Al Cheyt. It’s Not a Sin.

This post is very late. Or perhaps very, very early. It has to do with the Jewish High Holidays. During Yom Kippur the congregation recites a confessional – all the sins that have been committed by someone/anyone/everyone in the community. For those of you who don’t click through on links, I’ll post a little of that confessional here. (taken from the middle of the prayer – there is much more before and after).

For the sin which we have committed before You in business dealings.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by eating and drinking.
For the sin which we have committed before You by usury.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by a haughty demeanor.
For the sin which we have committed before You by the prattle of our lips.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by a glance of the eye.

Many congregants dislike this confessional intensely. There is a feeling that you the individual are confessing for things that you did NOT do, would NEVER do, and why should *I* be held accountable for someone else’s sin????? I mean “usury”? Really? I’ve felt like that some years. Other years I look at the “sins” and think “I KNOW I’m going to do that one again and not feel all that sorry about it, so why am I wasting my breath?” I’m sure as you look at the tiny excerpt above you can get a flavor of what the prayer is like and how you might react to these sins.

This year I attended services at the Hillel of Rutgers University. The assistant rabbi gave his d’var on the Al Cheyt. D’var means “word” and it’s used to denote a teaching or learning. You can say “sermon”, but to me sermon sounds like “preaching” and has a connotation of admonishment. D’vrei are more like class lectures – an insight or observation. Anyway, you never quite know what the rabbi is going to say on the High Holidays. In my youth it was always an exhortation to donate. Now that I am an adult, and drift about to many different services, I find that often the rabbi’s talk is very much a learning and explanation of the text of the service. This year’s d’var was right on the money for me. Perfect. It turned the Al Cheyt into something more personal and accessible.

The rabbi said that the prayer books translate “cheyt” as “sin”, but that’s not really the connotation of the word in Hebrew. Cheyt, he said, is much more like “missing the mark”. It’s not that we are sinning – such a judgemental word – but that we are striving and falling short. Think about that a moment. Whereas I might argue that I am NOT doing those sins, I certainly would not argue that I am falling short of “perfection”. We all fall short of perfection. We’re not actually expected to be perfect. We’re asked to be the best that we CAN be. That’s hard, and we often fall short. Miss the mark.

It’s curious, but hearing him give that description lifted a weight off my shoulders. I am part of the community and I accept my responsibility to atone for myself and the community as a whole. I suppose there are people out there who are deliberately doing wrong and I would probably say that is “sinning”. For the most part, however, I think the vast majority of us do try to do the best we can, sometimes under extremely trying conditions. On occasion, maybe many occasions, we miss the mark. The Al Cheyt has become a positive statement for me, despite the confessions of wrong-doing. We’re trying and we will keep trying and we will try yet again. For all these missing-the-marks, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.