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With the Judgment pending (perceived as a moral threshold by most Jews, a time for cleansing souls), Yom Kippur is really one of the rare times of the year when our spiritual community actual ponders evil straight on. Most of the year, we’re thinking about good works. We’re just not as intrigued by sins, sinners, satanic forces, as some of our good neighbors in other faith communities.

But not only that: The devil is not involved in the Atonement Day liturgies, because we don’t have a corporeal devil concept in Judaism (except in some peripheral sects) and we don’t burden people with trying to get God to exorcise any kind of evil entity out of themselves. We’re just trying to get ourselves to change—this is the leitmotif of the whole exercise. Change, or “turning over” comes from within—and this is an area where Judaism does differ significantly with Christianity.

If anything I have said or done since last Yom Kippur has offended or injured you, I sincerely ask for your forgiveness.

Over and over again, we will be asking God on Tuesday night and Wednesday to help us forgive one another our sins and transgressions. In millions of private, bittersweet moments of contrition and renewal, Jews have already approached one another—at home, in the office, in parks, while walking together, in synagogue—and spoken quietly to each other: “If anything I have said or done since last Yom Kippur has offended or injured you, I sincerely ask for your forgiveness.”

No third party, human or divine is required or sought for these painfully genuine human moments of outreach and healing that repair the world and seal the soul against what we call “the evil inclination.”

If there was really a Devil, why bother reaching out to another person? That arrangement precludes my ability to serve human life, to be creative, to fight injustice, and be God’s partner on earth. I personally would have a hard time believing in a system that starts out by weakening God with a 50% demonic degradation. One that presumes I’m inherently evil and have a quick existence on the planet only to shed that doom—thereby making my existence more a contest than an opportunity.

With respect: Christianity, a great faith that has helped a lot of people for a very long time, nonetheless perceives evil as a force from without human life. That is why the Adam and Eve story, when it is strained by the serpent and the forbidden fruit, is labeled as the chronicle of Original Sin. For the Jews, Adam and Eve didn’t sin; they just grew up.

None of us can—or would want to—live in paradise forever. There comes a time, whether it’s college, marriage, a job change, a recovery from trouble or misfortune, when we realize that from bittersweet wisdom comes growth. There also come many times when we realize that we might have done something really bad, even evil, to someone else, or to ourselves. We thought about it and halted the evil inclination and chose the good—both necessary human attributes. In that tension between good and evil is a harvest of knowledge.

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Rabbi Ben Kamin
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