The High Holy Days are often described as the time to cast away sins and to seek repentance. The only problem with this definition is the context in which it might be understood.
Many Jewish Americans do not have an accurate concept of sin in the Jewish tradition. When Jews think of sin, they have a tendency to think about Catholic confessionals or church services in which congregants declare they were born as sinners and will die the same way.
But Jewish tradition says everyone is born with a clean slate. That is, no one is born a sinner, as Christian tradition suggests.
Jews are expected to always reach toward a perfect standard of righteousness, as expressed in Leviticus: "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof" (Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue).
When Jews do something wrong, it may not be that the wrong itself is the source of the sin. Rather, it is the missed opportunity to do something right.
In Hebrew, this missed opportunity is called a chet. Often translated simply as "sin," the word is actually an archery term for a missed shot.
"So, chet, rather than being a sin as we know it from Christian tradition, should be thought of as missing the mark — like an archer who misses the bull's eye of a target," said Ron Wolfson, director of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Education in Los Angeles and a vice president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Two other categories of sin are considered more grievous than a chet.
An aveira, or the crossing of a line, is a conscious action. It is purposely crossing the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
An avon, the most serious category of sin, is an abomination such as idolatry and murder. Committing an avon means that one knows going into the action that it is the wrong thing to do.
Regardless of the type, all sins represent a distancing from God or from godliness.
In order to atone for the sin, a Jew must turn back from the distancing. Atonement is an action, rather than a state of being. This action of repenting is called teshuvah — literally, turning back.
Yom Kippur is associated with fasting. But even the prophet Isaiah, whose words are read on Yom Kippur, seems to understand that repentance is the essence of the day.