During the winter of 1960-61, I was a nine year old fourth grader at PS188 in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. A bunch of us got into a snowball fight on West 33rd Street between Mermaid and Neptune Avenues. I threw a snowball at a kid, but it ended up breaking a window in a private home. We all ran away, afraid of getting into trouble. I was very upset with myself and told my mother what had happened. We talked and I recognized the potential danger of throwing snowballs when there were windows in the background, and I was truly sorry for the outcome of my behavior. My mother took me back to the scene of my crime/transgression; she and the homeowner agreed on $5 to replace the window. In 1960-61, $5 was a significant sum for my family; we lived in New York City Housing Projects. In the end, I felt much better after this resolution. I had a new start.
As the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) approach I think about Teshuvah and about Peace. “There are many types of Peace, and we pray for them all.” So said rabbi Elliot Cosgrove at a recent Friday night service at Park Avenue Synagogue. The Hebrew word for peace is Shalom. Shalom can mean hello, goodbye, peace, tranquility, etc. By changing the vowels so that the Hebrew letters spell Shalem, the meaning becomes completeness or wholeness. Shalom, peace, is a positive relationship between two entities: man and man, man and woman, country and country, man and God. It can also be the inner peace found when you are at peace with yourself and feel the tranquility of wholeness.
So, peace is more than the absence of war, hatred, or dysfunction. It is a cooperative and collaborative connection between two independent entities; it is worth working to achieve this state of being. Chassidic Rabbis say that during the month of Elul, God is most approachable, “as if the king is in the field rather than in his palace.” Now is our time to draw close to God as we ask for His forgiveness.
Teshuvah is a turning away from sin and returning to (the righteous ways of) God. In Jewish thought there are 2 types of sins or transgressions: those between man and God and those between man and man. Transgressions between man and God are atoned through recognition, confession, remorse, and resolve to not perform this sin again. Prayer, charity, and fasting aid in the process of atonement to God. Transgressions between individuals, require you to ask for forgiveness and make financial restitution to the aggrieved person.
Our daily liturgy has many prayers for repentance and for peace. After we show God our gratitude for another day, with the Modeh Ani prayer, we begin our preliminary prayers, Birchot HaShachar. Included in this early part of Shachrit, is a passage from the Gemara, Shabbot 127a: “These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in the world to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of loving kindness…probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all.” So, peace is a very important state for which we should always strive to achieve.
The Hashkiveinu prayer is a prayer for protection that is said only during the Evening Maariv service because we are asking God to provide us with a safe shelter while we sleep. God’s “canopy of peace,” sukkat shalom, is like a force field that protects us while we sleep and permits us to wake up safely. The Talmud teaches us that sleep is 1/60th of death (Brakhot 57b) and thus renders us vulnerable, so we ask God to protect us from foe, plague, sword, famine, and woe; to safeguard our coming and going; and to shelter us.
Sim Shalom and Shalom Rav are the closing prayers of the Amidah during the Shacharit (morning), Minchah (afternoon) and Maariv (evening) services. Both prayers ask God to grant peace to his people Israel and to all who dwell in the world. The Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 9:9) states “Great is peace for all prayers conclude with a plea for peace.” Psalm 34:14 states “Turn from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it.” We are to actively go out into the world to seek out and make peace.
The Kaddish prayer is recited many times during a prayer service. It is used in various forms to separate different parts of the liturgy or to conclude a prayer service. When the term Kaddish is used, most people think of the Mourner’s Kaddish. The last line of all the Mourner’s Kaddish prayers is “may the One who makes peace on high bring peace down to us and to all Israel, and to all who dwell on Earth. And let us say Amen.” So even in times of great pain, the death of a loved one, we praise God and ask Him to bestow peace on us as individuals, as a community, and as a world.
Peace permeates our prayers and is also a recurrent theme throughout the Torah and the Talmud. Maimonides comments in his Mishneh Torah: “Great is peace, as the whole Torah was given in order to promote peace in the world, as it is stated (in Bamidbar Rabbah 21:1), “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.” When we wish someone a Shabbot Shalom, we are wishing them a day of peace and completeness: Shabbot is 1/60th of the peace and serenity in the Olam Haba, the World to Come. The Kohanim, or Priests, are agents and promoters of Peace. The third part of their Priestly Blessing is:” May God show you kindness and grant you peace” again as individuals, as a community, and as a world.
In our daily Amidah we ask God to accept our Teshuvah: “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah. Draw us near, our King, to Your service. Cause us to return to You in true repentance. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who welcomes repentance.” And next: “Forgive us our Father for we have sinned. Pardon us our King for we have willfully transgressed, for You pardon and forgive. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who is gracious and forgiving.”
These two adjacent prayers in the Amidah teach us to do teshuvah/repentance every day so that we can get the peace/tranquility of a “clean” relationship with God and with our world. We ask for God’s guidance and mercy to help us confront our flaws and turn away from them. We ask God to pardon and forgive us so that we can (re)turn to the proper path.
Teshuvah restores peace between man and man, and between man and God, and within the self. It requires introspection to acknowledge our personal imperfections and sins. The steps to turn away from sin and towards God (and self) include:
Recognition of and Responsibility for the sin
Regret and Remorse for the sin
Restitution and Repair for the sin
Recitation or Recanting of the sin
Resolve to no longer perform the sin
There is a parable about when to repent. The Talmud (Shabbat 153a) tells us that Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples, “Repent one day before your death.” The disciples questioned whether one can know the day of one’s death? Rabbi Eliezer answered, “All the more reason, therefore, to repent today, lest one die tomorrow.” During the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim, we take stock of our lives and the direction of our future. Maimonides says a truly repentant person is one who finds himself with the opportunity to commit the same sin again yet declines to do so.
At Yom Kippur, God’s graciousness forgives us as individuals, as a community and as a world so that we can forgive ourselves and others who have pained us. Hillel’s famous teaching: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.” If we want both God and our friends to forgive us for pain, we may have inflicted on them, we must be able to forgive God and our friends as well. This forgiveness enables us to achieve peace with our friends, with God, and within ourselves so we can re-establish the peace we need to move forward in life.
Repentance, forgiveness, and peace refine our souls and empower us as individuals and as a community to go out into the world and repair and refine it…Tikkun Olam. This is our mission as Jews: to repair and refine the world and make it a home for God.
Now 60 year later, I can appreciate that my mother helped me to repent and make restitution and resolve to no longer throw snowballs when there were windows in the background. In retrospect, Mom had helped me begin the process of Teshuvah, and achieve peace between me and the victim of my snowball. Equally important, this process brought me inner peace. Thank you, Mom (for being such a good teacher of what is right).