Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the holidays of literary tropes. We invoke blessings for the new year by eating symbolic foods (simanim) associated with good outcomes through qualities of the food (sweetness, seeds) or wordplay:
- After eating LEEK or CABBAGE, say: “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be CUT OFF.”
- After eating BEETS, say: “May it be Your will, God, that our adversaries be REMOVED.”
- After eating DATES, say: “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be FINISHED.”
- After eating GOURD, say: “May it be Your will, God, that the decree of our sentence should be TORN apart, and may our merits be PROCLAIMED before You.”
- After eating POMEGRANATE, say: “May it be Your will, God, that our merits increase as the seeds of a POMEGRANATE.”
- After eating the HEAD of a sheep or fish, say: “May it be Your will, God, that we be as the HEAD and not as the tail.
Our prayers are filled with metaphors, for how else can we conceive of and internalize the abstract ethical and spiritual concepts of these Days of Awe? We invoke God continually as Father and King; we talk of God “writing” our deeds in a ledger and “weighing” them in the scales of justice. On Yom Kippur, we sing piyyutim that run through a catalogue of metaphors for God’s relationship to the Jewish people—e.g, “We are your flock, and You are our Shepherd, We are your vineyard, and You are our Watchman.”
At this time of year we ask forgiveness for our sins. If we are successful, what happens to them? In the Machzor, we ask God to “erase” them: “Erase and remove our sins from Your eyes…” The expression “erase sins” appears several times in Tanakh and is quoted in the liturgy, e.g., “I wipe away your sins like a cloud, your transgressions like a mist—come back to Me, for I redeem you” (Isaiah 44:22). These are beautiful and powerful sentiments, that surely help inspire us to change; for wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make our past transgressions disappear entirely—like a cloud that passes, revealing the light of the sun?
But is that realistic, or even possible? Can sins become entirely erased?
The Rambam suggests that erasure is not the only way it works. We cannot forget the wrong we have committed, nor, perhaps, entirely forget the wrong that others have committed against us. Instead, through teshuvah, we can work to earn forgiveness, and fortify ourselves to ensure we don’t act as recidivists. A true repentant is one who has the opportunity to commit the same sin and refrains:
[Who has reached] complete Teshuvah? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his Teshuvah alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength. (Laws of Repentance 2:1, Tr. Eliyahu Touger, from Chabad.org)
Perhaps the sin is erased from the deficit side of the ledger, but it must be preserved in one’s mind as a reminder of a deed that the person aims to avoid. Through teshuvah, one’s sins become missteps that enable one to grow in mitzvot, to improve in one’s relationships with people and God.
Back to our theme: What is the right metaphor for this view of sin? How do we express our desire not just for God to “erase” our sins, but for us to remember them and grow to be better?
Perhaps sin is the grain of sand around which an oyster builds a pearl? Through teshuvah, we transform our faults into our strengths, our misdeeds into good deeds.
Or perhaps it is a knot in wood, which is always visible, even when transformed into a beautiful table?
What metaphor comes to mind for you?