This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.
Judaism teaches that human beings are not basically sinful. We come into the world neither carrying the burden of sin committed by our ancestors nor tainted by it. Rather, sin, het, is the result of our human inclinations, the yetzer, which must be properly channeled.
Het literally means something that goes astray. It is a term used in archery to indicate that the arrow has missed its target. This concept of sin suggests a straying from the correct ways, from what is good and straight. Can humans be absolved of their failure and rid themselves of their guilt? The ideology of Yom Kippur answers: Yes.
These concepts are already found in biblical stories, including those at the beginning of the Torah, those concerning Israel and its sins in the wilderness, and in the teachings of the prophets. These writings contemplate the nature of human beings, the meaning of sin, and the possibility of forgiveness. The early stories in Genesis teach that the “devisings [yetzer] of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). This is the source of the rabbinic concept of the yetzer, human instincts, similar to the Freudian id. Later, the rabbis spoke of the yetzer ha‑tov, the good inclination, and the yetzer ha‑ra, the evil inclination.
The word “forgiveness” or “pardon” (in Hebrew, s‑l‑h) appears for the first time in the story of the golden calf: “Pardon our iniquity and our sin” (Exod. 34:9).The story of the spies contains a similar idea: “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have tolerated [carried] this people ever since Egypt” (Num. 13:5).This text is followed by the verse that is central to the Yom Kippur liturgy: “And the Lord said, ‘I pardon, as you have asked'” (Num. 14:37).
These narratives establish the concept of the God of Israel as a God of mercy and forgiveness. In revealing His nature to Moses, God indicates His forgiving nature much more fully than He did in the Ten Commandments. God emphasizes mercy, “carrying sin” and extending lovingkindness far beyond the extent of punishment. Thus, Moses learns that God’s essence is not only His absolute Being and His absolute freedom, but His fundamental mercy. It is not surprising that the passage in which these attributes of God are detailed (Exod. 34:6‑7) became the cornerstone of the liturgy of forgiveness during the High Holy Day season.
In rabbinic Judaism, these ideas evolved into the concept of the two attributes of God, the attribute of justice and the attribute of mercy, the latter being the dominant mode of God’s activity. The Mesillat Yesharim [an 18th century work of ethical literature] suggested that the attribute of mercy means that God gives respite to the sinner, not meting out His full punishment at once, but granting the sinner the opportunity to repent and thus be rid of the power of the evil inclination.
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