Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
Figuring out what I wanted to speak about tonight was a very lengthy and difficult process. I started and abandoned several sermons until ultimately, I decided to use this time to examine the concept of teshuvah, or repentance.
I know some of you are thinking, “Ok, Rabbi, but Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and Rosh Hashanah is the fun holiday. It’s the birthday of the world, and we’re supposed to be celebrating. Why not save the topic of teshuvah for your Yom Kippur sermons?”
Let me explain. For at least the last two thousand years, the fates of the “wicked” and “righteous” were understood to be decided during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was because of this widely accepted deadline that these ten, critical days became known as the “Days of Repentance.”
In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis used the imagery and language of divine judgement to explain that every human being needed to undergo rigorous spiritual preparation for the Days of Repentance. In the tractate of the Talmud dedicated to Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis wrote that, "Three books are opened in heaven on Rosh Hashanah, one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous and one for those in between. The completely righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life. The completely wicked are immediately inscribed in the book of death. [But the] fate of those [who fall] in between is suspended until Yom Kippur. If they do well, they are inscribed in the book of life. If [they do] not, [they are inscribed] in the book of death."
While it is easy to get stuck on the extreme and frightening imagery, it is critical to remember that the rabbis regularly speak in hyperbole and metaphor. To me it’s clear that our Talmudic rabbis believed that almost every person in this world fell in the category of those who are “in between” and were therefore safe from being immediately condemned.
Additionally, we don’t have to embrace the literal meaning of the books of life and death. Instead, let’s imagine that we have the opportunity to decide whether we will have a year of meaningful and enliving experiences or whether we will condemn ourselves to a year weighed down by the unprocessed baggage and burdens of our past.
Maimonides, a twelfth century Spanish scholar, wrote extensively about the concept of repentance in his lengthy code of Jewish law which he called Mishneh Torah. In the second chapter of the section devoted to this topic, he explained that while it is always appropriate to apologize and repent for one’s misdeeds, the ten days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the ideal time for the work of teshuvah.
As I studied these texts, it became clear to me that there is near universal agreement about the need to spend these High Holy Days focused on improving ourselves, lightening our souls, and making honest efforts at repentance. Waiting until Yom Kippur to address teshuvah would be like handing out the assignment on the day that it’s due. Yom Kippur is too late. So let’s begin tonight by investigating exactly what we mean when we use the word teshuvah.
Maimonides, like the rabbis before him, and like the Levitical priests before them, understood that human beings would inevitably sin. While the word “sin” means something different in other faiths, in Judaism, it is more easily understood as a transgression, or misstep. Halakhah, the word used for the codes of Jewish law, is literally translated as “way of walking.” Therefore behaving badly or failing to keep the commandments can be understood as stepping off of or away from the correct path. Importantly sins, transgressions, missteps- whatever we call them- are not understood in the Jewish tradition as being spiritual weights that individuals have to carry forever. Instead, the rabbis gave us the process of teshuvah, a word which is often translated as “repentance,” but is literally translated as “returning.”
Sin takes off the correct path. Teshuvah returns us to it.
Maimonides explained, “All commandments of the Torah, whether they be mandatory or prohibitive, if a man violates any one of them, either [purposefully] or [accidentally]... he is obliged to confess before God [...repent himself and turn away from his sinful way.]”
Helpfully, Maimonides also included a script for those who need to offer a verbal confession or what we would call an apology. He wrote, “The sinner says thus: ‘I beseech Thee, O Great Name! I have sinned; I have been obstinate; I have committed profanity against Thee, particularly in doing thus and such. Now, behold! I have repented and am ashamed of my actions; [I will never] relapse into this thing again.”
After writing out this lengthy confession, Maimonides couldn’t stop himself from adding, “This is the elementary form of confession; but whosoever elaborates in confessing and extends this subject is, indeed, praise-worthy.”
In the next chapters of his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides explained that such a confession must be accompanied by true repentance which he defined as a sustained behavior change. He wrote that, “The sinner shall cease sinning, and remove sin from his thoughts, and wholeheartedly conclude not to revert back to it.” He then elaborated, “What is complete repentance? He who once more had it in his power to repeat a violation, but separated himself therefrom, and did not do it [not out of fear or lack of strength, but] because [he had repented].”
Maimonides taught us that our confessions (apologies) are critical but fundamentally incomplete. After we apologize, we are required to do cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. It is only through the process of cheshbon hanefesh, of diligently working on our inner world, our inner life, that we will be able to achieve true repentance and avoid falling from the path in the same way in the future.
In an illuminating analogy, Maimonides reinforces his argument by saying, “He who confesses by speech but has not his heart's consent to abandon his erstwhile conduct, behold him, he is like one taking an immersion of purification and in his grasp is an impure creeping thing, when he knows the immersion to be of no value till he cast away the impure creeping thing.”
Maimonides makes it clear. Apologizing without engaging in cheshbon hanefesh is like attempting to cleanse ourselves while we are physically holding onto something toxic. Such behavior would be useless, self-deluding, and even dangerous.
Importantly the process of teshuvah is not meant to be one of punishment but instead of restoration for the victim, for society at large, AND for the offender.
I have thought about the emphasis that the Jewish tradition places on complete teshuvah quite a lot over the last few years. Our country and the world have been in the midst of a reckoning where bad behavior is being called out and all of us are being thrown into the work of deciding what to do after misdeeds are made public.
How many times in the last couple years have we turned on the news or opened a newspaper only to learn about another public figure’s indiscretions? How many times have we watched as politicians, CEOs, and celebrities have been called out for taking advantage of their positions of power? How often have we seen these people grapple with and frequently try to avoid accusations of corruption, harassment, and more?
Honestly, it’s happened so frequently that we’ve become numb to the very slick “apology apparatus” that snaps into place almost immediately after misconduct comes to light.
What I have found particularly troubling is that the apologies public figures offer are almost always conditional (“If I hurt someone…” “If my actions were misinterpreted…” etc.) and never seem to be accompanied by real repentance. Without the accountability and restoration that full teshuvah offers, there are serious emotional and spiritual consequences for the perpetrators, for the victims, and for the society in which this behavior occurred.
But instead of teshuvah, instead of true repentance, what we see all too often is a half-hearted apology, a brief absence from the limelight, and then a public demand for those affected by misbehavior to offer their forgiveness despite having neither received a true apology nor seen any indication that the one who hurt them has engaged in cheshbon hanefesh, the inner work necessary to change behavior.
Rabbi Ruti Regan explains just how dangerous it is to push toward unearned individual and societal forgiveness. She writes, "In Jewish thought, forgiveness is seen as too powerful to be given freely. Under the right circumstances, forgiveness is a path to peace. Under the wrong circumstances, forgiveness strengthens the hand of those who abuse and oppress. There is a time to let go of grievances, and there is a time to pursue justice. Not everything can be or should be forgiven. Because recklessness with something as powerful as forgiveness does harm. Communities often help [perpetrators] by emphasizing forgiveness and reconciliation in situations in which justice would be the more appropriate priority. It is easy for bystanders to misunderstand what is at stake. That’s because from the outside, the pain of conflict is often more visible than the destructive consequences of reconciling with an abuser."
The work of teshuvah is rarely comfortable, but that makes sense because growth is very rarely comfortable. And when we allow ourselves to ignore our own bad behavior and to push those that have been hurt to do the hard work of forgiveness, we are straying further and further from the righteous path.
In the introduction to the Rosh Hashanah volume of Mishkan HaNefesh, the editors articulated exactly why it is critical to begin- rather than conclude- the High Holy Day season by focusing on the task of repentance, when they wrote, "The work of t’shuvah and cheshbon hanefesh — which Judaism deems so vital — requires unflinching honesty, concentration, dedicated space, and uninterrupted time. It is best undertaken in solitude, for it entails an inward-focused journey that is deeply personal. Yet this journey is enriched by a sense of shared endeavor and communal support. The Days of Awe provide the time for this inner work; the gathered community and its spiritual leaders provide inspiration; and the machzor provides both a script and springboard for our efforts."
In these first few hours of 5780, I challenge us all to throw ourselves into the work of teshuvah.
I challenge us to use these holiest days to do the difficult and necessary work that will allow us to unburden our hearts and the hearts of those whom we have hurt.
I challenge us to engage seriously and transformatively in the work of cheshbon hanefesh.
I challenge us to push ourselves and others toward restoration, toward repentance, before we expect anyone to offer forgiveness.
I challenge us to work hard enough that when are presented with the same opportunity to fall away from the path, we will be secure enough to keep walking.
I challenge us to seek out opportunities for growth, even and maybe especially when they are uncomfortable.
Teshuvah is the work of personal and communal justice. It has the power to free us all from the hurts that are an inevitable part of being imperfect creatures. When we gather here next year and welcome 5781, I pray that we will do so with lighter hearts and stronger spirits. Let us transform ourselves and our world with the work we begin tonight.
Chazak. Chazak. V’nitchazek.
Be strong. Be strong. And let us strengthen one another.