by Rabbi Sonya Starr
Lately I have been thinking about teshuvah, repentance. I know what you are thinking, it is February not August or September. when we are supposed to get sermons about teshuvah. Some of you might know that I love magical thinking. One of my favorite comments from our Sunday school students is that Jews only have to do teshuvah in the fall. In reality, all the rabbis agreed we are to do teshuvah all year, praying for it once a year on Yom Kippur. So you might ask why have I been thinking about teshuvah for the last month or so. The best I can figure is that there are a couple of things that have come together. The political is obvious. The personal is the idea that I am old enough to have been working in my chosen field for 25 years and the awareness that as a public, albeit not elected, official, people expect more of me than they do of the person next door. Just to be clear, I am not asking us what the elected officials in VA should or shouldn’t do. I am asking us what do we want in our leaders. What standard should we ask of them? Is it a standard we can meet?
I keep wondering about my twenties. What things have I done that would be embarrassing? How have I grown? What would I do differently? Now before we go any farther, I have not ever thought about putting shoe polish or anything else on my face. I have never posed with someone in a KKK costume. And I would hate to be judged by my twenties. For the truth of the matter is that I am grateful for the concept of teshuvah – the ability to get a second chance, to learn from my mistakes, to become better than I was before.
So I thought about the very institution of teshuvah in Judaism. Yom Kippur is a public holiday that requires everyone to think through what they have done and what they could do better. By making us all obligated to do teshuvah and by doing all the confessionals in the plural, it is implicit in our religious community that all are imperfect, all can do better, and all should be working to be better. I guess what I am struggling with is what good is teshuvah if one is still to be judged by the actions of decades ago. Just to keep the record straight, I sat in my sukkah with congregants and asked the same thing in the fall. This is not a republican/democrat question; it truly is a human one.
What is the point of teshuvah if we are guilty forever?
Also to be clear, I am not excusing racist impersonations or offensive t-shirts. Those people should be called out when it happens. I am asking a different question. I am asking should we be held accountable for what we did 20-30 years ago. And if so, why do teshuvah at all?
The rabbis were clear that there were two kinds of crimes: one is a crime against Gd and the other is a crime against another person. It is the latter that I am referring to: crimes against another person. Maimonides wrote extensively about teshuvah. In his tractate Repentance 2:3, he makes the distinction between someone who verbalized out loud what he did wrong but did not resolve to change. In other words, he apologized and then went out and did the same thing again. Maimonides compares this repetitive behavior a person who goes to the Mikvah with a snake in his hand. It does him no good until he throws out the snake. What good is confessing if one does not change one’s ways. The whole purpose of teshuvah is to change one’s ways of being in the world. So the first question for us to consider is, did we change? Are we the same person we were 20-30 years ago or are we better because we did teshuvah? If we have changed. If we are better people, is our teshuvah complete. For teshuvah is only complete when we are faced with the ability to do the same “sin” again and choose not to.
A little later on in the same tractate, Maimonides says that a person has to repent publicly. He has to announce his sin to others. He even goes as far as to say, “Anyone who is arrogant and does not reveal but conceals his sins, his repentance is not complete, as it is said (Proverbs 28:13): “He who conceals his sins will not succeed.” Our society is going through a public transformation before our own eyes. What was acceptable in certain parts of our society 30 years ago is no longer acceptable. We need to publicly acknowledge that our community did these things and they were wrong.
For those of us who are Caucasian, we have to admit that we wore black face, we told racist jokes, we called African Americans monkeys or any of the other countless ways we hurt people who are different than ourselves. And if we did not do it ourselves, we listened/laughed when someone else did it. Just like on Yom Kippur we confess in the plural, not asking, “Which of these offenses did I do?” The same principle applies here. We need to confess in detail to all of them in the plural to acknowledge out loud that these are sins, and we have been part of the community that did commit them, and we feel remorse. Doing these things are wrong.
Maimonides continues. He wrote that when a person “injures another person or curses another person or steals from him/her, and the like, s/he is not forgiven until he makes restitution for what he owes him and appeases him. Even if a person restores the money that s/he owes [the person s/he wronged], s/he must appease him/her and ask him/her to forgive him/her. Even if s/he only offended another with words, s/he must appease him/her and approach him/her until s/he forgives him/her.” We as a community have to find a way to both apologize and be forgiven for what we have done. Not only for what we did as a country during the times of slavery, but for what we have done as a joke at another’s expense. We have to make amends for what we do every day today in our schools, with our police officers, at work–that contribute to a society of prejudice.
Am I surprised that Caucasian men of my age or older in the state of Virginia painted their faces black? No, to be honest I am not. I grew up in Lancaster PA. I really am not surprised at all. I am concerned that nowhere between then and now did any of these men publicly state what they did and apologize in a public manner allowing teshuvah to truly take place. Maimonides teaches us it is not enough to apologize in our own hearts. It is not even enough to change our behavior. We as a community have to say we are sorry for creating a country where people would think that wearing black face and wearing a KKK costume are funny. We as a country have to say we are sorry for listening and laughing at racist jokes. We as a country have to take responsibility for the community of fear and hurt that we have created. Only then would our teshuvah, any of our teshuvah, be worthy of being forgiven.