The Jewish High Holy Day liturgy recited during Yom Kippur are filled with references to repentance of sins and turning back to God, and to the teachings of the Torah or the Old Testament. Interestingly, both the word “sin” in Hebrew — chet — and the word Torah, come from the sport of archery.
When on Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, Jews all over the world recite over and over again in the holiday liturgy the words “al chet,” which are usually translated as “the sin,” what they are really saying is “the missed mark.” Hebrew has no real word for sin. One or two Hebrew words refer to what we think of as sin, but none actually means “sin” per se.
As for the word Torah, it means “to take aim.” Thus, the Torah teaches us how to take aim. But sometimes we take aim and don’t hit the bull’s-eye — or even hit the target.
Why do we use archery terminology for such important words? After all, sins are not something to be taken lightly, and the Torah is our sacred text. Maybe the reason lies in the analogy that can be made between an archer and a person repenting for wrongs committed.
Archery involves setting up targets, in the middle of which are the bull’s eyes at which the archer aims his arrows. To hit the “mark,” archers must practice their aim until they become good enough to hit not only the target but the bull’s-eye itself.
On Yom Kippur, we look at the past 12 months of our lives to see what targets we set up for ourselves, how we practiced hitting those targets and if our aim was true. We look at the target to see if we managed to hit the bull’s-eye.
During this period of introspection we notice not only if we aimed our arrows and shot, but if we even got close to the mark.
And if our aim wasn’t true, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provides a time to set up new targets or re-examine old targets and commit to practicing our aim. It’s also a time to set the intention — kavanah (another word that, while not related to archery, also means “to aim”) — to try harder to shoot true this year.
At what are we aiming? Maybe we need to be more loving and respectful parents or spouses. Maybe we need to give more charity or find more ways to serve others. Maybe we need to curb our anger or treat our bodies in a healthier manner.
Torah teaches us how to aim in a righteous and spiritual manner. Each time we aim and shoot, each time we try to hit the target by performing a mitzvah, we aim towards God. If we hit the bull’s-eye or even come close, we actually connect with God. That’s what Torah and mitzvahs are all about.
To some it seems odd that Yom Kippur, a day of deep contemplation and repentance, is followed so closely by Sukkot, a holiday involving what many feel is an odd mitzvah — the taking of the lulav. Actually, Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles, provides a perfect opportunity to take aim and to practice hitting the target. We can see the building of the sukkah and the taking of the lulav as our first target for the new year.
We leave the sanctuary of our synagogues after Yom Kippur to erect temporary sanctuaries like those the Israelites built in the desert. The sukkah provides a sanctuary with flimsy walls and see-through roofs so we can feel closer to God and sense the impermanence of life that we meditated upon during Yom Kippur. We enter the sukkah with souls cleansed of all “sins,” souls that have taken an accounting of all the times they missed the mark, and we are asked to aim at Torah and mitzvah — to connect with God — by taking the lulav and etrog in hand, saying the blessing and praying in six directions.
The symbolism of this mitzvah is tremendous. The etrog represents our heart — the seat of our feelings, the inspiration for our actions, the home of the soul. The lulav consists, first, of a palm frond, which symbolizes our spine that holds the body together, allows us to move and houses our nervous system. Second, it contains the hadasim, or myrtle branch, whose almond-shaped leaves symbolize our eyes, through which we see the world and ourselves. Thus, our eyes allow us to behold God’s creation. Third, the lulav contains the aravot, or willow branch, whose oval leaves represent our lips. With these we vocalize our thoughts and feelings and speak to God.
Put all four of these together, and we hold in our hands our body and soul — clean and ready to pray to God. We do this in all the directions in which God exists — up, down, left, right, forward and behind.
If we do this mitzvah — take the etrog and lulav in our hands within the temporary structure of our sukkah, become very present, and with kavanah — with aim — say the blessing and shake the lulav in those six directions, we might hit the bull’s-eye. We might connect with God.
No wonder at this time of year we Jews talk in archery terms. Al chet — the times I missed the mark. Torah — the target toward which I want to aim this year.
Nina Amir is a Los Gatos journalist, freelance editor and inspirational speaker.