Mortal Sin or Mortal Chet?

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It’s pretty instructive to note that the English word sin derives from the Proto-Indo-European word fragment, es, meaning to be.

The Christian notion linking sin with our very essence as human beings couldn’t be farther from the Jewish understanding of the nature of sin.

The phrases “born sinner” and “original sin” have no place in the Jewish approach towards sin and atonement. The Hebrew word for sin is “chet” and derives from the Hebrew verb meaning “to miss the mark or target.” Thus at a most basic level we Jews view sin not as a permanent birth stain upon our humanity, but as a regrettable action whose effect can be remedied. That Judaism is forgiving of our human nature should give us courage to forgive and ask forgiveness of others during these Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement.

In theory Judaism’s path towards atonement, correcting the hurt of our missed marks, is clear and simple — we go to the person(s) whom we have hurt and ask forgiveness. A person approached by someone seeking forgiveness must not turn him away, unless, of course, the transgression is so severe that it resulted in irreversible damage. We are taught that repentance is complete when we find ourselves on the verge of misstepping once again and deliberately choose a new path: a path of self control; a path of understanding; a path leading to peace not strife. It is a long and trying journey. It is the journey of a lifetime.

I’m a screamer. Or I used to consider myself one. Over the years, of all the things I have regretted each fall is my big mouth. My impetuous mouth. My speak-before-thinking-mouth. I’m mellowing. I no longer have energy for big emotional fireworks. I realize that saying “I’m sorry” is useless if I don’t change the behavior for which I apologize.

Many months ago Emma came downstairs before school wearing a bright shade of lipstick. I took one look at her and scolded, “Right back upstairs young lady! Off with the lipstick!” I sounded like some Victorian parent fearful that her daughter was destined for the burlesque hall. Emma was crushed; I saw in her face how I felt the day I was chastised for doing something similarly experimental and feminine.

I went up to her room, wiped away her tears and asked her to forgive me my outburst. I told her I remembered how it had felt when I tried to be grown up by wearing make up and had gotten swatted down. We agreed on a more neutral shade of lip gloss, ate breakfast and had a quiet ride to school. I had veered wildly from the path I wanted to be on — one of compassion and self restraint. The great thing about life is that we get chance after chance to get it right.

Emma saw a beauty book, Bobbi Brown Teenage Beauty, in a catalog and asked me to get it for her. It takes a pretty sensible approach to the whole issue of looks and make up. Emma and I have read it together, talking about what is right for her and when. Reading Bobbi Brown with my daughter helped get me back on the path. It helped her understand that while there are age appropriate parameters there’s also flexibility vis a vis this entrancing whole world of face paint.

The Yom Kippur morning service sets aside time for silent confession which is then followed by the “Al Chet”, a public recitation of our transgressions against God. Each transgression is phrased in the plural — for the sin we have committed against You. The community’s sins against God are these: malicious gossip, sexual immorality, gluttony, narrow mindedness, fraud and falsehood, hating without cause, arrogance, insolence, irreverence, hypocrisy, passing judgment on others, exploiting the weak, giving and taking bribes, giving way to our hostile impulses, running to do evil. Now no one hits all these in a single year and for many not even in a lifetime. But I think there is something valuable about praying as a community for one another, asking God to forgive us all because each of us is necessary member of our individual communities.

Round about this time each year I get apprehensive. The ultimate question of these ten Days of Awe is, “Will we be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year?” We are not asking for a lifetime or even a decade of health but simply good health for one year. Forgiveness to expunge the transgressions of a single year, not those of a lifetime. Is it so much to ask for, a single year’s blessing?

The prayer book proclaims this a day “awesome and full of dread” and it definitely inspires dread to think of one’s life hanging in the balance. But Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers another lens through which to view Yom Kippur. In his book Jewish Literacy he writes, “The holiday’s goal is not self-mortification but rather to bring about reconciliation between people, and between individuals and God.” Telushkin goes on to quote the rabbis of the Talmud who understood Yom Kippur to be a happy day since it affords us the opportunity to turn our lives around, to open our hearts to granting and receiving

If we perceive Yom Kippur as the day to atone for “chet” instead of “sin” it might become easier to look at the holiday as did the Talmudic rabbis. I think of myself as a sinner and immediately feel shackled by deeds so heavy I can never return to a path of goodness. I think “chet” and know that return is possible. This switch in focus doesn’t negate the gravity of transgression. It merely acknowledges the possibility of being redeemed. Yom Kippur becomes not a day of dread, but a day filled with hope and anticipation.

May you all be inscribed in the book of life in the coming year and may forgiveness, both in the giving and the receiving, be yours.

© 1993 Debra B. Darvick reprinted with permission of the author.

Debra Darvick’s most recent work is This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. The book may be ordered from or by calling the publisher at 800.880.8642.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.