Teshuvah: Doing the Work

Image: Woman pointing angrily at man; man in defensive posture. (eurobanks/Shutterstock)

We’re in a time of change, when norms are shifting and emotions are high. Things that did not get much reaction from the public at large five years ago have become serious debates: racism, sexism, homophobia. This is actually progress, but it sure isn’t comfortable.

Every time someone is revealed to have done something racist or sexist or homophobic we seem to have to go through the same little dance:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow (JB) has been accused of a racist act or words.
  2. Talking heads talk. Much wagging of tongues and fingers.
  3. JB insists, “My heart is in a good place! I’m a good guy!”
  4. Other talking heads: “… young and stupid. Give him a break.” or
  5. Other talking heads: “OK he did it but he’s not a RACIST.”
  6. JB hires PR firm specializing in crisis management.
  7. JB says, “If I offended anyone, I apologize…”
  8. Item is crowded out of news cycle by the next outrage fest.
  9. Rinse and repeat.

In the end, nobody seems to learn much of anything, and everyone is even angrier than before.

Jewish tradition offers us another way. It’s called teshuvah. That word is sometimes translated “repentance” but it’s more than “I’m sorry” and it is a lot more productive than the meaningless apology-lite in step #7 above.

Good teshuvah can sometimes take a big mess and turn it into a net win for everyone, because it involves sincerity and actual change. Here’s how it looks:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow has been accused of [insert racist item here.]
  2. Talking heads do their thing.
  3. JB meets with advisors, discovers why everyone is mad at him.
  4. JB issues a statement. “Yes, it was offensive. There is no excuse.”
  5. JB says, “I am very sorry that my words/actions hurt people.”
  6. JB says, “I am going to learn about this and do better.”
  7. JB says, “Here is my action plan for making sure that I never do this again, and maybe fewer other people will do it in future, too.”
  8. JB executes action plan.
  9. JB says, “I accept the consequences of my actions.”

Notice that the person doing most of the talking is Joe Blow, not the talking heads and not a crisis-management PR specialist.

Here is an important fact about human nature: we all mess up. We hurt people’s feelings. We do stupid things. We may do or say something racist or sexist or otherwise offensive. We are fallible. The important thing, Jewish tradition teaches, is that we own our behavior and we make sure that whatever it was doesn’t happen again. Most of all, WE do the work, not the people who suffered from our mess-up.

You don’t have to be a public figure to mess up. And good news: teshuvah can work for us low-profile types too. It isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but I can tell you from personal experience that it works.

Teshuvah: Yes, it’s a Jewish thing, but anyone who wants can give it a try.

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The Essence of Teshuvah

Image: A portrait of Maimonides, also known as the Rambam.

“I committed iniquity before You by doing the following. Behold, I regret and am embarrassed for my deeds. I promise never to repeat this act again” (Hilchot Teshuva 1:1).

Everything else is commentary.

A High Tech Option for Cheshbon Hanefesh: AtoneNet.com

Image: Woman reading from her computer screen with cup in hand. (Shutterstock  377318731)

As the Days of Awe continue, sometimes we can get a kind of soul-freeze. We know we need to atone for something, but we can’t think what. Our minds go blank. What did I do? What did I fail to do? Why can’t I think?

One traditional approach to this situation is to look at lists of mitzvot or lists of sins. That is the way the Vidui is structured, for instance, to help us go through an “alphabet of sins” and realize our own. It is a prayer, but it is also a catalogue, designed to help us see ourselves more clearly.

I recently learned about an interesting resource online that can be a real help with heshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul. That resource is AtoneNet.com. It is a place where people anonymously confess their sins, which are then posted to the scroll of sins.

Some are heartrending. Some are trivial. Some aren’t really sins. But they can be remarkably effective at shaking loose that soul-freeze, showing us our own sins in the words of others.

For example, this confession gave me plenty to ask myself:

I’m sorry I wasted so much time on social media, engaging in bittul Torah, rechilus, lashon hara, and filling my own mind and heart with negativity that doesn’t actually help anyone.

Translated, it means:

“I’m sorry I wasted so much time on social media, engaging in timewasting that could have been spent learning Torah, gossip, spreading rumors and unnecessary talk about others, and filling my own mind and heart with negativity that doesn’t actually help anyone.”

As a person who uses social media a great deal, this one gave me a lot to consider. Do I waste time on social media? Do I talk more than I learn? Do I engage in gossip there? Repeat poorly-sourced rumors? What AM I doing with social media – am I spreading Torah or indulging an addiction? And what is social media doing to or for me? Could I make better use of my time?

Should you choose to confess a sin on AtoneNet, it is important to remember that when a sin is against another person, it is not enough simply to confess it anonymously. For sins against another person or against ourselves a complete process of teshuvah is important.

Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and God, but for a transgression against one’s neighbor, Yom Kippur cannot atone, until he appeases his neighbor. – M. Yoma 8:9

However we choose to do heshbon hanefesh, this is the time! Examine our hearts, check our calendars and checkbooks, think deeply about the patterns in our lives, and do the great work of teshuvah, which ultimately heals not only ourselves, but the world.

 

L’Shanah Tovah – My Hope for 5778

Image: A ripening pomegranate still on the bush. (Photo: niritman/pixabay)

The new Jewish year of 5778 begins at sundown tonight.

It is customary to begin a new year – any new year – with hope and celebration.

I always think, on the new year, of something I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green teach: “For contemporary Jews, Rosh Hashanah is a lifecycle celebration. We arrive at that day and say, ‘I’m still alive.'”

But for many of the living this Rosh Hashanah, it’s a grim new year.

For people in the Caribbean, for people in Florida, for people in Texas and Louisiana, for people in Mexico, the new year begins with sorrows and difficulties. For some it begins with unimaginable grief.

For people with pre-existing illness, for people with disabilities, for people who may lose their healthcare or their children’s healthcare, this new year begins with a sword hanging over them. An evil bill is up for a vote in the Senate and it has a chance of passing.

For the Rohingya people of Myanmar and the Yazidi of Iraq, this year opens with genocide staring them in the face.

For immigrants already in the United States, and refugees everywhere, 5778 dawns with painful uncertainty.

For the people of the island nation of Kiribati, there is painful certainty: today climate change is drowning their entire country.

So what can we do?

A line in the High Holy Day prayers teaches us:

Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree.”

This is not a magic formula for manipulating God or fate. This is a blueprint for alleviating suffering and making the world better.

TESHUVAHTeshuvah means “turning.” It’s the Jewish word for repentance. Good people sin not because they are evil monsters but because they fail to understand how their actions or words impact others. We must put down our defensiveness and self-interest for a few moments and study the wrongs of our world. We need to study what Torah teaches us about each of them. Then teshuvah requires that we seek a plan of action to right those wrongs.

TEFILLAH – We usually translate tefillah as prayer. Clever Hebrew scholars will tell you that it is a reflexive form that actually means something like “self-reproach.” But let’s not complicate things: tefillah is speech. If we wish to “avert the severe decree” we must become strategic in our speech. We must use our voices for good: we must appeal to our lawmakers and we must tell the truth. What we must NOT do is use our speech to puff ourselves up, to be “clever” to make points, to stir up hatred for hatred’s sake. Sometimes this is a fine line to walk, but if we want to make the world better, we must control our own speech.

TZEDAKAH – The common translation is “charity.” But it is actually a very precise word that has its roots in “justice.” Tzedakah is money given for the relief of suffering or need. It is not “goods in kind” and it is not “volunteering.” The tzedakah that changes the world is an attitude about money that admits that whatever is in my bank account is there because I have been fortunate as well as hard-working. (Face it, there are plenty of hardworking people who have little or nothing.) The spirit of tzedakah is a willingness to share whatever good fortune I have with those who have less. For the very poor, that may be a penny. For the very rich, it may be a fortune. And it may take many forms, all of them money: it may be in charitable giving, or the portion of taxes that goes to provide services to the poor, or in the support of relatives in difficulty. It may be the willingness to forego unfair profit that would burden the poor. No Jew is exempt from the commandment of tzedakah. No one, Jewish or not, is “undeserving” of tzedakah if they are suffering or in need.

Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah: if we want to heal this world, we must become aware of wrongs and resolve to right them. We must speak the truth, and only the truth in whatever way we think will actually make things better. We must be willing to share what we have with others.

This is how we will avert a future of suffering.

And this is my hope for 5778: that enough people will be willing to do these things that some suffering will be averted and the world will be better.

May this new year be a shanah tovah, a good year. Amen.

Chatati

Image: In ancient times we used a scapegoat to atone for our sins. Now we just have to take responsibility for ourselves. A little goat.

Chatati means “I sinned.” I intended to delete an abandoned draft (4 Rabbis) and accidentally published it. Then I deleted it. And now my regular readers are wondering where the new post went!

I am very sorry. Rabbi Adar’s Adventures in Bloggerland continue. I shall be more careful going forward!

Bloom Out of Season

This confused little iris is in my front yard. It was supposed to bloom in the spring or summer, but here it is in mid-November. I suspect it wanted to bloom in the summer, but it couldn’t for lack of moisture. So now, after a good soaking, it’s in bloom.

Even in nature, sometimes things happen out of season. We can fish for reasons (maybe it was the drought?) or we can accept that not everything happens when it is “supposed to.” One way to see this iris is to take it as a challenge to the whole idea of “supposed to.” Why shouldn’t it bloom now? Am I enjoying it any less? If it had bloomed in summer, I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much.

Things happen “out of season” in our lives, too. Sometimes it’s easy to see those things as special, indeed miraculous.I once helped a woman in her 80’s learn the Haftarah blessings for her adult Bat Mitzvah service. When she chanted those blessing and her Haftarah, everyone in the synagogue marveled.

But what about the boy who decides he isn’t ready for a Bar Mitzvah just yet? It is also a miraculous thing for him to have the insight that he’s not ready – maybe next year, maybe when he’s 16. It takes courage to step off the conveyor belt, to say, “Not just yet” when all your friends are in the flow. I had a student who had done exactly that: he refused to have his service at 13, waiting until he was 16. He chose to take Intro to Judaism and to work with a tutor for his preparation, and then he stood before his congregation and proudly led the service. His insight and courage were no less miraculous than the great-grandmother I had coached a few years earlier.

Sometimes we realize that there’s a bit of teshuvah we didn’t do during the High Holy Days,  Our minds and egos can be very tricky, making us “forget” something important until Yom Kippur is past.  Despite all the liturgical talk about the “gates” being “closed,” it’s never a bad time to make teshuvah. So what if Chanukah is almost here? Like the iris, your act of teshuvah  will have the beauty of its own time.

I went to rabbinical school with many young people who were going at the “right time” in their late twenties and early thirties. A few of us were late bloomers. While we couldn’t offer Am Yisrael (the Jewish People) as many years of potential service as our younger counterparts, we brought other gifts: congregational experience, management experience, parenting experience, experience. We bloomed out of season, but for all that, we had much to offer.

Have you ever bloomed out of season? What was that experience like for you? Is there a bloom within you that needs to come out? I invite you to share all this in the comments section!

Teshuvah 101

For the last month, Jews have been preparing for the High Holy Days. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.

Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.

1. READ a Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days. It’s an entry on this blog, just follow the link.  This will give you an idea of the season as a whole.

2. SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that you aimed at something and you missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when you next are in that situation

Very Important:  The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.

3. PEOPLE are the prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain. Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate?  The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right.  If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.

4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.

5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will be the Jew I want to be?

6. ADJUSTMENTS  Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

7. DON’T GO TO PIECES As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action. 

8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see.  Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.

These eight elements can help you have a fruitful High Holy Days. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

L’shana tovah:  May the coming year be a good year for you!