewish way.  So with that in mind, I’d like to discuss the Jewish understanding of…

Sin! …. dun dun duhhhhhhh…

sin

One of the rewarding things about studying the Hebrew is that you come to realize that certain concepts don’t perfectly translate into English.  The word bracha is usually translated as blessing.  Blessing is usually defined as: help and approval from God or something that helps you or brings happiness.  But the word bracha (without going into too much depth) is more about guiding the spiritual energy of God and filling an act with said spiritual essence.  Not exactly a 1 to 1 translation.  The translation of sin has a similar problem.

The Hebrew word usually used to describe sin is חָטָא (chata).   But this word doesn’t mean “you did a bad thing and you’re horrible” but rather “you’ve missed the mark.”  That distinction is important because it sets up an entirely different mindset for viewing humanity.   Where some religions may view people as bad or needing redemption, Judaism comes along and says a human being has nearly infinite potential to do good and reaching that potential should be the goal of your life.  Missing the opportunity to get close to that greatness is the sin.

Side note: Another word for sin in Hebrew is the word פָּשַׁ ֽעְנוּ, (pashanu) which means to rebel.  The fact that Hebrew has this distinction, to recognize that some sins come from “missing the mark” while others come from being fed up and “rebelling” is a testament to Judaism’s understanding of the human condition.

So how do we fix it?  mis

You’ve probably seen the word teshuvah, (תשובה) thrown around on this blog from time to time.  A not great translation for this word would be repentance.  A more literal translation would be return.  Why return?  So we’ve said that sin is missing the opportunity to achieve your potential to do good.  To expand on that, Judaism believes God is the ultimate good, so the effect of sin is that it pulls you away from God.

Doing teshuvah is a process where one identifies something that is obstructing their connection to spirituality, actively decides that it is wrong,  contemplates the consequences of their actions,  considers the factors the lead to doing the wrong in the first place, and lastly doing a cheshbon (balance sheet or accounting) of making a change versus continuing the bad.  Going though the teshuva process in effect brings you back to God, (to return.)

“Teshuva is so powerful that it can turn sins into merits.” –Yoma 86b

Domestic waste: overstuffed bin with general waste mixed together

Imagine that you and your wife are fighting because you forgot to take out the trash.   Now you could continue to fight saying, “I forgot to take out the trash, I’m human. Get over it.” And then you can enjoy a nice night on the couch.  Or you can take the advice of every smart married man and just say “I’m sorry.”  But that doesn’t really fix anything.

Or you could stop and consider:  Why didn’t I take out the garbage?  Did I really just forget or was I procrastinating?  Is this a one time thing or do I do this often?  Was I really being spiteful?  Should I set an alarm from now on?  Maybe just take out the trash when it’s kinda full instead of thinking, eh it can hold more.

And then take it a step further to see it from your wife’s point of view:  Why is she getting so upset?  Does the smell bother her more than it bothers me?  Is something deeper going on?  Maybe she feels we’re not sharing household responsibilities equally?  Or is she more stressed at work than usual?

By going through this process, you hopefully are able to come to a better understanding about yourself as well as your wife so you can go to her and say,  I’m sorry I didn’t take out the trash because of X.  I’m going to stop doing X so much.  I didn’t realize you have been struggling with Y and I should have been sensitive to that.   By doing so you’ve gained an understanding of yourself and your wife and are now closer to your wife than you were before not taking out the trash.  That’s growth.  That’s teshuvah.

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