Posts Tagged ‘Repentance’


There’s so much to write about, I had difficulty deciding on a topic. So I settled on something seemingly absurd but quite profound.

No, not the House’s impeachment inquiry (now, associates of Rudy Giuliani have been arrested). Or Trump’s throwing the Syrian Kurds under the bus—abandoning allies who helped dismantle ISIS’ “caliphate” and leaving Turkey to attack them. And threatening to dismantle Turkey’s economy.

I could ask—and answer—why members of Congress, sworn to uphold the Constitution, oppose it by supporting Trump. Although they might not agree with his Monday statement re the Kurds and Turkey self-praising his “great and unmatched wisdom.” Yes, he said that.

Instead, let me tell you about the herd of llamas—woolly Andean pack animals—living inside my head. And no, don’t call professional help to get me through some sort of breakdown. It’s simple. Really.

In March 2018, I posted “My New Favorite Word.” I focused on the Hebrew word lamah (LA-ma), which means why. Biblically, lamah often is short for l’mah yeud?—to what purpose? In essence, why would you do that?

The word moved me to consider what I’d gain if I dwelled on all the wrong and foolish things I’ve done in my life. All the things I regret. I’d already acknowledged them, often decades ago. Why torture myself, since I’ve tried to correct my behavior and apply what I learned to present and future actions?

Yet forgetting the wrongs we’ve done can lead us to abandon a sense of moral vigilance. That’s dangerous.

So, I came up with a visualization technique. My llamas enable me to remember past misdeeds but not get hung up on those transgressions and stupidities by stashing them in a special place in my mind. I’m guilty of compartmentalizing my emotions, something for which men frequently are assailed, but I claim extenuating circumstances.

After all, when I remind myself of something regrettable from the past—distant or recent—I ask myself, lamah? For what purpose should I rake myself over the coals? Depress myself? So I transform the misdeed into a llama and place it on a distant green hillside beneath a crystalline blue sky. It stands there among a vast herd of llamas occupying dozens of hillsides. They graze. They stare at me. Sometimes they spit in my direction. But they’re too far away to hurt me.

For sure, I acknowledge each and every llama, because they remind me that I can do better while lifting paralyzing guilt off my shoulders. Remember, they’re beasts of burden.

Last Tuesday evening and Wednesday, my llamas accompanied me to Yom Kippur services. On Yom Kippur, Jews recite the Vidui—a group confession. We acknowledge a great many sins. Individually, each of us may have committed only one or two. As a people of nearly 15 million, we’ve committed all, and we’re responsible, each for the other. Judaism is a highly communal religion.

My llamas enabled me to skip torturing myself with the past, as I used to, and focus on the future. How can I do better—not by repressing guilt but by bearing mine with a certain lightness? My llamas offered me comfort and hope that I’ll be a better person in 5780. And the best part: I can take them anywhere.

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Harvard University recently rejected a Ph.D. candidate in history despite impressive credentials. Michelle Jones’ case should move us to examine the biblical book of Jonah.

Jones, 45 and a child victim of abuse, served more than 20 years for murdering her four-year-old son. A horrible crime? Absolutely. Yet in prison, she earned a B.A. from Ball State and led an award-winning research project for the Indiana Historical Society. Harvard’s history program accepted her, but the school’s administration overturned the decision fearing backlash from rejected applicants. At least some Harvard administrators hold the concept of repentance at arm’s length.

With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning next Friday evening, practicing Jews focus on repentance. During Rosh Hashanah (the New Year; it’s 5778) and the ten days following, we seek forgiveness—individually and communally—for sins committed against God. (For wrongs against people, only those hurt can grant forgiveness.) We pray for God’s mercy. But are we willing to forgive others who repent?

Note that Judaism doesn’t instruct victims to turn the other cheek and offer blanket forgiveness. That lets wrongdoers off the hook. Rather, a wrongdoer must ask for forgiveness. If after being asked three times the injured person refuses to forgive, the offender no longer remains obligated to make further petitions.

Understand, too, that it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.” The philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) instructs that repentance involves three phases—understanding the wrong committed, vowing not to repeat it then not doing it. Words must lead to action.

Granted, it can be difficult to forgive those who have wronged us. This conundrum marks the biblical book of Jonah, a traditional Yom Kippur reading. I’ll teach the text at Congregation Sherith Israel on Yom Kippur afternoon (1:15).

In brief, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and tell the people to repent. There’s an irony here. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered its “ten lost tribes.” Despite God’s command, Jonah sails west in the opposite direction to escape performing this task. He doesn’t want God to give the Ninevites the opportunity to repent.

After three days in the stomach of a dag gadol (a big fish, not a whale), Jonah learns a lesson. God commands. You do. Jonah goes to Nineveh and announces that God is giving the city 40 days to repent or be overturned.

The Ninevites, from the king down, repent—and mean it! Jonah is unhappy. He wants Nineveh destroyed and always feared God would forgive. God, however, prefers that humans repent and live righteously. Terrible deeds cannot be undone, but people can refashion themselves.

Jonah and Yom Kippur assert that the human heart possesses considerable elasticity. Not all bad or evil people will turn towards righteousness. Like the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, some have gone too far gone. But for most of us, the opportunity to repent endures.

But we cannot proclaim our worthiness to be forgiven while refusing to give others when they prove their merit. New York University got it. They accepted Jones. In doing so, NYU (my father’s alma mater) affirmed that Jonah, a small book, offers a big a lesson for the ages. Now go and study.

For more on Jonah, see my recap and commentary in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible (Amazon). May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.

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As should be obvious from last week’s post, “Rosh Hashanah, China and ISIS,” I like finding connections. So as the High Holy Days prepare to conclude, I offer some new ones. If they seem far-fetched, think about the complexity of human nature.

Let’s start with joggers. A few days ago, I was walking on Lake Street. A jogger was running east on the opposite sidewalk. A car also was heading east. At the corner, the jogger made a sudden left turn to cross the street at a pedestrian-protected intersection. The car approached but didn’t yield. The jogger came to a sudden stop and shook his fist.

From what I witnessed, the jogger made a misguided assumption that the driver would see him. As an avid walker and former runner as well as motorist, I know that’s foolish. Yes, all too many drivers are oblivious. At the same time, runners and pedestrians often pop out of virtually concealed positions at corners, sometimes mid-block, unaware that drivers often can’t see them. Does responsibility rest only with the other guy? What about common sense? As a long-ago New York City public service campaign once warned, “You could be right. Dead right.”

Which leads to Hisham Melhem, bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Last Saturday he wrote a risky article, “Who brought the Arabs to this nadir?” According to Melhem, Arabs—particularly intellectuals, activists and opinion makers—won’t come to grips with the terrible tragedies inflicting the Arab world until they assume the main responsibility for them. The Arabs must “own their problems.” Like the jogger, many—seemingly most—Arabs feel free to point fingers at America, Israel, Europe, Lady Gaga—but never at themselves.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, ties in perfectly. Jews, concluding ten days of soul-searching, must own our misdeeds to find forgiveness. Sins against God require repentance, so Jews will fill synagogues tonight and tomorrow. But prayer does not atone for sins against people. We must ask their forgiveness. And in all cases, we must not only recognize wrongdoing and vow not to repeat it—we must actually do what is right.

It’s hard for all of us to own our mistakes. Joggers, walkers, cyclists and motorists must understand that we all use the same streets and sidewalks. Our right to move where we want when we want must be placed in perspective. So too, the Arab world must learn to respect others. That also goes for the rest of us too often wrapped smugly inside borders, cultures and religions that define ourselves as good and anyone different as bad.

None of us is perfect. That, I believe, is the appeal of Yom Kippur to many Jews who otherwise never attend synagogue. At some level they seek a moral, even spiritual, accounting. They recognize the need to accept, if only for one day, that they as individuals are not the sole measure of the world.

In this New Year 5775, may we build new connections. In doing so, may we build the prospects for peace.

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Last January, I wrote about Michelle Holstein, who had battled cancer for ten years (“Laughing With Cancer”). She did so with courage, grace and humor. Regrettably, the Malach HaMavet—the Angel of Death—cannot be put off forever. Last Tuesday, Michelle died. She was fifty.

We all share the same sad stories. A cousin of mine died of leukemia at age twelve. A cousin’s brother-in-law succumbed to the same disease at nineteen. My fraternity brother Howie Schnabolk was killed in Vietnam at 25. A client died in a car crash at 27. Other friends and relatives also died too early.

How do we cope? We start by mourning. It’s important to face our sadness and our fears. Then we live. We love, care, thrill, discover and laugh—above all, laugh. Not just for ourselves but also for those we’ve lost.

Does heaven offer consolation? For many Christians and Muslims, yes. For Jews, not so much. The Torah mentions Sheol, the place where the dead go. It’s underground, but that’s all we know. What do the dead do there? The Torah doesn’t say.

Centuries after the Torah was written, the Rabbis absorbed concepts of heaven and hell from Christians. But Rabbinic Judaism offers diverse positions on the afterlife and remains light on specifics. Most Jews doubt there’s a place where the good sprout wings and play harps, and the bad suffer fiery torment.

Prominent is the Jewish practice of providing the dead with continuing life through memory. At the conclusion of each worship service, mourners mention the names of their departed and say the Kaddish prayer. (In Reform practice, the entire congregation joins with them.) Kaddish never mentions death. Rather, it praises God. Saying Kaddish acknowledges the Creator of life and enables us to deal with perhaps the most worrisome aspect of death—being forgotten

When I join with mourners then or at memorial services, I think of my father Morris and my mother Blanche. Also of my Aunt Anne and Uncle Moe Horowitz. I say their names on their yorzheits—the anniversaries of their deaths—before reciting Kaddish for them. I hope my children will say Kaddish for me.

Which brings me to my own death. I anticipate being around for some time. My health is great. But this July, I turn seventy. That’s the span of life enumerated in the 90th Psalm. This milestone has had me thinking about my accomplishments (few) and failures (many). I haven’t enjoyed the process, and I’ll make more of a celebration of reaching 70–1/2, the milestone past and my days less weighted with self-reflection.

I’ll also continue thinking about the Talmud’s (Shabbat 153a) guidance that we repent one day before our death. Since we never know when our last day will be, we should repent each day. Our lives may not be longer, but they’ll be better.

Death is inevitable. Memory is strong. Here’s to those who’ve gone before us, including the men and women who gave their lives for the United States. May we never forget them. And may we repent each day so that others will have no cause to forget us.

I’ll be taking off the next two weeks. A new post will appear on June 13.

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