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A Sermon for Naso

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, is the second portion in the book of Numbers. In the middle of the parashah, nestled between seemingly mundane information about the census and the utter insanity of the Sotah Ritual is a brief section about what to do if and when one person wrongs another.

“Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with Adonai, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged. If the man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to Adonai for the priest—in addition to the ram of expiation with which expiation is made on his behalf.” (Numbers 5:5-8)

One of the elements of Judaism that I appreciate the most is that our tradition has no expectation that any Jewish person will be perfect or live a perfect life. Instead, Judaism is very realistic and our tradition states explicitly and repeatedly that we’re expected to mess up. And because imperfect lives are expected, Judaism provides us with instructions for what to do when we make mistakes.

While the biblical priests and I disagree about many, many things, I have to give them credit because they have given us a vision of life that begins at a place of balance but then inevitably and expectedly drifts to the very positive and the very negative. For the priests, these drifts weren’t catastrophic but instead were part of living. And, so they created systems of sacrifice and behavior that would allow us to return back to that point of balance. Until… expectedly and inevitably… we drifted again.

I so appreciate this vision of life, a vision where misdeeds do not condemn us or mean that we are inherently evil or sinful. Instead, we’re taught that drifting is a part of what makes us human.

Another word for the repair or restitution that is required in order to re-balance ourselves is teshuvah' which is often translated as “atonement” and comes from the word for “return.” These linguistics further support the biblical concept of a healthy life being based around balance and of every life including drifting and then- hopefully- returning.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read, “that [when a] person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. וְהֵשִׁ֤יב He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.”

Importantly, these verses indicate that our teshuvah is not just about any kind of one to one system for damage that we’ve done. In fact, we’re instructed to add an additional 1/5th. The intention behind this rule is that victims- survivors- should not only receive restitution for what was obviously stolen from them, but should also receive an additional portion because the damage that they’ve endured is not limited to what is visible to someone on the outside.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is an expert on the topic of teshuvah… in fact, she is in the final stages of publishing a highly anticipated book about repentance. She also has a remarkable social media presence, and a couple years ago, she created a twitter thread that I believe contains as much wisdom as any page of the Talmud.

Her thread seems to have been in response to a host of powerful people and celebrities attempting to avoid the consequences of their actions by issuing perfunctory apologies and then laying low for a few weeks or months.

Rabbi Ruttenberg tweeted that in Judaism, atonement, forgiveness, and repentance are actually three different concepts. Forgiveness, she says, is up to the victim. Atonement is up to God, and repentance is the responsibility of the perpetrator and- importantly- is the only one of the three over which they have any control. For that reason, Rabbi Rutenberg says that she classifies repentance as the most critical of the three concepts.

She explains that in our tradition, the work of repentance is not ambiguous or self-defined. Instead, Judaism teaches that repentance has specific steps:

  1. Own the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly).

  2. Do the significant inner work to become the kind of person who doesn’t do that kind of harm.

  3. Make restitution for the harm done in whatever ways are possible.

  4. THEN- AND ONLY THEN- apologize for the harm caused in whatever way makes it as right as possible for the victim.

  5. When faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, make a better choice.

Rabbi Ruttenberg makes sure to emphasise that public apologies are not actually any kind of indication of the inner work that teshuvah requires. Instead, she argues that we should be looking for a shift in priorities, proactive restitution work addressed directly to the victims rather than to the public, and the intentional stepping away from the kind of celebrity or power imbalance that allowed bad actors to harm others so easily in the past.

In this Twitter Torah, Rabbi Ruttenberg reminds us repeatedly that forgiveness is under the sole control of the victim. That means that society at large, a group of fans or students, or even a professional organization can’t decide to forgive a bad actor.

This week, as I thought about Rabbi Ruttenberg’s teachings, I was struck by a particular aspect of her wisdom, that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t considered when I’ve studied this topic in the past.

With Rabbi Ruttenberg’s help, I now understand that within Judaism, forgiveness from the victim and atonement from God are not the rewards of teshuvah and that therefore teshuvah is not aimed at either forgiveness or atonement. This means that our teshuvah is deemed successful not if it results in forgiveness but, instead, if it results in our having done the internal work of changing our path, of returning to that place of balance.

In the wake of countless statements from celebrities and powerful people and even religious leaders whose bad behavior has been unmasked in the last years, decades, and more, Jewish clergy, academics, and leaders have written and said a lot about teshuvah. Many of these voices are like Rabbi Ruttenberg’s and have offered important, critical insights to the conversation, but unfortunately, there are some who have also sought to minimize the work that is required to return to that point of balance. I believe that this second group, which often speaks of teshuvah as a public process that is aimed at society’s forgiveness fundamentally misunderstands our tradition’s teachings about this topic.

Jewish repentance, teshuvah, should never be done with an external goal in mind. That means that teshuvah is not the way that an offender reclaims the vaunted status that he or she or they once occupied. Teshuvah is never meant to silence those who we have hurt or to push victims to forgive and forget. Teshuvah should never be used as a shield that deflects the voices of the wronged. Instead, as we learn in this week’s Torah portion, restitution, repair, teshuvah- all of these are centered on the experience of the victims, the survivors, not on the wishes of the wrongdoer.

Teshuvah is the process that allows us to return our souls to a place of balance… and there is no promise that that balance that we reclaim will be the same that we enjoyed before our misdeeds.

Our words and our actions have the power to forever change people’s lives in both good and bad ways. And true teshuvah involves recognizing that the changes that we have enacted in others will also be reflected in our own lives.

Good teshuvah, true teshuvah is not selfish; it is courageous and vulnerable and transformative.

Actually let me say that differently. Only when teshuvah is not selfish and is instead courageous and vulnerable can it also be transformative.

As a society, we should spend less time and energy hastening to forgive those who have wronged other people because that is not our role. Instead, we should be holding wrongdoers accountable, supporting them as they engage in teshuvah, and honoring their return to balance. This shift in societal priority is warranted not only because it is more just but also because it is healthier- for the victims, for the offenders, and for us all.

On this Shabbat and always, I pray that we will each have the courage and the strength to seek out the parts of our lives where we are out of balance in big ways and in small ways. I pray that we will have the support and the will to do the work that is necessary to restore and heal ourselves. I pray that we will have the perseverance and commitment that will allow us to continue to engage in this cycle of catching ourselves drifting, and then returning ourselves to balance.

May we be strong enough, courageous enough, and focused enough to take on this responsibility. Amen.


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