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sermons: missing the mark


Danforth Jewish Circle Yom Kippur: 2004 - 5765

Copyright © 2004 - 5765 by Warren Morris

G was asked to introduce Al Chet Shechatanu. For those not familiar, it is the prayer in which we recite a list of common (and some not-so-common) sins, and then ask forgiveness.

There is a recurring theme: The sin we have committed against you. The sin we have committed. The sin. The sin. The sin.

What is sin?

In the world I have grown up in, sin is bad. An evil deed. Something you should never do. Our society tells us that sinners are bad. Some believe that if you commit sins, you will go to hell. I remember in my early 20’s having a discussion over a beer with a non-Jewish acquaintance of mine. He believed strongly in heaven and hell and was surprised that I did not share his beliefs. He candidly admitted that it was his belief in the heaven and hell afterlife that kept him in line during his life. It was imperative for him to believe in this reward/punishment system in the afterlife or else there was no way that he could maintain a responsible lifestyle. He was concerned that he would turn into a hedonistic wild man if he knew there were no consequences. He did not relate to my moral code of being good for its own sake.

So no, I don’t believe I will go to hell for committing a sin. For me, there have been some consequences for not doing good. For many of us, if we think we have sinned, we feel tremendous guilt. We feel ashamed. We beat ourselves up. I know that when I have done wrong, I certainly do not need any punishment from this world or the nether world, as I will do a fine job of beating myself up. I know that I am my own harshest critic. Is that the purpose of Al Cheyt prayer? To feel guilt, to be self critical, to beat oneself up? Are the negative connotations associated with the word sin what sin is all about?

I spent sometime thinking about the definition of sin. I discussed the meaning of sin with my wife, Laurie. By way of brief background, Laurie has a strong sense of the divine and she has a spiritual practice that includes near daily mediation, and regular retreats, among other things. Unlike me, she is very comfortable using the word ‘God’ frequently. She attempts to see God in everyone and everything, but like most human beings, she is not always successful in doing so. We talked about sin. She too is uncomfortable, or should I say bothered, with the conventional definition of sin and its negative connotations. Laurie found a definition for sin that satisfies her. She defines sin as the distance between oneself and the divine. Sin is when we stray from the God within us. This definition may work well for many of us. But some us, like myself, are uncomfortable with the term ‘God’. Like the word sin, the word ‘God’ has taken on connotations that I am uncomfortable with. You know, that external all-powerful and wrathful king of the universe that is the ultimately arbiter of our fate. So I really appreciate when service leaders like Avrum Rosensweig use alternative terms such as “the spirit within us” or “ourselves”. I find that whenever Laurie and I get into conversations about God, we inevitably end up in the same place—she has to scramble to find a different way of expressing what she means by God in order to make it palatable to me.

But I would like to get back to sin and finding a more palatable definition of the word ‘sin’. I tried to come up with a definition. The best I could do was: sin—failing to do your best. I was pretty proud of my definition until I stumbled on the historic and real meaning of the word sin.

Do you know where the word ‘sin’ comes from? It is an old English sporting term. It comes directly from Archery. When an archer misses the bull’s eye, it was called a sin. There is nothing at all bad about having sinned in archery. Perhaps your shot was ineffective or inept, but certainly not morally bad. Would an archer feel ashamed or guilty for missing the archery target? Would you beat yourself up for hitting the outer rings instead of the bull’s eye? Would you go to hell for missing the mark? Of course not. When we miss the mark, we merely aim again, and do our best to hit the mark. Simple as that.

The definition of sin as “missing the mark” is not just some symbolic way for positive thinking people to gloss over the meaning of sin; it is the literal, true origin of the word. Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun, (a Jewish Renewal synagogue) got it right. He translated the Al Cheyt prayer, and instead of saying “for the sin we have committed against you…” he said, “For the ways that we missed the mark”; for the ways that we missed the mark. Incidentally, he continued by adding, “For the ways we missed the mark, strayed from our highest possible being as manifestations of the God, Energy of the Universe”. I am sure Laurie will approve of this addition.

The list of ways we may have missed the mark are certainly not confined to those set out in the prayer. Feel free to make your own list. If you would like, I would be more than happy to refer you to Rabbi Lerner’s version of Al Cheyt which includes a wide range of sins (or should I say, different ways we may have missed the mark). His list includes potential pitfalls for the socially active and spiritually conscious.

As we sit here on Yom Kippur Day, I urge you to relax, and reflect on how you have missed your targets. Try not to focus just on your aim but on the targets themselves. Many of us actually have brilliant aim—we hit our targets—we set goals in life and we are terrific at executing and acting. For such people, I ask you to take a step back and reflect on what your achievement goals are and how they are serving the greater good. For other people, we have wonderful goals or targets, but lousy aim or we don’t even take a shot.

As we say the Al Cheyt, I urge you to drop any of the negative connotations you may associate with the word ‘sin’ and simply think of it as “missing the mark ”. No guilt, no self-judgment. Just do your best. May you hit as many targets as you can.