Why Yom Kippur is a personal challenge

October 3, 2008

We asked five rabbis to recall from experience what the central concept of teshuvah - repentance or return - means to themĀ 

Marcia Plumb

Teshuvah is not an easy thing to achieve. I remember an argument between my young children. I said to my son, "Now that you've pulled the head off your sister's doll, say you're sorry." My son apologised, and I congratulated myself on being such a good parent. But then, the glitch. My daughter wouldn't accept the apology. I explained in good rabbinic fashion how Judaism demands that once a sincere apology has been offered, and the person has vowed to change, the victim must accept the apology. "But," she said, "the apology doesn't make it OK. I don't feel better, and my doll is still ruined."

And there lies the rub. Teshuvah does not necessarily make us feel better. Saying sorry does not always make the pain or the problem go away. The traditional practice of teshuvah, of reflecting on our sins, asking forgiveness from those we have hurt, and being forgiven, is a nice neat package that is designed to help us negotiate our way through inevitably painful human interactions. If everyone acts their part according to the traditional script then, the sources assume, all will be well and everyone will be happy once again. But what about when it goes wrong, and those involved don't fulfil their role in the teshuvah drama? What happens, for example, when the perpetrator does not apologise or even acknowledge the damage done? How are we to move on?

Recently an East German pastor told me the following story. He lived and worked during the Stasi period in East Germany. His son had been persecuted and betrayed by a teacher. The pastor suspected the teacher but when the official records of the period were released, he found proof. He went to the teacher and said to him, "I know what you did to my son and I want you to know that I forgive you." The teacher stared back and said, "I don't know what you are talking about." The pastor was left feeling helpless. He cried to me, "How can I forgive when the one who has sinned won't acknowledge the sin? How can there be forgiveness when there is no atonement?"

During an interfaith conference in Germany, an elderly former Nazi approached me and said, "I was a Nazi. Can you forgive me?" Stunned and in awe of the historical power of the moment, I quoted him the Jewish sources which say that only the one who has been hurt can forgive. "I cannot forgive you," I pointed out. "Please help me," he begged. "I have lived in torment since the war. I cannot forgive myself."

"I can listen," I said. He told me some of his actions during the war, and how his soul could not be at peace. We sat in silence for a few moments, and I expressed my compassion for him. But I could not forgive.

A mother came to me just before Yom Kippur and asked me to forgive her for her abortion 20 years earlier. Since the loss, she had not been able to pray at Yom Kippur. Although she knew that in the circumstances, she had done the right thing, she still felt she didn't deserve forgiveness and didn't know how to ask for it, but was desperate to feel repentance and at peace in her own soul. She wanted me to grant her the "absolution" she heard about in Christianity. Jews don't do "absolution", I explained. A rabbi cannot wipe the slate clean for someone else. Only God can do that, after our own atonement has taken place.

I tried to remind her that God loved her unconditionally, no matter what. God cried with her in her grief for her unborn child. But she still wanted to hear the words of forgiveness So, finally, I said what I knew to be true, but still felt uncomfortable saying, "You are forgiven." She cried, we said Kaddish together, and she was finally able to mourn her loss.

Forgiveness is not always about saying sorry, or accepting an apology. Forgiveness is not getting stuck in our grief or anger. Teshuvah is letting go, and moving on.

Marcia Plumb is a rabbi at Southgate Reform Synagogue

The repentant terrorists

Gideon Sylvester

Among the most fascinating, disturbing and thought-provoking penitents I have ever encountered were two Palestinian leaders I met through my work for Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Rabbi Michael Melchior.

I was uncomfortable when I heard that for political reasons they would not enter the Prime Minister's Office where we worked. My discomfort rose to alarm when I discovered that one was a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the other had been a founding father of Hamas. Both had spent time in Israeli prisons, both had been involved in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks.

Seeing the two men surrounded by their bodyguards, I balked. How could I shake hands with people who had been party to murder? What should I say to them? I made some faltering attempts at conversation. Not until Rabbi Melchior arrived was coffee poured and small talk exchanged. Then the serious discussions began. The two sheikhs had realised that militant Islamic fundamentalism was not getting them anywhere and for a combination of pragmatic and ideological reasons, they had switched tactics. Now, they were working closely with the rabbi to establish centres for dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.

I found the encounter unsettling, but when I shared my reservations, Rabbi Melchior responded that anyone could bring like-minded, liberal Israelis and Palestinians to the table, but the future of the peace process depended on getting the hardliners to talk. We had to engage with them.

At this time of year, God judges the world. Only he can measure the blood that these men had spilled and the extent of the suffering they caused. Repentance is complicated. According to the Rambam's definition, these men had taken the first crucial steps. After serving their sentences in Israeli prisons, they had recognised their crime, publicly resolved never to repeat it, actively sought to put it right and, no doubt in their own way, prayed to God for forgiveness.

Is that enough, while the bereaved families still grieve? Who knows what it takes to purge a person of guilt and attain God's forgiveness? Perhaps a lifetime, or more.

But when God weighs up their sins, he will also evaluate their courage in abandoning terror and directing their followers to do the same. He will consider how many terrorist attacks were averted and how many lives saved as a result of their repentance. What is the just reward for a Palestinian who endangers himself and his family in the cause of peace with Israel?

The two sheikhs left me thinking about the power of a single act of repentance, even one that is incomplete. I cannot possibly judge them or anyone else. But when former terrorists are risking their lives to work for peace, then I feel duty bound to ask questions about myself, my community and its leadership. We are not filled with hatred, nor are we violent, but could we be doing more to bring about God's vision for world peace? For the Rambam tells us, "The Torah was given solely in order to bring peace to the world."

Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue's Tribe Israel

The priest who was Jewish

Shaul Rosenblatt

I met Stan almost 20 years ago. I was in charge of the introductory programme at Aish Hatorah Yeshivah in Jerusalem and Stan turned up at our door. He was a young Catholic priest from Communist Poland. He had been given a scholarship to escape the Eastern Bloc and was studying at a Catholic seminary in Detroit.

There, he had met a rabbi who had told him that his surname sounded very Jewish. When he called his father in Poland to ask about it, his father had broken down and told Stan that his family had indeed been Jewish, but he had covered up his ancestry after the Holocaust. He had never told anyone, not even Stan's mother.

Stan was shocked, but undeterred. He tried his mother next. Was there, by chance, any Jewish ancestry in her family? His mother broke down on the phone also. She came from a Chasidic family, but after the Holocaust had run from her past and converted to Catholicism.She had never told anyone, not even Stan's father. So Stan was a young Polish Catholic priest with two Jewish parents, each hiding their past from the other.

And now he was in Jerusalem looking to return, to do teshuvah, so to speak. He desperately wanted to be Jewish again.

I did all that I could. He was the most gorgeous of souls. But his path was so agonising. He had been the top student in his seminary, both in Poland and Detroit. He had committed so much emotionally that it was such a struggle to change. But he gave every ounce of his strength to turn his life towards something that he desperately wanted.

But it was not to be. After six weeks, he had decided that his future was as a Jew. But his bishop in Detroit had treated him as his own son. He needed to explain face to face. He owed that to him. Perhaps he owed his people more. He nearly didn't go, but in the end he did, determined to return.

I never heard from him again. The phone number he gave me was disconnected. I tried searching for him, but in those pre-internet days, it was impossible to track him down. Almost 20 years later, I still feel that I failed him.

Not all stories have happy endings. Here was a soul that did its utmost to return to its Creator and did not succeed in the way that it desired. But he tried. I've hardly met a person who tried harder than Stan. He was desperate to be a Jew and Stan's yearning is my definition of teshuvah.

Teshuvah, especially at this time of year, is not the superficial changes that we make in our lives that revert back in the cold of winter. Teshuvah is the Jewish soul searching, yearning to "return" to its source. This teshuvah, that comes from the innermost soul, is the pure teshuvah that our sages talk about. Stan's yearning came from this pure place. And no one can ever take that from him.

I believe that no matter where he is or what he is doing, his soul is waiting for its moment to rejoin its people. And when teshuvah is so pure, its moment is guaranteed to arrive.

Shaul Rosenblatt is co-founder of the London-based organisation Tikun

Guilt can be destructive

Charley Baginsky

Living in Jerusalem in my younger years, pre-rabbinate, was a simpler affair - no series of sermons, no co-ordination of music, no white mantles to remember to be washed. Instead, Yom Kippur arrived and the world stood still.

But the move back to England and to the rabbinate was not only a significant change for me, but also for my friends. It fascinated many of them and I often found myself perceived as responsible for answering, and sometimes justifying, huge theological and spiritual questions that had remained unasked for many years.

One of the most significant conversations I had in this vein was during my first year training for the rabbinate, just before the High Holy Days. A friend of mine, who saw himself as entirely secular, had suffered a particularly trying year with his family. The family dynamic was complex and difficult and while an outsider could see much of it was beyond his control, he felt immensely and deeply responsible.

As we talked of my own preparation for the upcoming holidays, he told me he had one resolution this Yom Kippur, to give up any hope of teshuvah. When he looked back at his life he could only see a series of recurring mistakes. However good his New Year resolutions were, the pull of the old was too great and he ended up cloaked in the security of the familiarity of old mistakes, however painful. There was a sense of real agony about the revelation and I was left feeling an inordinate amount of responsibility for solving his "spiritual crisis".

We sat there at either end of the spectrum - him wishing to bury teshuvah and me wishing to resurrect it for him, him feeling guilty for not being the saviour son, so to speak, and me feeling guilty for not being able to save him with some magical words.

It has taken us both years and some growing up to acknowledge that teshuvah is not about perfection, that there is a difference between a constructive guilt that allows you to rebuild yourself and your world one small piece at a time and a destructive guilt that leaves you inert and ineffectual.

Since then, therefore, teshuvah has become for me the time when, in among the tasks that must be done to make the holidays happen, I find a moment to return to the stillness of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur morning, if only in my head. As a rabbi, as a child, as an adult, as a human being, perfection and perfect words are always beyond reach.

Instead teshuvah is a healing process that allows me to turn round and face myself head on, to look in the mirror and accept that which is in my hands and that which is not, that for which I was responsible and equally that for which I was not, to feel guilty for the real and let go of the rest.

Charley Baginsky is rabbi of Kingston Liberal Synagogue

Stretching the rabbi's patience

Reuben Livingstone

I used to be accustomed to thinking of teshuvah as a zero sum game; a one-off correction by which one repents completely and is rid of a particular sin.

What I have learned over time, however, is that teshuvah is often a long-term and ongoing process.This means that when I make confession and say the Vidui on Yom Kippur, it may well be the case that instead of closing down a particular sin completely, I am really acknowledging and coming to grips with how much work there is still to be done.

For me this is particularly true when it comes to human relationships. I used to have a person in my community who would stretch my patience regularly to breaking point. Said person bombarded me with gratuitous questions and complaints and would always make a beeline for me on Shabbat morning at kiddush and dominate my attention when I was trying to greet numerous other people.

I developed a degree of loathing that led to complicated avoidance attempts being the order of the day. This, despite my knowledge that the individual concerned was actually quite vulnerable and did actually deserve my support. It actually took me several Yom Kippurs and repetitive Al Cheits eventually to work the whole thing through; I just could not manage to deal with it in one go.

So the mere awareness of the problem did not mean that I was able to solve it straight away. I was not emotionally ready to reframe my attitude about this congregant until time had passed and I had gone through more than one cycle of recognising that I could not simply continue and hope the person just disappeared.

Over time, I was able to detach from my personal animus and deal in a more balanced way with this challenge. Oddly enough, when I eventually reached that point, I found myself able for the first time to give much more honest feedback and impose better boundaries without my sense of compassion disappearing into disgust and frustration. I believe that my ability to be patient with myself and gradually undertake a long term teshuvah that would actually stick enabled an enduring friendship which came to be quite special for both of us.

Had I tried to short-circuit this emotional process, I fear that early on I would have made an enemy rather than a friend.

Reuben Livingstone is rabbi at Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue

Last updated: 11:53am, October 24 2008