This season of Hanukkah, Project 97b is sharing 8 short reflections about Hanukkah and teshuva. Today is the second installment, as I begin an effort to create a broad and wide conversation about a very narrow subject – Rabbi Eliezer on Sanhedrin 97b. “If Israel does teshuva, we will be redeemed. If not, we won’t.” I’m calling this effort – Project 97b.
In each of these Hanukkah posts, I will try to deepen the claim that teshuva is the most brilliant high-tech creation of the Jewish people. The mission of the Jewish people is to disseminate this technology to every Jew who lives. Of course, it is relevant no matter one’s religion. But, we’ll start with the Jewish people. No matter our levels of observance or Jewish knowledge – no matter whether we are Secular, Reform, Conservative or Haredi, Religious Zioinist, Modern Orthodox, Ashkenazi, Sefaradi, Persian etc, we are called to put teshuva at the center of our lives.
Hanukkah is about the light that we Jews bring to the world. Pirsum ha’Nes – publicize the Nes-נס miracle. The placement of our Hanukkah menorah is to be at the right doorpost as a Jew departs her home. We bring from our hearts the beautiful, loving, teshuva-infused light of our homes, out into the world. Rabbi Eliezer is urging us to make teshuvah the central, driving force of our Jewish identity. For R. Eliezer, teshuva is the match, the flame that radiates light in every direction. The lights of the Hanukiah are meant to inspire our teshuvah.
The light of teshuva, says the Rambam and so many others, depends on the words that we speak to one another. This 2d night of Hanukkah, we dedicate to the power of words, to the word – teshuva.
There is teshuva for us as a people, but also for every individual Jew and Jewish family as well. Many of us know well the word – teshuva – but we forget, we neglect the work of teshuva. We choose anger, hurt, bitterness instead. We don’t do the work that we know we should do. For many others, we don’t even know the letters of תשובה, or understand how to put them together. We are completely cut-off from the beautiful music of the word – teshuva.
We Jews are living in the most brilliant, extraordinary, blessed moment in all of Jewish history. Rabbi Eliezer is begging us to make the most of our blessings. He’s praying that we not squander and waste this most precious moment of Jewish life. The Talmud, in Makkot 24a distills all 613 mitzvot to 1. Rabbi Eliezer does something similar on 97b. All of Jewish life, the entire goal of Redemption is distilled to 1 ingredient, 1 technology – the mitzvah of teshuva. Like E Pluribus Unum – One from many – everything we do as Jews points back to the singular work called teshuvah.
In my 20+ years as a congregational rabbi, it never occurred to me that there is one word in our Jewish vocabulary, one concept, that should play an overarching, all-important task of Jewish education. After 20+ years, it now seems clear. Every Jew should “know” deeply, intimately “know” the word teshuva. For secular, liberal, Reform-minded Jews, many don’t know the Hebrew letters. They can’t read the word תשובה. For many orthodox-minded Jews, the word teshuva is easily read, but the redemptive power of teshuva is largely neglected. There’s so much work for all of us to do.
I grew up in Columbus, Ohio with extraordinary parents. Both were highly educated, but neither a learned, educated Jew. My mom was a Montessori educator. By the end of her career, she was the national leader of the American Montessori Society. But, years before this national role, her passion was for teaching children how to read, how to sound out letters, to put them together. “Teach them important words. Children love big, important words . . .” she would say.
So many evenings, my mom spent on our living room floor, creating gorgeous letters and words. She never knew Rabbi Eliezer, but her life’s passion was the redemptive potential of letters and words. She would be so proud and inspired by a Jewish commitment to the power of a single word. As I am in my shnat avel, my year of mourning for Devorah bat Batya v’Chayim, it brings me great meaning to link this teaching of my mom to Rabbi Eliezer. She’s smiling from up above, as she witnesses my deeply-held passion for one, single word. Hanukkah is from the word Hinukh, education – my mom’s life passion. Hanukkah is about the education of our hearts, through the courage to speak words of teshuva.
If we want redemption, peace and human flourishing, this is what we must master. Rambam’s Hilchot- Laws of Teshuva, 1:2 begins like this: אֵינוֹ מִתְכַּפֵּר עַד שֶׁיִּתְוַדֶּה וְיָשׁוּב מִלַּעֲשׂוֹת כָּזֶה לְעוֹלָם. ”One is not forgiven of a misdeed, until and unless we confess with words and promise to no longer make the same mistake in the future.” וְצָרִיךְ לְהִתְוַדּוֹת בִּשְׂפָתָיו וְלוֹמַר עִנְיָנוֹת אֵלּוּ שֶׁגָּמַר בְּלִבּוֹ. “One must confess with words and speak out loud the words of regret that are in one’s heart.”
How often do we feel regret, but we trap that feeling inside. We are too scared, ashamed, embarrassed. Teshuva requires our words. Rambam continues: “It is very praiseworthy for a person who repents to confess in public (to family, friends, etc) and to make his sins known to others. . . When does the above apply? In regard to sins between man and man. . .” Ch. 5.
The beginning of teshuva is speech – words of awareness and regret, and the vow to do all we can to never commit the same mistake again. Whether we know the Hebrew word or not, every adult knows the truth of this statement. Every one of our homes depends on this, more than all else. Redemption means the peace of our homes, our communities, and our people. Teshuva is the hi-tech invention, the patented process that beams us up, to the heavens, to redemption.
The Maccabees failed to understand the greatest challenge of their time. Maybe they could conquer the Assyrian army. But they couldn’t conquer their judgment, even hatred of other Jews. That was and is way more difficult. Breaking the doors to the Holy Temple is harder than breaking down the doors to our hurt, anger, resentment, hate, pain or fear. The key to redemption, teshuva, is harder to acquire than the keys to the Beit HaMikdash.
The Maccabees failed to create the Jewish experience of redemption, an eternal peace. As we close, let’s imagine a Jewish world the way Rabbi Eliezer imagines it, on Sanhedrin 97b. In that world, every Jew knows the letters, תשובה. Every Jew knows the word, loves its music. Every Jewish organization makes teshuva a defining component of its organizational vision. Every Jewish organization has in their board room, a yo’etz/et teshuva. Every Shabbat table is filled with conversation about teshuva.
On this Hanukkah, let’s claim the key to the Beit Ha’Mikdash. Teshuva is that key. Give the gift of teshuva. May we fulfill our mission to be a light unto the nations. May we discover the teshuvah that can preserve and protect the doors of the Holy Temple — for ourselves, our families and for the entire Jewish people.