The Hebrew word for “sin” is “Cheyt” – roughly “to miss the mark,” as in an archer missing the target.
When I was younger, archery was my sport. I was a terrible athlete, but here was something in which I could compete against myself, by myself. It took skill, practice, and focus. The equipment itself was a joy to handle. There was a meditative quality to it – a deep breath, release, and the arrow seems drawn to the target.
A few years ago, I was reminded of this by the Torah portion (Genesis 21) for Rosh Hashanah. In it, after Abraham’s wife Sarah gives birth to their son Isaac, Abraham casts his “other” wife, Hagar, and their son Ishmael into the desert (the biblical language blames Sarah for this, but there is always, always, another story here, the story left unrecorded).
Hagar and Ishmael soon exhaust their supply of bread and water; Hagar fears for her son’s death. At that moment, according to Genesis, angels tell Hagar that Ishmael will found a great nation. And the Torah says that Ishmael “dwelt in the wilderness, and became a an archer.”
The Koran tells us more.
First, it tells the story of Abraham sacrificing not Isaac, but Ishmael, and that God, as Allah, tells him to stop. Isaac/Ishmael: here are both families with the same story, in which the Old Man face of God is willing to sacrifice the life of a young man to prove a point. And in both cases, this God, now as the Shechinah, the feminine aspect, speaks out, and says, no. Not in my name. This cannot happen.
In this story, what we call God is about to proceed down a course of action that by any human definition would be seen as a sin. Like an archer, God misses the mark, but then turns towards the right path. This “turning” towards the proper path, or “teshuvah,” is the essence of this time of year; it’s often (poorly) translated into English as “repentance” meaning remorse or contrition, but it’s actually a call to right action.
The Koran also tells us that Ishmael and Hagar settled in what later is known as Mecca. And it records that Abraham visited “Ishmael’s tents,” not once, not twice, but at least three times. He came, we must imagine, to see how his son was doing. To talk with him, now, as a man with his own tribe, sheep and goats, family.
Is Abraham doing his own “turning” here, seeking to hit the mark this time? When a father seeks to overcome the distance to a child, isn’t that at least part of what is going on?
We’re all archers in our life, and we all miss our marks. In our own ways, when we turn towards the right path, we make t’shuvah. Let’s hope that in the coming year, we create many opportunities for accuracy, focus, truth, and compassion.