One of my favourite Hasidic works is the Netivot Shalom, ‘the Paths of Peace’, by the late Rebbe of Slonim. Ever since I was given a copy by a friend a few years ago its words have kept me company in the days of preparation for the High Holydays. The first teaching on Yom Kippur is about conscience. The Netivot Shalom begins by quoting the prophet Jeremiah: ‘For this I judge you, for saying “I have not sinned”. It is one matter, he argues, if at the very time of committing the act, or at least in a flood of sorrow immediately afterwards, we know that we are or have been doing wrong. Then we are already on the path of regret and apology and can anticipate God’s forgiveness. It’s quite another if we experience no stirrings of conscience whatsoever: ‘If even after the folly and desire which caused us to commit the act has left us, we feel no promptings whatsoever of remorse in our heart and kidneys’, then for that, he says, God does indeed enter into judgement with us.
We all do wrongs of which we swiftly become aware. No one of can avoid saying hurtful words and committing harmful acts, especially the former. An angry reaction, spiteful comment, or clever but targeted witticism emerges from our mouth before we even think of its effects. Afterwards we struggle with what we’ve gone and said. It’s always a temptation to exculpate ourselves by going over the circumstances and telling ourselves that ‘if she had not said this, then I wouldn’t have said that’, or that we didn’t mean it badly, or didn’t quite say it in the manner in which it was so unjustly misinterpreted. Perhaps we really were only partially to blame; after all, life is complicated. But somewhere in our heart we know: we did it; we said it; we wouldn’t be trying so hard to reframe it if it wasn’t bothering our conscience. We now need to think of what to do next. We need to apologise. If that is not possible or, as in some situations, not appropriate, we are left to find the inner resolve not to do likewise again. This is never easy, and I hope to reflect more about it tomorrow.
But there are also sins which we don’t even realise are wrong or categorise as such. I’m not thinking so much of details of Jewish law concerning which we might not have been aware in the first place, as of ingrained behaviours and habits of our society which pass as broadly acceptable. Few people say they’re wrong, so why should we be seriously troubled if we simply go along with the majority.
There is the issue of how we treat the inarticulate world of nature, which has no money to place on the bargaining table and lacks those immediate powers of persuasion in the name of self-interest which often enable people to win elections. There is the question of suffering we cause but never see, such as the kinds of injustice, maltreatment or environmental degradation caused in some far-off place as a result of what we buy round the corner. I rarely consider these matters sins, and if I do, I usually push them away with the thought that after all I can’t do much about them.
How do we change those behaviours, which may ultimately determine our destiny, if we don’t account them as wrong? In the end we need the awareness of our sins, not so that they make us feel bad and persecute us with guilt, but so that they can become our teachers.