Meir Feldman
Founder Project 97b

The day after hanukkah: Everything but teshuva . . .

“Israel will be redeemed if we do teshuvah. If we do not, we will not be redeemed,” says Rabbi Eliezer, Sanhedrin 97b. Whatever נגאלין, redemption is, all agree that it is a great thing. We dearly long to get there and, in theory, we are obligated to work hard to do so.   

Hanukkah has just ended. Throughout the holiday, so much was written about the history of the Maccabees and how that history should inform the politics of today in Israel. So many rightly see Hanukkah as a story of courage and inspiration and others wisely read it as a story of monumental warning. However, the one subject, concept, word that failed to inspire any reflection was – teshuva. Not one teaching/editorial throughout the holiday focused on Hanukkah and teshuva.

Wasn’t there enormous teshuva for all Jews to do – both the Maccabees and the Hellenized Jews? As Rabbi Steve Moscowitz wrote, “The [Maccabees’] passion ignited Hanukkah’s fires, but then their zealousness consumed them.” And wasn’t there critically important teshuva to be done by the Hellenized, secularizing Jews?

Our parshiyot throughout Hanukkah are always about Joseph’s life, about the flames and fires of family breakdown. Surely the brothers owe an enormous debt of teshuva to Joseph. Clearly, Yosef owes a serious debt of teshuva to his brothers, as well.

And not only Yosef and his brothers – so too, father Jacob. Here’s what Shabbat 10a teaches:

“A person/father should never distinguish one of his sons from among the other sons by giving him preferential treatment. For, due to the weight of two sela of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph, beyond what he gave the rest of his sons, in making him the striped coat, his brothers became jealous of him, and the matter unfolded and our forefathers descended to Egypt” (Shabbat 10). 

Teshuva is that holy, redemptive courage to speak about MY role in a present, on-going crisis, challenge, heart-break. In every personal and communal problem, there is teshuva for me, for my side to do. Teshuva is never spreading blame, striving to pin responsibility on another. That’s the opposite of teshuva. And, for all of us who seek (and self-centeredly) demand the teshuva of others, we very well know that our own teshuva can go a long way in inspiring the teshuva of another.  

Three times every day we offer a blessing about teshuva – הרוצה בתשובה, and then forgiveness המרבה לסלוח. Maybe that’s because our teshuva, the teshuva that I do, can inspire the other person’s ability to let go – lislo’akh, to forgive. How extraordinary that this ancient liturgy is so profoundly relevant to our daily lives, in every one of our homes.

There are stunning contemporary stories that prove this point as well. A handful of former neo-Nazi, skinhead, white nationalist antisemites, racists, haters have openly talked and written about their journey from pure hate to a profound repentance, forgiveness and love. In every case, the defining feature of that journey was the same thing. We Jews call it — teshuva. Blacks and Jews and people whose sexuality triggered hate, each did their version of teshuva and thereby inspired transformation in their haters. Rather than spewing hate, rage, violence or judgment, these innocent victims of hate, responded with compassion, kindness, and great generosity. That’s how modest individuals transformed hate into hope.  (Three books for starters, see The ChoiceRising Out of Hatred, The Gift of Our Wounds). Again, for us Jews, that is teshuva. That is the secret weapon, the one technology/ingredient powerful enough to bring redemption. And every one of us is מצובה, commanded to bring it.  

Sadly, most of us, most of the time, and justifiably so, heap judgment after judgment upon people we fear and condemn. We do that rather than dig deep for the teshuva that is our’s to do. What shocked these vile haters and inspired them to repent and turn back to humanity, to God and to goodness was the chesed, the acts of love and generosity that they received. Acts of teshuva (compassion, kindness, generosity) from total strangers are what redeemed antisemites and racists from their hate.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Rabbi Eliezer agrees. Every single one of us is responsible for the deep work of teshuva that we are called to do. 

I’m thinking about Rabbi Eliezer on 97b and a past life of mine, way back in the 1980’s. I was a federal prosecutor. Years before I began my journey toward a deep Jewish life and eventually here, to Jerusalem, I was a קטגור – an Assistant United States Attorney.  The role of criminal laws, enforced by prosecutors, is to ensure accountability. But that is radically different from teshuva. Prosecutors force an external accountability. Teshuva is a personal responsibility. It is internal, it comes from within. Teshuva is the choice to accept my role in a crisis and to not focus my attention on the failures of others. Rabbi Eliezer surely knew about the work of קטגורים-the kategor-prosecutor. It’s striking that he did not make Jewish redemption dependent on the justice gained by prosecutors, but by the redemption achieved through teshuva.

Our ‘news/editorial sources’ devote 98% of their proverbial ink to critiques of others, to blaming and condemning others. What a shame that not a single commentary published this Hanukkah directed us to any serious reflection on the teshuva that the I, that my group, my team, is called, I dare say, commanded to do. Rabbi Eliezer (Project 97b) imagines an Israel organized around the ethic (the mitzvah) of teshuva. This is the project that Rabbi Eliezer recommends to every learned, inspiring, influential rabbi and Jewish teacher.  

Imagine a Jewish state, in which teshuva is the defining moment of every misdeed committed. Imagine Prime Ministers modeling teshuva, doing it themselves.  Imagine rabbis who make serious mistakes teaching us all, through their own words and works of teshuva. Imagine public, beloved figures who sexually abuse others, taking the work of teshuva upon their shoulders. Think of the personal and national healing that can take place. Imagine a Jewish state in which every holiday inspires us to claim and embrace the teshuva that is distinctly ours to do. 

To that end, look here in the coming weeks, for the ways that teshuva relates to every one of our holidays – obviously not just Hanukkah. All of our holidays are about the lights of teshuva. We all know it, or should, that our shabbat lights every week have much to say about teshuva as well. 

As we say goodbye to Hanukkah, we’ll begin to welcome, to prepare for Asara B’Tevet (10th of Tevet) and Tu B’Shvet (15th of Shevet). G-d willing, we’ll inspire lots of writings about the teshuva of both. Consider writing and sharing your own teshuva story. Don’t underestimate the power of one story to influence others.

About the Author
One of the most profound and inspiring experiences of my life was attending the Wednesday night Bible Study class at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That was July 1, 2015, just 2 weeks after the tragic and horrific murder of the Charleston 9. The pain and faith, the heartbreak and hope of the grieving family members we met (and hold as dear friends to this day) was one of the most uplifting religious experiences of my life. Alongside Rabbi Tara Feldman, I served as a congregational rabbi for over 20 years, including the last 13 years at our beloved Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York. There were so many highs throughout those years -- one of them was to bring 8 amazing sisters of Myra Thompson to Great Neck. What I now know is that for many years as a law student and attorney, long before my rabbinical journey, I yearned for a different sense of meaning and purpose. That was what I discovered in my second mountain, in my steep and beautiful climb into a passionate Jewish life (taking a term from David Brooks). And now, having made aliyah with my wife and children, I think that I am experiencing the blessing of a third mountain. That is what Israel, Jerusalem and Project 97b feel like – yet another inspiring and deeply challenging ascent to a beautiful and unattainable peak.
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