Harry Zeitlin
Grateful Every Day, Modeh Ani Lefanecha!

Goodbye 5780/2020

No one alive has ever had a year quite like this past one. To be sure, there remain a diminishing number, among our people, who survived the unimaginable horrors of the Shoah, and elsewhere in the world those who survived Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and more recently ISIS, Boko Haram as well today’s dissidents in Iran and other similar states, and other localized evils. However, no one alive today has experienced a full-blown world wide disaster such as the current covid pandemic. No one is exempt, no one is immune, there are no “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards and the virus has struck rich and poor, privileged and challenged, righteous and evil, young and old, healthy and sickly. With justified fury we’ll witness the most arrogant flaunters of communal/human responsibility get off scot-free and challenging all our beliefs in righteousness and karma, we’ll see the most saintly and giving, succumbing to disease and carried off in pain.

Of course, I have yet mentioned the climatic and other disasters, the seemingly unending heat, the fires covering roughly half the world, hurricanes, earthquakes and more. Into this week, the formerly pristine Pacific Northwest has endured the worst air pollution in the world due to raging forest and brush fires in California, Oregon and Eastern Washington (previous years also in British Columbia), dwarfing the regularly unbreathable air in Beijing or Delhi, Mexico City or Los Angeles. (A good many of these fires are arson, compounding absolute evil intent onto the evil of neglect and forest exploitation.)

We are leaving a year where none of our presumptions have worked, and still in the throes of this virus, and we have no idea if we’re nearing the end or if it’s just gathering momentum; we’re looking into the new year without much of an anchor of security. Sitting in shul, half-asleep, is not an available option this year, nor is crying our hearts out to our Creator in the midst of communal prayer since, for the most part, through much of the world, our synagogues are closed up.

There’s no need for shyness since no one will overhear our prayers or our confessions. No one will be able to betray our deepest shames, so, perhaps for the first time, we can face our portions of responsibility, since every non-perfect human action contributes to these and many more problems.

Let me say that I detest non-committal, lukewarm, new-age spirituality, and have no patience with phrases/concepts like “missing the mark”, “not doing my best” and the like. If you indeed, merely “missed the mark” or didn’t do your utmost, please take a seat with the Tzaddim Gamorim, the completely righteous, and let the rest of us get on with our task of trying to repair (the root concept of the too-popular word tikkun as in tikkun olam, which means much more than adopting politically correct stances) the damage we and others have done this time around the sun.

We begin, based on the principles of Rambam’s Hilchot Tsuvah, Laws of Returning, by admitting our sins first to ourselves, taking full responsibility not just for the deed itself, but for the damage it caused. We might as well drill into our deepest wells of secret guilt, since nothing is hidden from The Holy One, and in this year of isolation, there’s no one nearby to embarrass us. Rather, we can embrace the embarrassment, begin with our full blushing to burn these sins from our souls (as we learn in the Introduction to Tikkunei HaZohar, 5b) (Although this internal process later became distorted into non-Jewish ideas of hellfire and eternal damnation, remember that it is a very precious and effective way to be able to even navigate a lifetime’s damage in order to begin to correct and repair it. It’s something to embrace (but definitely not to obsess over)–once you’ve done this work, burned away this level through regret and embarrassment, you need to move on to actually and matierally fixing things as best you can and not to perversely wallow in “delicious guilt”.)

One need next make public amends. This isn’t limited to asking forgiveness from the one(s) you harmed–how easy it would be if that were it….), but also to assess the damage, to do what you can physically, emotionally and also financially (usualy indirectly through Tzdaka, which has the additional value of not only contributing to the relief of the original and generated damage, but also introducing a spirit of selfless giving into the situation).

Hopefully, one has learned the lesson and will know to take another path, make another choice, if faced with a similar situation and temptation in the future. Continuing the acknowledgement process, one needs to resolve, out loud, to not sin again. But we only know if the process was successful if, when faced with the same choices, one resists the path that caused so much pain and damage. Likely, one will only partially succeed here, and will need to re-enter the process next year and the next, but not as a beginner with a full load of sin, but, hopefully, as one who is in the process of mastering the techniques of Tshuvah.

While none of this really sounds so easy, it’s a lot easier in a situation where we don’t feel under the public microscope. Under the Divine Microscope, perhaps is a totally different thing since among the dominant qualities of God that we do know about is Rachamim and Chesed, Mercy and Love. God, unlike man who, at least to a small part for the most virtuous of us, who feels at least a little competitive advantage when someone else fails, receives only happiness, nachasnachat ruach, a restful satisfaction and happiness that should be familiar to all of us who have been blessed to be parents when we see our children succeed.

Of course, none of us is going to “hit one-thousand”, in baseball terms, but to the degree that we can, let’s leave the wrecks of 5780/2020 behind without embarrassment over being observed at our process, without the usual pleasant distractions of friends and family and communal prayer and feasting.

Hopefully we won’t have this kind of opportunity next year.

Ken yehi Ratzon, May it be his will.

Ketiva v’Chatima Tova, may everyone be written and sealed only for good.

About the Author
After almost 30 years, Harry Zeitlin returned home to Jerusalem! Growing up in Denver, CO, he began Torah studies at an early age. He also had the privilege of knowing and studying with Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt"l. He graduated from Yale College (BA 1974) with an independent degree in communications, theory-and-practice, focusing on filmmaking and linguistics. Harry had a 45+ year career as a professional artist (photography, to which he is just now returning!) and has played guitar for more than 50 years, in addition to his 30+ years as an orthodox rabbi teaching Torah across the denominational spectrum. He lived in Israel from 1982 - 1989 and returned in 2016. I'M BACK! Grateful every day! Follow his spiritual adventures. He is always available to speak, teach, present a Shabbaton or other workshop. ......or to serenade your group with his guitar.
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