WhyYomKip­purisa per­sonal chal­lenge

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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -


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

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