On Yom Kippur those who gather together for the day participate in a spectacular liturgical drama that is completely unique in the Jewish calendar because it effects a transformation. The year changed ten days ago on Rosh Ha-Shanah, but Yom Kippur is the day when we change – or rather, when we resolve to change our ways: we finally let go of the old year once and for all, and are taken on a journey towards forgiveness and atonement, so that we may begin again.

But there’s a catch. In order for the drama to unfold and reach its denouement, we have to do something: not simply join in the recitation of the prayers and sing the affecting melodies, and follow the scriptural readings: we have to reflect on our actions of the past year, confess our failings and misdeeds, and acknowledge how we have deceived ourselves and others – and wounded others as well as ourselves.

To help us on this inner journey, Machzor Ruach Chadashah, Liberal Judaism’s prayer book for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, offers passages for reflection before each of the five services of the day. The passages prior to Kol Nidrey include readings on ‘Sin’, ‘The Impulse to Evil: Yetzer Ha-ra’, and Self-Examination: Cheshbon ha-Nefesh. There are also passages for silent meditation within each service.

So, we have some resources to draw on as we tackle the difficult task of interrogating ourselves. Nevertheless, the language of the liturgy and of the selected readings is challenging and can be difficult to negotiate: do we see ourselves as committing sins? Really? Do we recognise the impulse to evil within us?

As it happens, the English catch-all word, ‘sin’ – drawn from the vocabulary of Christianity – is misleading. As the great Rabbi Louis Jacobs, zichrono livrachah, may his memory be for blessing, reveals in a passage included in the reflections before the Kol Nidrey service, the Jewish vocabulary of sin is very rich. The Hebrew equivalent, cheit, is actually, Louis Jacobs writes:

… the weakest term. It means ‘to miss the mark’. It is used of an archer where arrows fail to hit the target.

It’s considerably easier for us to admit to shooting arrows that go astray, that it is, to acknowledge that we made an error, than it is to admit that we committed a sin.

In addition to cheit, ‘error’, the Hebrew vocabulary includes words that denote graver misdemeanours: pesha and avon. Rabbi Jacobs explains that pesha:

…. refers to the attitude of mind were a person sets him or herself as sole judge of their actions, recognising neither God nor God’s law, nor the civil law. For this person there are no external standards of right or wrong. Whatever pleases them or furthers their aim, is right; never would frustrate their actions or displeases them, is wrong.

So, a good translation of pesha would be, ‘rebellion’.

Avon is, arguably, even more serious. Rabbi Jacobs again:

Avon means ‘to be twisted’ or ‘crooked’. An inherent or developed trait in the character that seems to impel the person to do wrong, to be deflected from the paths would otherwise be considered right.

Louis Jacobs points out that the most usual word for ‘sin’ in the rabbinic vocabulary is aveyrah, which he explains is:

… the opposite of mitzvah, the good deed, obeying God’s commandment. Aveyrah comes from the root meaning ‘to pass over’ – passing over the line of what is right, it is a transgression against God’s law.

And so, aveyrah: ‘transgression’.

From a Jewish perspective, ‘sin’ comes in many different forms. And to make matters even more complex, when the sages spoke of ‘the evil inclination’, yeitzer ha-ra, and ‘the good inclination’, yeitzer ha-tov, they were not suggesting that human beings were presented with a simple choice between following the one, or, following the other. And so, we read in a 6th century collection of midrash, Genesis Rabbah, in a comment on Genesis 1:31, (9:7):

‘And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good [tov m’od]. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.’ Nachman said in Rav Samuel’s name: ‘Very good’ refers to the good inclination [yetzer tov]; and ’very good’ refers to the evil inclination [yetzer ra]. Can then the evil inclination [yetzer ha-ra] be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the evil inclination [yetzer ha-ra], however, one would not build a house, marry, beget children, or engage in business.’

Contrary to the assumption that human beings are faced with just two choices, two paths, the way of right/good and wrong/evil, the terrain of human behaviour is far more entangled. This comment from the midrash does more than obviate binary thinking concerning ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and assert that both inclinations are ‘very good’. By indicating that the drive to construct, produce and create is ‘the evil inclination’ at work undertaking action that is vital to human life, the comment also implies that the good inclination is not, on its own, good enough.

So, if you think that your task today is to reject your evil inclination in favour of your inclination for good – think again!

Of course, rethinking our attitude to the evil inclination is quite difficult when we survey some of the events of the past year – across the world, as well is here, in Britain – and see the extent to which the evil inclination has gone on the rampage. There are so many examples… So let’s just consider the most extreme: the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime in Syria, on the one hand, and by the militants of the Islamic state, on the other, on their march across Syria and Iraq and beyond, with a view to establishing a new caliphate. Hundreds of thousands of people: terrorised, tortured, abused, sexually violated and brutally killed.

But we don’t just have to look across the globe for examples of horrifying abuse. Closer to home: The report published towards the end of August on the horrific sexual exploitation of 1400 young girls – some as young as 11 – in Rotherham. There are no words adequate to express our abhorrence of it all – of each and every case of deliberate and orchestrated cruelty. Of course, this is not the first scandal involving young girls groomed for sexual abuse to be exposed: Remember Oxford, and before that, Rochdale; and it won’t be the last. And so, quite apart from the cases of individual high profile abusers, like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, we know that there are so many more abuse conspiracies yet to be uncovered…

So, who are the people who commit these monstrous acts? A special breed of human – those who have had all that is ‘human’ bred out of them? No: they are sons and brothers and husbands and fathers – with mothers and sisters; and in some cases, wives and children of their own. In terms of rabbinic thinking, like all of us, they have a ‘good inclination’ and an ‘evil inclination’, and like all of us, without the evil inclination, they would ‘not build a house, marry, beget children, or engage in business.’

It is easy to think of these voracious men as a breed apart, but what about the millions – yes, millions – of so-called ‘ordinary’ men, who are sons and brothers and husbands and fathers, who look at indecent images of children on the Internet? Our conception of the paedophile is of a lone individual on the fringes of society. But most sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by fathers on their own children in their own homes.

Human beings are complex. And each every one of us – including those who commit the most depraved acts – was a baby once…

Does this mean that each one of us is capable of killing, raping and abusing others? Given the requisite socio/political circumstances and psychological pathology, it probably does. Fundamentally, the issue is about power; about holding power, exercising power and equipping ourselves so that we feel powerful. Historically, in male-dominated societies abuses of power have been committed overwhelmingly by the power holders: men. But when women occupy positions of power – including, mothers vis-a-vis their own children – the abuse of power is always a possibility: As we were reminded recently with the case of

Rosdeep Adekoya, who was found guilty of killing her 3-year-old son, Mikaeel Kular , in their home in Edinburgh, some mothers do assault – and even kill – their children.

And then there are those, who have lacked power in some way, who overcome their powerlessness, and are then in a position to exert power over others. Think about Oscar Pistorius and his story of the triumph of courage and determination over physical disability. What human resources of strength and will did it take for him to become an elite athlete? An individual, who could have grown up disadvantaged by his disability, with the help of his parents and others empowered himself, not only to walk and run and do all the things that fully are able people do, but to run like the wind: A real role model for other disabled people. But we know now the psychological price Oscar Pistorius paid for his triumph. Yes, when he wore his prosthetic legs, he could run like the wind, but on the night that he killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, he had been in bed and was not wearing them. Without his prostheses, Oscar Pistorius was reduced to hobbling on his stumps. With a gun in his hand he could overcome his feelings of vulnerability.

We don’t know – perhaps we will never find out – what exactly happened on that night, although after a trial that lasted 43 days, Judge Thokozile Masipa, concluded that the prosecution case of pre-meditated murder had not been proved, and that the evidence presented did not justify a ruling of second degree murder either. The only thing that was clear was that Oscar Pistorius had been ‘negligent’ in the use of his firearm, and so she found him guilty of culpable homicide – unlawful killing. We do know from the testimony of his friends that Oscar liked guns and was prone to discharge them recklessly. Indeed, of three gun-related charges, two of which were not proven, he was also found guilty of discharging a friend’s gun in a crowded restaurant.  We also know that on Valentine’s night 2013 Oscar took one of his weapons and fired four shots through the closed toilet door, and killed Reeva. In those few moments, whatever his intentions, he ended her life and changed his life forever.

Violence and abuse are expressions of power. So, what do we make of the perpetrators? A fictional exploration of the story of an ordinary man, who became a drug supplier and dealer, and went on to commit murder, exposes how difficult it is to identify bad behaviour with bad people. I’m talking about Breaking Bad, the American TV series that won five Emmy awards in August, and tells the story of an ex-chemistry teacher, reduced to working in a car-wash, whose determination to ensure the financial security of his family when he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, leads him to use his exceptional chemistry skills for the manufacture of pure crystal meth. I saw the series on DVD. It was so compelling that, sometimes, I watched three episodes in a row. What made it so compelling? One obvious answer: the brilliant performances of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, the crystal meth-making team. But much more important: the sheer plausibility of Walter White’s conversion from failed Mr Good Guy to spectacularly successful Mr Bad Guy; except, it wasn’t really about good guys and bad guys, but rather about the consequences of our actions – about how one thing can lead to another, and another…

Which brings me back to us: to each of us – and to the purpose of Yom Kippur. The biblical reference to Yom Kippur in Leviticus 23, proclaims, ‘you shall afflict yourselves’ – v’innitem et-nafshoteikhem (:27). Interpreting the meaning of these words, the sages made it clear that self-affliction was not about self-flagellation, rather what was required was for the individual to refrain from self-affirming and self-nourishing activities, principally, from eating, drinking, engaging in sex, washing and ‘anointing’ – that is, using body-creams, perfume or make up – although the wearing of leather shoes is also prohibited. The reason for denying ourselves in these everyday ways is in order to remove all the externals, everything that gratifies and diverts us, and everything that expresses our dependence on others – including, the animals from which we derive the leather for our foot-wear – so that we can focus our attention on our inner selves. But the point of this self-examination – chesbon ha-nefesh – is not to berate ourselves, or engage in a personal character assassination, but rather to pay direct and particular attention to our actions. If we follow the sages’ wise thoughts on the subject of good and evil, we each have, both, a good inclination and an evil inclination, and our evil inclination – in more contemporary language, our inner drive – can lead us to do good deeds as well as bad deeds. In fact, we cannot live without it. Ultimately, it’s not who we are, it’s what we do that matters, whatever our intentions. May the compelling drama that is Yom Kippur, enable, nourish and inspire each one of us to resolve to do what we can to make a new beginning.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Erev Yom Kippur 5775 – 3rd October 2014