Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, and Teshuvah: Must We Always Forgive?

Jews take collective responsibility for the moral targets that get missed in life. At least ten days before Rosh HaShannah prayers called Selihot are added where, having empathy for ourselves as only human, we admit personal and collective ownership of the full range of problematic human behaviors:

ashamnu
We are guilty (spiritually desolate and distant from our higher selves)

bagadnu
We have betrayed (our loved ones, the community, the planet)

gazalnu
We have stolen
(eaten without giving thanks, taken away the privacy and dignity of others)

dibarnu dofi
We have spoken slander
(speaking behind others’ backs, discrediting them)

The Ashamnu prayer continues in this manner. A congregant of mine once protested this, saying he lives such a careful life, why should he recite lines of wrong-doings that do not apply to him? In the words of Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, "In a democratic society, not all are guilty, but indeed all are responsible."

For example, think about environmentalism. There is a dynamic between the one paper cup of yours that gets into the trash container and all the ones tossed to the ground by the person in front of you. Once awareness of the impact of environmentally irresponsible practices knocks on a heart, a desire for collective responsibility often begins. Judaism looks at this world much like a glorious national park, the underlying intention is to enjoy thoroughly while treading with great respect and appreciation for the privilege of being here.

On Yom Kippur the passion of knowing yourself and acknowledging missteps intensifies. Though people tend to think of confession as more of a Christian practice, it has long been part of Judaism, though the precise nature of it is different. Viduii, "confessional" prayers do not denote each error as an aveyrah, "sin," but rather as a heyt, an archery term meaning "a missed mark." Judaism understands you to be constantly developing and capable of changing your trajectory. Jewish spiritual practices encourage you to take moral targets seriously and work to better approximate them each day, because the consequences of your intentions, words, works and actions are like the proverbial pebble yielding endless ripples in the life of your communities of influence.

Make a fist with one hand.
Use it to softly knock on the door to your heart,
while reciting the moral targets you
and other humans likely missed this year.

"Al heyt shehatahnu l’faneha"
regarding the mark WE have missed...

You are not alone in facing this hard part of being human.
Look around you in synagogue,
we are all culpable, interdependent, struggling.

We all can evolve, we all can change. One of the high holiday season metaphors is to reflect and pray as though these are the last days of your life. For some there is a sense of urgency for understanding and change to set in, and they will penitentially thump themselves over the heart with a closed fist. The Kotsker rebbe suggested a gentle massage over the heart area during the powerful confessional litanies. For a new year to be even more full of life than the previous year, there is so much to grasp from the days you have already lived.

Everywhere a Jew is praying, we are re-remembering together the human obligation to be custodians of the earth, of ethics and of peace. Yes, we are culpable if we stand by idly and don’t intervene when we see someone fall off their mark. And, you don’t have to do it all on your own, we have each other on the team. Judaism views humans as team members in the great research and development project known as creation. This project began long before you emerged and hopefully will continue long after you depart. In Pirkei Avot, "Ethics of the Fathers, " our sages had a way of phrasing this: "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task; nor are you free to desist from it."

Missing the Mark

In every generation the prayers and practices of Judaism are updated to include the times in which our lives are embedded. Here is a current example, each line was written by a different member of Temple Beth El of Hammonton, New Jersey during a workshop we did together, "Immersing Ourselves in the Emotions of the High Holidays."

Al heyt shehatahnu l’fanehah For the mark we have missed before You:

By neglecting the trees,

By coming home too late from work each day,

By keeping silent in the face of evil,

By spending more on excess possessions than helping others,

By not listening to our children,

By working on Shabbat instead of resting with family,

By not sufficiently visiting or calling our parents.

1. During Elul, sit down with your congregation, study group or family. Provide copies of Al Heyt littany from a traditional mahzor, "high holiday prayerbook," as a model for study.

2. Ask those present to compose an original list of the marks missed they feel most keenly about this year. These include traditional verses, as well as new ones. Then go around and have each person share one of their own. Keep a master list on a big board or sheet in front of the group. Continue going around until the group feels satisfied that it is a complete list for this moment in time.

3. Recite the list together, while tapping on the door to your hearts. Take note of the refrain for the traditional al heyt prayer and perhaps chant it between couplets of verses of the selihot you write together. Some of our missteps need help at the Source, and it’s traditional feel and language express this poignancy:

v’al kulam, Elohai s’li-hot, slah lah-nu, m’hal lah-nu, kah-pehr lah-nu

For all of these, G*d of forgiveness, excuse us, pardon us, atone towards us.

[Note: Atone = at one, be at one with us.]

4. Save the list and distribute at Yom Kippur for congregants to recite in addition to the traditional al heyt. Each year, your communities of reference can gather in Elul to fine tune the awareness of what is knocking on your collective hearts. Think about how you, yourself, as well as communal social action committees, might follow up with programs to address newly emerging issues.

Forgiveness Practice

To address a missed mark, a misstep, a heyt, there is a Jewish process for realignment of your life. This process is called teshuvah, which comes from the root word shuv, "turn." The goal of teshuvah practice is to create a healthy shift in the negative energy between you and an experience, a person or the Source of Life. Judaism does not offer a doctrine of unconditional forgiveness from G*d. Any hurt you have dealt another human being can only be forgiven through working it through with that person.

Judaism does require difficult interpersonal work, that is our route to transformation. There are mistakes you may have made at one time or another that evoke feelings of great dismay at yourself and shame. There are also many unforgivable acts which can befall a person. There are indeed people into whose presence it may be utterly unsafe to place yourself. It is still possible to begin a process which transforms the power of large and small events to continue to hold sway over you and others. Sometimes you will do this with other people, and sometimes, because they are deceased or dangerous to you in their absence.

Becoming adept at teshuvah is to attain one of the greatest of the Jewish life skills. You will be able to walk across a room and avoid fewer people, committees can be formed engaging your talents with others, family gatherings will become more whole. Teshuvah is a process for turning a new face toward a situation and moving a gradual process of engaged healing into place. Let’s begin with the case of someone it is, at least in theory, possible to approach. It helps to have a formula that becomes comfortable on your lips:

"Sandra? This is Reb Goldie. I feel there is some negative energy between us. I’d love to listen to your point of view about what has happened. I promise not to respond defensively, to really just listen and learn. If you would be open to it, I’d like us to start a process that might lead to a better relationship between us. This is too important to get into on the telephone; would you be open to setting a date for a meeting?"

Instead of triggering fears of abandonment, asking for a teshuvah session shows that you are wanting to repair and not destroy the relationship. It is an indication of commitment. Do not assume when asking someone to engage in this practice with you that s/he will agree to it, or be emotionally available to do so. Just asking the question begins the process, even if you don’t meet in person. The question has been planted as a possibility that will evolve in that person. You will have engaged in a sacred first step and done your best.