What is Sin?

A modern interpretation of sin and repentance.

I have often wondered whether the trouble some of us have with our religious observance, attending worship services and understanding our prayer book might perhaps be helped if we translated certain key words from their old-fashioned language to more current idiom.

For example, words like sin, repentance, and salvation: To all too many of us they carry little meaning, strike no significant chord in us. Not because they represent no realities, but because these words themselves belong to a bygone age when people actually said of some act, “That’s a sin.”

Today, we would put it differently. We would say of the same behavior: “It’s boorish, antisocial, indecent, neurotic.”

What is sin? It is sickness of soul, unhappiness with what we are doing with our lives, to ourselves and to others who share our life: the unhappy misapplication of our talents and energies in directions that bring us no sense of fulfillment, no feeling of achievement or joy in living.

We have no sinners today. Of course not! Only millions of delinquents, of alienated, frustrated, hung-up, drug-addicted, sex-obsessed, anxiety- and guilt- ridden neurotics. That’s all; but certainly no sinners–perish forbid!

And translated into everyday language, what is repentance? What, indeed, but the need and the longing to change, the effort to heal ourselves, the quest for a cure for our sickness of soul.

What does a skillful psychiatrist accomplish when he is successful? He turns his patient around. He redirects the sick way the patient thinks and feels and behaves, helps him change his pathologically unhappy mode of operation for another way, a way that will make him regard himself with esteem rather than with contempt. To change, to turn from a bad to a better way, is precisely the meaning of teshuvah, the Hebrew word for repentance.

Or, take the word salvation. It is just an old word, which means being saved, rescued from some danger or trouble or disease. Translated into current language, it means being healthy: having a wholesome sense of well-being at peace with oneself and the world.

Sin, then, is just sickness of the soul. Repentance is the prescription for its cure. Salvation is health; the cure itself.

From Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Rosh Hashanah, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins © 1992 Jason Aronson Inc.

Discover More

Teshuvah, or Repentance

The High Holidays provide a special opportunity to repent.

Yom Kippur In the Community

What to expect in synagogue on the Day of Atonement.

What is Elul?

The month prior to the Jewish new year is a time of introspection and personal stock-taking.

Passover 2020

In 2020, the first Passover seder is on Wednesday, April 8.

Lighting Shabbat Candles

Everything you need to know about kindling the Sabbath lights.

What Do Jews Believe About Jesus?

How Judaism regards the man Christians revere as the messiah.

Shabbat Blessings for Friday Night

Lighting the candles, saying Kiddush and other Shabbat dinner rituals.

Why Do So Many Orthodox Men Have Beards?

The Jewish reasons for facial hair, including sidelocks (payot).