Frederick L. Klein

Repentance and Revolution: A Teaching for Rosh Hashanah

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Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the period known as the Aseret Yemei Hateshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance.  Given that another name for the holiday is Yom Hadin, the day of judgement, it isn’t surprising.   I’d like to be open and share with you a particular tension I feel these days.  Mainly, there are times in my life when I feel motivated, that ‘this will be the year’, and then there are other times in which a chasm is created between the words coming out of my mouth and the things I feel.  Perhaps you can relate as well.

I often go to yoga, and when it’s not painful trying to get myself into impossible poses, I find it peaceful and meditative. Generally, the instructor cites mantras which express the core of much of modern spirituality.  We are to express radical self-love and acceptance, to embrace all that we feel, and to banish the voices of judgement and negativity that may cloud our authentic expressions of self.  Perhaps for many of us, this is the only time we hear such affirmative things, and I am sure many want and need to hear it.  It feels good to know, “You are essentially good.”  As I leave my yoga, my instructor reminds us to ‘ground’ our ‘practice’ in some ‘intention’ which is left undefined for each person.  The Divine in me honors the Divine in you.  Namaste.

Then I enter Rosh Hashanah services.  As the ark is opened, the congregation recites Psalm 24.  “Who may ascend the mountain of God? Who may stand in [God’s] holy place?  One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully.” Have I had clean hands?  Do I have a pure altruistic heart?  Have I acted in my self-interest at the expense of others?   It seems the Psalmist, and a lot of the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah wants to ‘ground’ my prayer ‘practice’ with clear and unambiguous ‘intentions’.  I am to walk away with questions as to whether my daily life is a practice in which I have the right to stand before God.  In other words, am I as good as I say I am?  Somehow, this does not seem like a Namaste moment.

What is the correct psychological approach to the entire repentance process, this Rosh Hashanah season?  Should we come into these days excited by pregnant potential, seeing within us emergent possibilities that we have left unexpressed in this world?  Are we essentially good people with good intentions and want to grow.   Ivdu et Hashem B’Simchah. B’ou lefanav Birnanah.  Serve God in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy (Psalm 110:2).  Alternatively, should we enter these days with dread and fear, knowing that we are on trial?   Ivdu et Hashem B’yirah, v’gilu b’rada. Serve God in awe; tremble with fright! (Psalm 2:11) In Hebrew it is abundantly clear that these two verses are in dialogue with one another.[1]  Perhaps this dialectical tension is purposeful, underlying two approaches as to how we might look and ourselves, and two dimensions how we engage in the teshuvah (repentance) process.

To explore these two dimensions, we can consider the interesting legal debate about a stolen beam which is used to build a home (B.T. Gittin 55a). The thief has remorse and now decides he would like to do teshuvah.  Part of that process is returning that which is stolen.  Does the penitent therefore need to disassemble the entire building? Jewish law rules that prima facie the answer is yes, if the object still exists.[2]  Yet, the academy of Beit Hillel argues that we may be lenient, and we need to only pay back the monetary value of the beam.  The reason is because of what Beit Hillel calls the takkanat Hashavim, the ‘decree for penitents.’  As a society we want to encourage good behavior, and if we were to obligate the penitent to tear the structure down, it is very likely the person would not engage in the process of teshuvah in the first place, given the financial and practical burdens that would entail.  In essence, halakha considers the exigencies of human existence.  People aren’t going to destroy the whole structure for something as insignificant as a beam.

This house with a stolen beam can be seen as a metaphor for our lives. Often, we like to see ourselves as essentially good, with various things we must improve upon. We are indeed imperfect beings, limited at times by our self-interest to do selfish things like stealing from another; we might have a rotten beam in our emotional, family, or spiritual life. We do want to grow, but if that growth threatens the very contours of how we understand who we are and what we are about in this world, we may avoid any inner work.  Just as we are lenient on returning the beam, we should be lenient on ourselves as well.  Change is rarely sudden and revolutionary, but gradual.  Takkanat HaShavim teaches that each step along the way is important and significant.  We cannot reshape the discretions and mistakes of the past, but we can build a better future.  We can worship in joy, knowing God sees all the good we do and our efforts, and that the world is better because we live in it.  Whatever our failures, we can hear the sound of the shofar as reflective of a deeper hidden reality of our lives, still whole and pure, waiting to be realized.[3]

However, there is another opinion in the question of the stolen beam.  Granted, if one beam is stolen, perhaps we can let that go.  But what if there are two beams, or three beams?  Let’s say the beam in question is the central column of the entire structure?  Furthermore, perhaps through our very leniency we are actually encouraging bad behavior.  Perhaps it is not enough to just ‘fix’ this one beam and pay restitution; teshuvah is the process in which we identify that (rotten) part of ourselves which motivated us to do injustice in the first place.  Should we be more concerned about the rehabilitation of the transgressor, or the justice demanded by the victim?[4]  Our misdeeds are not the true issues, but rather the values and attitudes which form the contours of our personality.  We all have them. Some are inherited from our families and relationships, some are ingrained in our personality from our surrounding environments and our collective history, and some are even genetic. The academy of Beit Shammai, unlike Beit Hillel, argues that in fact one must tear the entire structure down, beam by beam.  Anything less is performative teshuvah, but not authentic.[5]  Radical self-assessment and honesty is something which is extremely difficult and emotionally demanding.  Approaching God with these expectations can indeed create pitched anxiety, and we ‘approach God in trembling’.

If Beit Hillel looks at teshuva as a gradual process of development and rectification, Beit Shammai looks at teshuva as an inner revolution.  While in Jewish law we rule like Beit Hillel regarding the stolen beam, we do not reject the world view which informs Beit Shammai.  Jewish tradition gives voice to both views.  On the one hand, we look backwards, focused on our misdeeds and transgressions.  We regret them, make amends, and commit ourselves not to repeat what we have done.  Even if we aren’t ready for radical transformation, we are at least cognizant of our misdeeds, a level that many never admit in the first place.

However, there is a higher level of teshuvah, and it is grounded in a future looking sense of the self.  We may be ultimately holy and good people, but only in potential.  We must destroy those parts of ourselves which prevent us from being who we want to be.  To do this is to engage in not merely a process of what we have done wrong in the past year, but why we do wrong in the first place. 

Rosh Hashanah is an ideal time to engage in this work.  Rosh Hashanah according to tradition is the day in which humanity was created; this is not a scientific idea but rather a spiritual one.  On Rosh Hashanah the human being is created in the image of God.  Whatever happens after that may cause us to forget our true purpose, but an inkling of that higher holy sense of self always remains.  The goal of these days (and our lives) is to identify with a higher sense of self and disassemble everything else which gets in our way.  We want to be who God intended us to be.  Maimonides describes this state in the following terms:[6]

One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it.  This is a very high level which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our patriarch, Abraham, whom God described as, “he who loved Me,” for his service was only motivated by love.

This is a person who is drawn to good because goodness is at the very core.  The object of the individual’s desire in life is not money, or recognition, or fame or any of the other things that motivate human action.  This person only has one love- God and the Torah- and from that everything else flows. The Ba’al Shem Tov gives a metaphor of an officer who stands before the king, with the object of his desire standing right before him, yet he has no feelings for her at that moment.  He is overpowered by the presence of the king.  (Keter Shem Tov 2:390-391).

When we speak about this level of teshuvah, we are not only speaking about individuals but also societies.  Just as there can be this internal revolution of self, the Torah promises that ultimately redemption will come when societies place God in the center, a collective revolution.  In other words, teshuvah (repentance) is directly related to the redemption for Israel and ultimately the world.  The medieval commentator Nachmanides describes the messianic age following collective teshuvah, in which God will ‘circumcise the peoples’ hearts’ (Deut. 30:6).  The removal of the foreskin is a metaphor for the removal of those things which block us as societies from being just and good. “Their [genuine] good will be natural; the heart will not desire the improper and it will have no craving whatever for it. This is the “circumcision” mentioned here, for lust and desire are the “foreskin” of the heart, and circumcision of the heart means that it will not covet or desire evil.”

We live in times of great uncertainty- economic injustice, climate change, homelessness, immigration, and rampant violence.   It is important to address these issues, without the illusions that societies will magically change.   We understand that societies profess one thing and often act in ways that are not in alignment with their professed values; change often is incremental.  Yet at the same time change does not necessarily happen in ‘due time’.   To quote The Rev. Martin Luther King’s response to those who questioned the timing and strategies of non-violent civil disobedience, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”[7]  What are the destructive communal values which need to be disassembled in 5784, and how will we effect the changes necessary?  Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of judgement not only for us as individuals, but societies.  We cannot escape the fact that we are ensconced in networks of relationships and will float or sink together.

This year let’s go into these days with joy, confident that indeed we are worthy individuals who want to grow and improve. We can take the words of Nehemiah to heart, as the people came back to the Land of Israel following the first exile.  Upon hearing the Torah read during a ceremony on Rosh Hashanah, they began to cry with remorse.  He encouraged them. “Go, eat choice foods, and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in God is the source of your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  We should not engage in self-loathing, but healthy introspection.  At the very same time, let’s try to awaken to the sound of the shofar, to see the areas in our personal, communal, and national lives which really need uprooting and to begin to work on this as well.

Wishing all a shanah tova.  May we be inscribed with an enlarged life for ourselves and our communities.

[1] See for example Yalkut Shimoni 247: Midrash Tehilim (Buber), Psalm 100

[2] See e.g., Maim. hilhot gezelah va’aveidah 1:5

[3] My reading of the short homily of the Sefat Emet, 5633 based upon Shemot Rabbah 27.

[4] The implications of this debate in social policy debates are beyond this essay but are worthy of discussion.  For one, this debate is very relevant to addressing the inequalities born out of the legacy of slavery and race.

[5] The Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berzovsky, in one of his teshuva homilies, also looks at the human being in terms of a structure. (#9) A person may build a palace on an unstable foundation, and subsequently will find cracks in the structure.  Money will need to be poured into the structure with little to no utility, for the cracks will appear again, a symptom of the unstable foundations.  Ultimately, the individual will need destroy the entire edifice, strengthen the foundations, and rebuild.  Similarly, teshuvah demands that we ultimately uproot the foundations.  Using very strong language taken from Deuteronomy 29:17, he states that the true baal teshuvah, the one who masters the art of repentance, rips out the ‘roots sprouting poison weed and wormwood.” My thanks to Rabbi Shai Held for directing me to this text in conversation several years ago.

[6] See Hilkhot Teshuva of Maimonides for a description of this level of Teshuva, what he calls Teshuva Me’Ahavah, repentance from love.

[7] Letter from A Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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