What does Judaism say about sin and atonement?

Thank you to Dr. Joe Lewis

If life is a journey, sometimes we can lose our way and go off track. This happened to Cain–God’s warning to him is the first time we encounter the Hebrew word for “sin” (Genesis 4:7)–and his punishment was to wander through the world, homeless forever. The Hebrews, liberated from slavery, faltered in their confidence in God’s protection and were condemned to drift through the desert for forty years. At the close of his life, in one of his final appeals to the people, Moses warned them not to be “led astray” from performing God’s commandments (Numbers 15:39).

In Jewish thought, people are not born sinful; rather, each person has a purpose. Straying from that purpose is our concept of sin. People often say that the Hebrew word for “sin” connotes missing a target, like an archer whose aim isn’t quite true (the Biblical Greek term for sin has similar connotations). Meanwhile, the word for repentance connotes returning, like a person who is lost and finds the way again.

The Jewish season of repentance begins with the lunar month of Elul and continues for nearly two months, through Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) until the end of the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles). This is a time to examine our behavior, to make amends to people we have wronged, and to seek God’s forgiveness for our missteps.

Our festival liturgy insists that God is loving and merciful, that God seeks penitence, not punishment. We remember that God granted forgiveness for faltering faith (Numbers 14:20) and that unintentional missteps can be forgiven (Numbers 15:26), so we beg God to view our sin as error, not brazenness.

With God’s help and our own sincere devotion, we try to recover our own true path in life.