Thinking About Penitence

I can hear you saying “what is this guy talking about?” After all, it’s two weeks before Shavuot, and penitence is a high holiday theme. Not yet, rabbi, not yet!!

All true, and I can assure you that I’m not any more anxious to think about the fall holidays than anyone else. But actually, penitence is a daily theme in Judaism. We ask for forgiveness and beat our breasts three times a day in our prayers, hoping that we can “do it better,” or more magically, “do it right.” Think of how many therapists would have to take down their shingles if people weren’t anxious to change!

Actually, what has made me focus in on this lately was the group bat-mitzvah ceremony of eighteen adult women in my synagogue last week. The age range was amazing- from twenty-somethings all the way to just about eighty years old! But all had one thing in common; they had never had a formal bat-mitzvah ritual, or studied for one,

And so it was that for the last two years, on almost every Monday evening, these women met with me, and with a Hebrew language instructor, to get to the point where they were deserving of the title of Bat-Mitzvah. It wasn’t just the age range that was amazing; experientially, they were from very different circumstances. Jew-by-choice, a Persian woman from a male-centered culture, women from homes where parents didn’t consider it important for a woman to “study Judaism,” so their brothers learned, but they didn’t… Many different paths had brought them all to the same place, and it was quite a moving event last Shabbat.

As I reflect on that these women accomplished, there is a common thread that goes beyond having successfully completed the program and celebrated the ritual. It is that they actually managed to accomplish real and substantive change in their lives. They saw a situation- a state of being- that made them feel less than whole with themselves and their community, they resolved to change it… and they did!

When it comes to real change, many if not most of us get to the second stage of that process. We perceive a situation that we are not happy with, and we resolve to change it. But it is relatively rare, at least with regard to the things that really matter, for us to really change. It could be about anything from living a healthier lifestyle to changing career tracks to reconciling with friends and family from whom we’ve become alienated. Our intentions are almost always good, but our resolve is not usually strong enough.

I think that’s what I’ve admired most about these women. They actually stuck with the program over a long period of time, and in so doing, created the kind of change in their lives that I believe will be genuinely transformative. It’s not that they did t’shuvah in the sense that we think of it on the High Holidays. I wasn’t training them to be ba’alei t’shuvah in the traditional sense of those words. But they did change their lives, and they will, for sure, be more knowledgeable and involved Jews.

As a rabbi and teacher, it just doesn’t get any better than that!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.