Sin of the Year

THE HOUR

By Leonard Fein

Published October 03, 2003, issue of October 03, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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

While it may be thought useful to have a list that is basically a catch-all, in which each of us can see not only the entire community but himself, 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 if I did 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 and the Year of the Snake, the Year of the Rat and 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 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 community-wide 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 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 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 sit next to what was formerly known 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 more than sufficient material for a life-long 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.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).






Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.