Published Works:
Public Speaking:
Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.
Copyright 2011 Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.. All rights reserved.
The following sermons were preached at Temple Sinai in Lake Charles,
Louisiana, during the High Holy Days of 2009:

 Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
        Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning

Yom Kippur Morning
September 28, 2009

“A Jewish View of Sin and Guilt”

Human evil is a reality. From ancient times, evil has been understood not
just as an abstract concept, but a fact of life that touches every individual
who has ever lived. A five-thousand year old text from Mesopotamia
contains the following assertion: “Never has a child that does not sin been
born to its mother.” In ancient Babylonia, the question was asked: “Who is
there who has not sinned against his god?” And of course, our own biblical
tradition is equally blunt: “There is no one who does not sin” (1 Kings 8.46).
So it is not surprising that humans have devised some truly fascinating ways
of dealing with the problem.

Medieval England, Scotland, and Wales developed a ritual involving a
person designated as a “sin-eater.” As a man lay dying, the sin-eater would
be called to his side and a crust of bread placed on his breast. At the
moment of death, a relative of the dying man who was stationed on the
opposite side of the “patient” would pass a bowl of ale to the sin-eater over
the corpse. After reciting a standard ritual, the sin-eater would then drink
the ale and eat the crust of bread, symbolically taking into his own body the
sins of the deceased, thus allowing him to enter into paradise.

Tlazol-teotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, had a
redemptive role in the religious practices of the Meso-American civilization.
At the end of an individual’s life, he was allowed to confess his misdeeds to
this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse his soul by “eating its

Another well known approach to the problem of sin is monasticism, a
practice by which a holy person renounces all normal physical desires in
order to fully devote his or her life to spiritual work. Because of the extreme
sinfulness of humanity, the righteousness of individuals who devote
themselves to prayer and spiritual development is believed to serve as a
defense against the overthrow of morality by the forces of evil. Many folk
religions believe that the surplus of righteousness created by monastics
actually serves to deflect from those who are evil the full consequences of
their sins.

Of course our own history includes some intriguing customs as well. Early
Judaism developed the idea that the suffering of an innocent animal could
be substituted for the punishment otherwise due to sinful humans.
Specifically on the great Day of Atonement, our ancestors devised a
dramatic ritual to symbolize the vicarious treatment of human sin. Two goats
were led to the high priest. By drawing lots, one of them was dedicated to
YHWH and ritually slaughtered, while the other goat was dedicated to the
demonic ruler of all evil named ’Azazel, the sins of the people were
magically transferred onto its head, and it was sent out into a desolate
region carrying human sin away from Israelite society. Christianity adapted
this concept to mean that a sinless divine/human individual could serve the
same purpose for the whole world.

Some early scholars thought that ’Aza’zel was a reference to the goat that
got away or escaped. By the 16th century, the English translation of the
Bible by Tyndale took the idea in the phrase “escape goat” and replaced it
with the single word “scapegoat.” That’s it! Let’s duck responsibility and
pass our sins off onto someone else. The ancient ceremony must have been
powerful and impressive. I am almost sorry that I don’t get to re-enact it for
you this morning. Almost!

Even today, a vestige of this ancient idea remains in our Tashlikh ceremony
held late in the afternoon on the first day of Rosh ha-Shanah, near a body of
running water where live fish are found. Although the Tashlikh ceremony
first appears only about six-hundred years ago, the word “tashlikh” itself is
derived from the Book of Micah 7.19: “You will cast [Hebrew: tashlikh] all
their sins into the depths of the sea.”

    Now it has been almost two-thousand years since the double goat
ceremony was performed, and surely no thinking Jew today really believes
that fish relieve us of personal responsibility by eating our sins magically
transferred onto bread crumbs. So we are left to wonder just how we may be
able to deal with our sins in this modern era. We are not the first generation
to have such worries. A fascinating story from the early rabbis (’Avot de
Rabbi Nathan 4.5) indicates the struggle faced by the early rabbis shortly
after the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70 CE:

Once as Rabbi Yohanan was walking out of Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua
followed him. Seeing the Temple in ruins, he said: “Woe to us that this place
where atonement was made for the iniquities of Israel is destroyed.” Rabbi
Yohanan responded: “My son, do not grieve, for we have another means of
atonement that is equally effective. What is it? It is deeds of loving-
kindness, concerning which Scripture says, “I [God] desire Hesed, not
sacrifice” (Hosea 6.6).

But even Rabbi Yohanan was not the first Jewish thinker to formulate this
idea we now recognize as a fundamental precept of Judaism. Citing the
prophet Hosea, who had lived eight hundred years earlier, he was assuring
his student that we have something better than a physical building and
some ancient ceremonial customs—like animal sacrifices or sin-eating fish.
And Hosea was not the only prophet whom the rabbi might have quoted to
point the way to a higher concept of sin, forgiveness, and atonement.
Samuel said it this way: “Obedience is better than a sacrifice” (1 Sam 15.22).
Amos (5.21ff), Isaiah (1.10ff), Micah (6.6ff), and Jeremiah (7.21ff) expressed
similar sentiments.

Perhaps an equally important question is this. How do we resolve the
problem of guilt? Each year we place great emphasis on the necessity of
repentance, and we remind ourselves that as surely as God forgives us, we
have an obligation to forgive anyone who apologizes for things they have
said or done to us. But we talk very little about forgiving ourselves.

Let’s set aside the issues of sacrifices that can no longer be offered and
rituals that mean little in and of themselves. We need to acknowledge that
there is absolutely nothing we can do that will force God to forgive us. Then
we need to remind ourselves that sacred Scripture is replete with teachings
about the mercy of God, emphasizing repeatedly that the very nature of God
is to forgive, to show compassion, to offer a fresh start.
Of course, we must face our own shortcomings and admit our sins. We must
repent. But having repented, we must not wallow in self-pity or ingest the
corrosive acidic cocktail that is well known as twenty-four caret Jewish guilt.
Instead, having taken seriously the teaching of the Torah about repentance,
we must take equally seriously the assurance that divine forgiveness is God’
s great gift to us. We must internalize the healing words of the Psalmist:
“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in loving
kindness … He does not deal with us on the basis of our sins, nor repay us
according to our iniquities … As far as the east is from the west, He has
distanced our transgressions from us … As a father has compassion on his
children, exactly so does the LORD have compassion on those who respect
Him” (Psalm 103.8, 10, 12, 13). In short, when forgiveness is offered, the past
is truly the past, and guilt is not only counter-productive, but unnecessary.

The very moment our repentance is genuine, we can go from this sanctuary
with clean hands, pure hearts, and clear consciences. Yom Kippur, the Day
of Atonement is somber and sobering. But the same day that demands
repentance also brings forgiveness, a new beginning that crackles with
hope and the renewal of promise for lives of growth and maturation.

    So, as disappointing as it may be to some, we are not going to sacrifice a
goat this morning, or send an unfortunate animal wandering out into the
badlands of New Mexico carrying our sins. What we are going to do is much
harder. With humble and grateful hearts, we are going to accept
forgiveness from God and from others. And then we are going to forgive

        Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
        Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning
Louisiana State University
Department of Religious Studies, 107 Coates Hall
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