Our recent post, “Did you know there’s no Hebrew word for ‘sin?’” generated a lot of conversation on social media. Many people were surprised to learn that the Jewish idea of repentance differs radically from popular notions of sin and damnation.

Sin, as it’s popularly understood, is a transgression against God. You did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and as a result, you will be condemned, for eternity, to the fiery pits of hell.

Or something like that.

But that’s not the Jewish way. In Judaism, the Hebrew word “chet,” which is usually translated as “sin,” really means “to miss the mark,” or to be more succinct, “a mistake.” You don’t sin against God. You make mistakes. Those mistakes could be huge – they could even be major moral failings – but that doesn’t change the basic understanding. They are mistakes.

That reframe is transformative, which perhaps explains the post’s popularity. Although some readers still took umbrage with our approach – many of our readers are Jewish after all – and, as one person wrote:

The word “iniquity” is synonymous with the word sin. What game are you playing? To suggest that others have gotten the translation of a word incorrect, and then to proceed to further translate incorrectly is quite tragic. I get what you're trying to convey, however you’ve severely missed the mark. The Torah blatantly spells out actions and thoughts that a Jewish person should not do or think. That's a fact, and to suggest otherwise is not a Jewish core value.

Our interlocutor’s complaint is that the Torah is explicit in terms of delineating behavior, which is correct. The Torah is chockfull of prohibitions and limitations, some of which are serious or have serious consequences. But still, even if you transgress every one of those prohibitions, that doesn’t make your transgressions sins.

A sin is a transgression against God. How is your behavior, in any way, somehow against God?

In Judaism, God is omnipotent and unknowable. He doesn’t need you. He doesn’t feel better if you follow His commandments or suffer if you don’t. He doesn’t change. As Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish, often said, “Ask not what you can do for God. Ask what you’re willing to allow God to do for you.” (Yes, I know, he’s paraphrasing JFK.) God doesn’t ask you to do things for Him. He gives you the opportunity to do for yourself.

That understanding explains why sin, as understood in popular culture, is anathema to the Jewish worldview. The Torah is a set of instructions, or a book of tools to help you become the person you’re capable of becoming. If you follow the instructions – even though they’re hard, and even though you’ll have frustrations and setbacks along the way – you will come closer toward fulfilling your potential. Fulfilling your potential, ultimately, is a spiritual experience, and will give you a feeling of closeness, or oneness, with God.

If you don’t follow the instructions, that’s not a sin or a rebellion against God. It’s a missed opportunity. You blew it. True, some of those missed opportunities are enormous – and the consequences are terrible – but that doesn’t affect God.

That affects you.

Judaism isn’t a religion of hellfire and fear. It’s a set of instructions, and if you’re able to stick to the plan, pays huge spiritual dividends as a result.