I’ve seen it before. The beauty, the simplicity, and success of it. I’ve wanted it before- the lifestyle, the perspective, the culture that revolves around it. I’ve dreamt of it, the actions and consequences, and the redeeming reward that follows it.
Yes, I’ll admit it; I’ve wanted to sin. I’ve craved the art of sinning multiple times, but not in the crime committing way. I wanted to sin in the ways that my Christian and Catholic friends sin, where there is always a direct pathway leading back to the relentless love of God in the end. I wanted to sin so that my rabbi could assure me that my God loved me enough to excuse me from my wrongdoing. I wanted to admit my errors, cheated test answers, and gossip stories within the dark walls of a confessional booth and move on with my day knowing that I was instantly forgiven. I wanted to walk forward from my synagogue pews with my daily sins to the bimah to become saved by God in front of my community.
While my non-Jewish friends can always bask in the gift of eternal love, my community seems to prefer the “sin and suffer” model, a system in which every ethical decision is accompanied by copious amounts of guilt. After our every action, we replay all the potential outcomes and consequences in our minds until the very sin we had committed dissolves beneath all our man-made guilt. While my friends seemingly felt no shame in calling themselves sinners, my community hid behind that truthful title; while the Christians in my life confidently confessed their flaws to God and their congregations, the Jews chose to deal with their sins behind closed doors, resulting in an endless process of self-guilt.
I’ve asked Judaism for this glorified Christian culture of sinning and saving, but was unfortunately rejected. Through the guidance of a few rabbis and pastors, however, I learned that perhaps we are blessed with the long process of forgiveness in Judaism. Our tradition, unlike other religions, takes us on a life-changing journey known as teshuvah that teaches us how to transform our sins into opportunities of rebirth and rejuvenation. Judaism uses sin as outlets in which to express and refocus our love for God, rather than holes from which only God and His/Her clergy can “save” us. Perhaps Judaism’s cycle of sinning was not designed to be instantaneous or glamorous; perhaps our trail to forgiveness from both God and our loved ones was intended to be as deep and consuming as the very sins we commit.
Our sins are meant to open our own eyes. We have become so skilled at seeing the sins—and salvations-- of others that we forget to look into ourselves. There may be a sense of comfort for some people in knowing that their sins will immediately covered by the arms of a savior, but do they, themselves, truly see the opportunities to save themselves? So many people in the world can approach an altar with open hearts before large congregations, but could they approach their own mirrors the same way? I’m not pointing fingers because I, more than anything, envied this method. It took years of sinning and forgiving, however, to realize that some of my most vulnerable and genuine moments of teshuva occurred when I faced my sins alone, bereft of any applause or congratulatory hand-shakes. Above all the consequences and grounded weekends, it took the feelings of pure disappointment and grief with myself—isolated from the world-- to see the power of a real apology.
Each sin we commit opens the eyes of those who see us. Self-introspection is merely the first step. Throughout the month of Elul, I try to absorb myself in what Judaism calls Cheshbon HaNefesh, the accounting of the soul. It is during that month where I look back on the Emily I was in the world all year and align her to the Emily I want to be in the next year. While my mirror may hold my deepest emotions, epiphanies, and feelings toward my sinful actions, it does not hold my relationships. After realizing the faults and ways to grow in my own behavior, it is my responsibility to strengthen my relationships with the ones who have been affected by them. Accepting my sins and my own apologies will never be enough—I must reach every person I impacted on a personal level and rebuild the foundation of trust that I threatened. This act of forgiveness, one that can only exist in solid relationships, tests my faith more than black confessional booth ever will; it reminds me each day that the people around me, loved ones and strangers alike, can see and define me by my very actions. It takes my efforts and actions in rebuilding myself to open the eyes of those who see me.
Each sin we commit opens our eyes to God. For some, God’s unconditional love can lie at the core of every sin. For some, each moment that they missed the mark is really just a confirmation that they will always be sinners, saved and protected by their god’s love. For Judaism, God’s love does not work so easily. Instead, we must strive to transform our sins into moments of deep reflection, growth, and humility. While any sin, regardless of size, can leave Christianity sighing in relief when realizing that their god will love them relentlessly, Judaism must shift apprehensively in knowing that our every action impacts a relationship far greater than that of endless love. Our sins do not expose us to God’s instant forgiveness, but rather a life-long relationship, complete with its moments of happiness, fear, guilt, and disappointment. Our sins—and our faith at large—do not expose us to God’s love for us, but rather our love for God, and how to manifest that in our evolving relationships with Him/Her. Our sins are only one of the many components in our multi-faceted relationships with God; learning how to step back and transform our sins into actions of kindles helps create the balance we need in this relationship.
Judaism’s process of sinning and forgiving, while perhaps not as efficient as a confessional visit or glamorous as a community wide altar call, teaches me to step back, stare into the mirror, and realize that I must take responsibility for both my sins and my relationships. While this system is far more grueling, the result—a growing love-centered relationship with my God—is worth every sin.