Hours ago the Jewish Day of Atonement ended. In the course of the day, the Al Chet prayer was recited numerous times. As Jews recited the prayer, they beat their chests and attempted to disencumber themselves of the baggage of potential wrongdoings that may have been among their acts in the year just ended.
That traditional prayer is interesting on a wide variety of levels. Of all potential words for wrongdoing, the use of the Hebrew term chet may be particularly fitting. Unlike its synonym pesha which nearly always means intended wrondoing, the word chet refers to mistakes in conduct, many of which may not be at all intentional. The word is derived from archery and originally meant to miss the target. While chet is frequently defined as sin, that term with all its pejorative associations is not helpful to understanding Jewish prayer.
Many of the mistakes for which Jews beat their chests can be understood only as evil acts. These include malingering, harming parents, usury, adultery, and numerous others. Carefully engaging the group, many listed situations are states of mind, emotions and neutral acts. Being astonished, angered or dismayed need not lead to evil acts or mayhem.
While there may be no escape from emotions, the prayer seems to suggest that the Children of Abraham are duty bound to keep control of their acts regardless of their state of mind. By reviewing the states of mind, for which chests are beat in contrition, Jews are forced to realize that they may not always be able to control their emotions, b ut they are never relieved of the obligation of controlling their deeds.
Of all the potential situations found in the prayerbook from which Jews prayed today, three may be especially meaningful. In Hebrew they are piyus, massa umatan and timhon levav. Piyus means to make peace or to appease. Massa umatan is to do business (trade) or negotiate. Timhon levav is confusion, astonishment or dismay. On the surface what could be wrong with making peace or appeasing. What earned this term a place on the list? Are Jews not pressed to act as Aaron the first high priest, who not only sought peace but chased it? Is not making peace a positive goal?
Similarly, is there anything wrong with doing business or negotiating? Cannot a successful businessperson multiply the outcomes of his/her work for the good of the community? Can anyone improve the world in which all live without first interacting with others? If Jews are not prepared to interact with others, to negotiate, how can they potentially improve the world for the Kingdom of Heaven? Yet even this high goal may be fraught with potential harm.
Living from day to day, having numerous sources of data stream through our computers, radios and televisions, and print news, is it not normal and expected that people will experience some confusion and dismay from time to time. How can Jews read of mass murders without dismay. With conflicting information about environmental issues, would it not be sensible for a serious examiner to be confused from time to time? Does being confused or dismayed, though, relieve the ethical person of the need to strive for good at all times?”
In the past year there has been much room for confusion, negotiation and pacification. Negotiations with Iran, terrible allegations made against police in numerous locations, issues being stressed by Democratic and Republican candidates cause all serious citizens to pause and consider what lay ahead. There is no doubt that all involved in the issues facing Americans are intent on doing what they see as right and helpful. Yet, that is the point of the prayer. Intent to do good in negotiations, when striving for peace or when in emotional turmoil is just not enough. The prayer reminds that even with the best of intentions, mistakes can be made.
Hopefully the power brokers, whether Jewish or not, can learn from the Al Chet.
As hopeful as they may be that the issues that rose to attention after events in Ferguson are resolved for the good of the country, that is not clear. As hopeful as they are that the Iran deal will prove positive for the world, that also remains to be seen. Perhaps that is why for the next two weeks Jews continue to wish others that they be sealed in the book of life. The future remains in God’s hands regardless of the arguments now placed on the table by Democrat and Republican players.