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Original Sin in Judaism

G-d does not seem to hold grudges. Throughout the Torah, when man does something contrary to G-d’s wishes, G-d reacts soon after, and the slate is wiped clean. How do we know? Because the Torah never mentions it again.

So, for example, Eve and Adam eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Consequences (both good and bad) flow from their decision. And the Torah never brings it up again. Not once does the text say, “Because you ate the fruit, you are eternal sinners,” or anything of the sort. Action, reaction, and then onward.

The Talmud relates that when the First Temple was destroyed, the Babylonian invaders saw that the figures of angels on top of the holy ark were embracing one another (more here). In Jewish tradition, the angels are a reflection of the relationship between G-d and His people – so why were they embracing even as Jerusalem had been invaded and the Temple was being destroyed? One answer is that, once the consequence had already taken place, G-d forgave us, yet again, and we were able to reunite with Him once more. G-d’s love remains available to us. There does not seem to be any grudge: as a nation and as individuals, G-d is interested in what we do next – the past is unchangeable, but the future is still choosable, a matter of Free Will.

So where is there a concept of Original Sin in Judaism? I suggest that we find it in the Yom Kippur temple service, related in both the Torah and, in much greater detail, in the Talmud and our prayer service.

Consider that Jacob, when he sought to deceive his father by pretending to be Esau, sinned with two baby goats, which he served as food, and wore as clothing. Jacob never apologizes to his father for the deceit, nor does he suffer any consequences in his lifetime. It is an unpaid obligation. And, I think, it is one that the Jewish people are reminded of every Yom Kippur when the nation offers two goats (the origin, by the way of the phrase, “scapegoat”). The acknowledgement of this inherited sin is how, every year, we cover up the past, allowing G-d to become close to us again on Sukkos, which follows Yom Kippur by just a few days.

Aaron, the High Priest, also sinned. He allowed himself to be pressured by the people, and he helped create the Golden Calf. Like Jacob, he was never punished for it, or otherwise managed to make things right. And so the Torah tells us that Aaron and his descendants also have a unique offering on Yom Kippur: a grown-up calf, a bull. This is how the priests acknowledge their inherited legacy, and square it away on Yom Kippur.

For both the people and the priests, acknowledging the sin is the means by which we are able to move beyond it, and the means by which G-d can move beyond it as well. If we need any reminder, we can recall that Joshua, Moshe’s successor, ended up marrying the prostitute who sheltered him when he was spying out the land. The Torah does not command us to be perfect – ancient Hebrew does not have a word for “perfect”! On the other hand, we are continually enjoined to aim to do good, to embrace life and, above all, to be holy. Holiness is not a result of birth, or a product of nature or nurture. Holiness is the result of sincerely and enthusiastically seeking a relationship with G-d by partnering with Him in bettering this world. No matter what we have done, the opportunity for teshuvah for return, is available to us for as long as we draw breath.

Comments are welcome!

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