Start the Sin Cycle

Here we go again: the Yom Kippur confessional is upon us, our annual alphabetical recitation of our sins and transgressions, from ashamnu to ti’tanu, from avarice to xenophobia and zealotry. The list never changes; the question it poses, somewhat tediously, is whether we have changed.

While it maybe thought useful to have a list that is basically a catchall, in which each of us can see not only the entire community but himself or herself, such a list is also problematic; too much. The longer the list, the more overwhelming it is, the less it comes as a challenge, the less we attend its components, the more we treat it as poetry rather than indictment. Pleading guilty to a poem? Our confession becomes too easy; the ritual defeats its purpose.

I would hardly write in this fashion did I not have a solution to propose, one inspired from another ancient civilization. The Chinese name each year after one of 12 animals, in an endless cycle. (This reflects a certain view of life: What goes around literally comes around.) There’s the Year of the Dog, the Year of the Snake, the Year of the Rat, the Year of the Ox and so forth.

I’m not much into animals, Chinese or zodiacal, but the notion of naming specific time periods after particular elements, be they animal, vegetable or moral, has some appeal. Might we not choose to signify each new year with a name, specifically the name of one of the classic transgressions? Think of it as a kind of “sin of the year” that would provide us as both individuals and a community some focus in the year ahead. Suppose, for example, this were to be “The Year of Cupidity,” a year in which we genuinely seek to modify our greed. Or “The Year of the Evil Tongue,” during which we’d try, really try, to avoid gossip and slander. During the run-up to a new year so designated, we’d have think tanks, synagogue committees and family circles devoted to analyzing the issue at hand and proposing methods for dealing with it. Over the course of an adult life, we’d have the opportunity to confront, in a serious way, our disposition to lie, to persecute, to counsel evil and all the rest.

Imagine: Each of us could make his or her own cheshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul), with respect to the well-publicized transgression. We could, perhaps as families, explore our motives, raise questions that might normally be thought impertinent but that now would be rendered near-mandatory by the communitywide understanding that this year, families everywhere are working their way through the issue. The burgeoning book clubs might select their books with an eye to the yearly theme. We could (and should) meet across denominational boundaries, explore Jewish sources, Jewish history, our own experiences, all with a mind to wrestling the transgression into a state of submission.

As it happens, I am especially intrigued by the prospect of a frontal assault on cupidity. Perhaps it is my own infatuation with things that renders it easier and more urgent for me to bare and then beat my breast in connection with greed — or, to make the self-criticism both easier to absorb and rather more accurate, not so much greed as simple acquisitiveness.

But in what sense is acquisitiveness a failure of the community at large, as distinguished from its component parts? One answer: Almost all our communal institutions honor and increasingly offer leadership positions only to the moneyed — some of whom merit the honor or position, many of whom do not; it is their wealth that is the necessary condition, and sometimes even the sufficient condition. Organizations once headed by devoted activists — one thinks, for example, of the American Jewish Congress — have become shameless in this regard, selling their souls along with their leadership positions. That’s a transgression worth considering, one face of avarice. (And a face of betrayal, as well.)

When the poor people of Chelm protested that only the rich could sit next to the synagogue’s east wall, the rabbis decided that henceforward, all walls of the synagogue would be known as the east wall. If, however, there were those in the congregation who wished to pay more in order to next to what was formerly knows as the east wall, that was their right. If it were only so simple!

Even the process of deciding which transgression to focus on, year by year, could prove valuable: Imagine interest groups within the community debating whether this is more timely than that; imagine debates in which idolatry is pitted against oppression. We might even devise a method of popular voting, the community as a whole selecting the sin of the year. Starting with cupidity is plainly only a suggestion. If it’s a timely “C” we want, we could as easily start with celebrity, wondering what it means and why so many of us respond to it. Or, if “A” is where to start, there’s not only “avarice,” there are also “aggression,” “abstention” (as in “indifference”), “arrogance,” and on and on, together a more than sufficient material for a lifelong course in ethical behavior, for a thoughtfully examined life — a way to be ethically challenged and be proud of it.

One small point of personal privilege: As the father of the idea, I’d like to be excused from being required to deal with my stiff-neckedness, if and when we get to that one. Thanks.

Elliot Fein teaches Jewish studies at the Tarbut V’Torah School in Irvine.