T’shuvah – It’s not easy!

Rosh HaShannah Reflections

For The Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC.

Rabbi Rain Zohav


Welcome to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC’s Rosh Hashanah services. I am Rabbi Rain Zohav, the new Rabbi of this interesting and unusual congregation made up of families from both the Jewish and the Christian traditions. No matter what our background, we gather together today to celebrate the Jewish New Year and to continue the work of reflection and reconciliation that Jewish tradition asks of us in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

As I mentioned last night, we learn from the liturgy that Teshuvah,(repentance) Tefillah (prayer) and Tzedakah can transform our lives. Last night I spoke about Tzedakah. Today I am going to speak about Teshuvah. This word is often translated as “repentance”, but its literal meaning is “returning”. To expand on this definition, I would suggest that it means to return to our true selves, to our best selves, to our highest selves. This is not easy! That is why we are given ten days to do this work. And this work before Yom Kippur consists mainly of asking forgiveness from our fellow human beings and granting forgiveness to our fellow human beings. Also not easy! However; it is necessary. Our Biblical proof text for this is from the “holiness code” Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge…”.

Maimonides, medieval commentator and author of the Mishneh Torah (a concise summing up of Talmudic law) gives us two case studies of what exactly constitutes “vengeance” and “bearing a grudge”. In the first example, one person asks to borrow a shovel from the second. The second one refuses. The next day, the second person – the one who refused to lend a tool on day one has to ask for a similar favor, whereupon the first replies, “I will not lend it to you, just as you did not lend me your shovel when I asked it of you.” So we see that “vengeance’ does not have to be killing someone to be prohibited. Maimonides goes on to say, “He should rather give it to him cheerfully when he comes to ask for it and must not repay him for his mistreatment”. (p.21, Chapter 7:7).

In Maimonides’s examples of holding a grudge he posits that “Rueben says to Shimon ‘Rent this house to me, or ‘Lend me this ox’. But Shimon doesn’t want to. After some time Shimon comes to Reuben with a similar request. Reuben says to him, “Here it is: I am not like you; I will not treat you like you treated me”. This is exactly bearing a grudge according to Maimonides. And he further points out that as long as one is holding a grudge, one is also more likely to act vengefully. However, by forgiving the person both in our thoughts and in how we treat them we behave according to our highest selves. Still, this is not easy. 

In Rabbi Kushner’s commentary to the same verse from Leviticus about not taking vengeance he shares an analogy from one of my favorite Jewish philosophers, Martin Buber. In Kushner’s paraphrase, “Because all human beings are part of the same body, to hurt another person in an effort to get even is to hurt part of oneself”. This can be compared to “…a person whose hand slips while holding a knife and he stabs himself. Should he stab the offending hand that slipped to get even with it for hurting him? He will only hurt himself a second time.” ( Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 697). Or as Anne Lamott says, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die”.

So, logically we can see that forgiving others is important. But underneath both of these sayings we can hear both anger and hurt. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 16th century Jewish mystic writes that just as G-d does not maintain His anger, neither should we. Even if we are justified in our anger toward friend or child, we “should not linger over it…but rather draw the person closer with love, for perhaps this way will succeed”. (The Palm Tree of Devorah, chapter 1:5, p.16-17)

Underneath all anger is some kind of hurt. And unless and until we heal from the hurt is extremely difficult to forgive. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Reverend Mpho Tutu, have written a book called, The Book of Forgiving”. In it they lay out four important steps to healing:” Admitting the wrong and acknowledging the harm; Telling one’s story and witnessing the anguish; Asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness; and renewing or releasing the relationship.” These insights grew out of Desmond Tutu’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He writes of this work: “The process we embarked on through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, as all growth proves to be, astoundingly painful and profoundly beautiful”. This is the process that the Jewish Days of Awe also call upon us to do.

From my own experience I would also say that forgiveness is not a onetime action. It is more like a continual process that like many transformational processes often feels like one step forward, two steps back. When we get to the place of one step forward, one step back, we are making progress. And when we get to the place of two steps forward, one step back we are really on our way! As Rabbi Alan Lew, often called “The Zen Rabbi” and author of “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation” writes, “What’s done cannot be undone- but it can be healed” (p. 29). And the healing takes place by both forgiving and asking for forgiveness as well as when faced with the same situation not repeating the same action. Also really not easy.

So what about asking for forgiveness?. For a great example of how the beginning stages can feel, I highly recommend watching the movie “A Fish Called Wanda”. In it there is a character – the brother – who is told he needs to apologize. He sits on the lawn in a full lotus position, trying desperately to say “ I’m sorry”, but it comes out more like “ I’m…I’m…expletive, expletive”.

And sometimes, we don’t even know what we have done to hurt others. Rabbi Lew writes, “…we have to become aware of the precise nature of our blunders”. This is like the LAST thing I want to do! How about you? But, if we are to enter upon the path of transformation that our souls long for there is a way to do this. We can ask the people closest to us where we need to improve. Then we can follow the steps outlined by Desmond and Mpho Tutu to both ask forgiveness and to grant forgiveness.

We also don’t have to wait until Rosh Hashanah to do this and be overwhelmed with an entire year’s worth of mistakes. The old adage about not letting the sun set on our anger is a good guideline. It is in fact a Jewish Chasidic custom to forgive everyone before one goes to sleep each night. In the Jewish week day prayers, we ask forgiveness daily – a fact I wish I had known growing up in a Catholic neighborhood, where I was jealous of my Catholic friend’s recourse to a weekly confessional. And, I think making sure we ask forgiveness before lighting the Shabbat candles would be a nice custom to add.

So even though I haven’t known many of you for very long, nonetheless, I would like to ask for your forgiveness for anything I have done that hurt or offended you.
L’Shanah Tovah!

 Rabbi Rain

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