By STEVE BAYAR
(My Jewish Learning via JTA) — We live with a practical tradition. We begin the Jewish New Year with 10 days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path.
“Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term that means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct, if possible. It is human to make mistakes — it is brave to try to correct them. This makes “teshuvah” — translated as “to return” — an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect, but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.
Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships: those we have with each other and those we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: the ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.
Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion, it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. While some may say this is only a metaphor, I’m not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of tikkun olam, and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?
This interplay between teshuvah and chet, our relationship to others, creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakes — how can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.
We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):
The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, teshuvah or tzedakah?”
He answered, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).”
The students said, “Rabbi, have we not already found that tzedakah is greater than teshuvah?”
In this text, Rabbi Akiva places emphasis on the necessity of teshuvah — we are always in need of repentance and atonement. Yet the students refuse to accept his answer. The text doesn’t provide a resolution to the debate and seemingly leaves the matter for us to decide.
This text identifies some of the most important issues in our community today: How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is through introspection and to find yourself in intense moments that we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of teshuvah, the “return to one’s tradition.” This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.
Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in tzedakah. I have experienced moments of spiritual delight wrapped in my prayers and turning toward God, when the door opened and my path was illuminated. But I have also experienced the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, of delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachia. I found these experiences equivalent ways of becoming close to God.
I can tell you this: When I am alone and feel in the dark, when I am scared and aware of my mortality, or when I am in pain, it is the tzedakah experiences that I dust off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from tzedakah.
(Steven Bayar received his bachelor’s degree in religious studies and master’s degree in biblical studies and medieval Jewish philosophy from the University of Virginia. He was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and served congregations in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Chestnut Ridge, New York, before coming to Congregation Bnai Israel in Millburn, New Jersey, in 1989.)