Shabbat Ki Tetzei – August 16, 2013 – 11 Elul 5773. “One who sincerely apologizes three times for a wrong committed against another has fulfilled his or her obligation to seek forgiveness” Shulchan Aruch – Orach Chayim 606:1
We’re well into the month of Elul and, hopefully, deep into the business of this month: The process of T’shuvah, of looking inward, ascertaining where we have gone wrong, seeking forgiveness and granting forgiveness, making amends, and determining how to avoid the mistakes in the future….or have we?
Maybe it’s a good thing that we start this Cheshbon HaNefesh, soul-accounting… a full month before Rosh HaShanah. For some of us, the process is well underway. For many of us, we’re either not even thinking about it or subconsciously putting it off as long as we can. So, this evening, let’s think a little about what this is all about.
In our morning prayers, we say “Adonai, neshama she-natati bi, t’horah hi”: G-d, the soul you have given me is pure. Yet we know that even all the heroes of our TaNaCh are flawed. At the very core of us, we are told that our souls are pure, yet, as we go through life, each of us does things “shmutz” things up, that miss the mark. Acknowledging and accepting responsibility for having done something wrong, the first step in the process of “T’shuvah.” Yet, each of us has filters that sometimes make it challenging to even realize, let alone acknowledge, that we’ve done something wrong.
When she got in trouble as a child, my oldest granddaughter would blame it on “Saycee”—a figment of her imagination, who always seemed to be at fault when things went awry. Several of my grandchildren would vehemently deny culpability, saying “Not me.” When we are kids, it is not unusual to blame mistakes on imaginary friends, or even blame them on that infamous character “Not me.” The question is what is it that makes it hard for a child…or an adult, for that matter, to accept responsibility for his or her actions?
Those of us whose parents looked at us as their golden child, tried hard to fix our mistakes before they, or we, were even discovered. Why?
When they miss the mark, children often feel that they are bad, and have real trouble differentiating “what we do” from “who we are.” Do they feel a dissonance between the prayer, “Elohai neshama she-natata bi, t’horah hi/ My G-d, the soul you have given me is pure” and the fact that they did something wrong?
But once one accepts that we all have moments when we miss the mark, we can come closer to accepting ourselves…and our faults. And, more important, once we realize that G-d understands that true repentance gives us the opportunity to work, once again, towards making our selves the best selves we can be, then we are able to realize that we don’t have to hide from ourselves or from others. What counts is that we can begin to take responsibility for our mistakes.
Remorse is the pivotal point of repentance. It is about taking responsibility for the past and about looking to the future with a sense of responsibility for preventing repetition. Looking backward and forward, we are in a very real sense constantly turning….and the word “Teshuvah”, frequently translated as Repentance, also means Turning or Returning.
Acknowledging our mistakes takes some humility. We frequently find ourselves in denial or rationalizing a misdeed. On a recent Dr. Phil show, a woman who had done a horrendous deed as a 14 year-old, twenty-one years later began her explanations by blaming it on the man who had put the gun in her hand and told her to commit a crime; she called it an accident; she said she had served her time…it took nearly 45 minutes before she was able to truly, deeply say how sorry she was that she had inflicted pain upon the person she hurt. Twenty-one years of rationalizing and self-denial. But when she did apologize, and her defenses came down, it was clear to the viewing audience that a wall had been removed. When she and her victim embraced, the one in humble apology, the other in incredible forgiveness, it was as if a bomb had been defused.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik(z”l) said: “Just as the sacrifice is burnt upon the altar, so do we burn down, by our act of confession, our well-barricaded complacency, our overblown pride, our artificial existence.” But feelings of shame often thrive in secrecy. Once confessed, they disappear in the light of day. While it is foolishness to confess our misdeeds to random characters, our tradition actually encourages daily confessions, in the Sh’ma prayer at bedtime. This daily viddui helps encourage the pre-requisite for the self-transformation we call T’shuvah.
This business of then seeking forgiveness is really the trickiest part. It involves two parties: a person truly sincere in his or her apology and a person whose heart is open enough to accept that apology. But, as Rabbi Karen Kedar says, “Forgiveness is one of the hardest things to do. So is not forgiving.”
Do we hold on or do we let go? How much easier it is to hold on to hurts, to feel self-righteous about being slighted…We can go through life bemoaning rejection, cruelty, betrayal, none of which is right or fair. But just because life is not necessarily fair doesn’t mean that we should spend…or more accurately, waste…our energy on resentment.
Life is all too short. And if we are open to life’s many lessons, one of the most valuable ones is the reality that blessings are always waiting to emerge from even the most negative of experiences. The spiritual path teaches us that we do have the soul strength to reconcile the big, bad, and ugly with the love that is trying to penetrate the walls that build up…sometimes over many years.
The ultimate goal is to make peace…peace with one another…and peace with the very core of your being. Anything that stands in the way is a deterrent to that peace process…and must be dealt with.
Let it go. Let it go.
Letting it go and it can no longer lay claim to your energies or your emotion. Letting it go removes its power over you. Letting it go releases the pain of the past and permits you to continue on your soul’s destiny.
Elul is nearing its half-way point. We are all involved in the business of asking for forgiveness and of forgiving, this tricky, complicated, soul-accountable business of T’shuvah, repentance, returning.
So how’s business?
L’Shanah Tovah tikateivu…may you be inscribed for a good year.
 Newman, Dr. Louis E. Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2010, p. 89
 Kedar, Rabbi Karyn D. The Bridge to Forgivenss: Stories and Prayers for Finding God and Restoring Wholeness. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2007, p.79.