WhyYomKippurisa personal challenge
We asked five rabbis to recall from experience what the central concept of teshuvah — repentance or return — means to them
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 duringthewar,andhowhissoulcouldnotbeatpeace. 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
Yom Kippur, 2000, as portrayed by the contemporary UK-based artist Dora Holzhandler, born 1928