The possibility of change

‘Teshuva’ should be the foundation for the renewed Israeli-Palestinian discourse.

By DONNIEL HARTMAN
September 1, 2010 23:12
3 minute read.
yom kippur 88

yom kippur 88. (photo credit: )

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are not primarily about atonement and being forgiven for our sins. While that was the original intent in the Bible, the rabbinic tradition shifted the focus to the human responsibility to repent and change our behavior.

The possibility of teshuva is founded on a number of principles. The first is the belief that change is possible. Our tradition is not naive about human beings. It knows that perfection is impossible and failure endemic. At the same time, an implication of our belief in free choice is that no particular failure is inevitable, and that no particular failure is incapable of being overturned.

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Placing the focus on repentance is founded on a noble and ennobling vision of humankind as agents who are both responsible and, at the same time, always capable of self-transformation, and that the future is not predetermined. A second principle is that, unlike atonement which could be attained through someone else’s efforts, repentance is an individual responsibility that requires a focus exclusively on one’s own behavior.

To do that, one must free oneself of self-aggrandizement and self-righteousness.

As is the case every year, both as individuals and as a community, we have much to think about and much which needs improvement. We must take responsibility for what we have done and created in the past, and for what we must do to help shape our future. It will serve us well to bring this spirit and ideology not only to the synagogue but to our national political lives.

As we begin what may be our last effort at a political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is essential that we internalize our tradition’s belief in the possibility of change. The Palestinians have much to account for and much which is in need of significant change. However, it is critical that we not look at past behavior as predetermining future actions. It is time that we free ourselves from the traumas of the second intifada and the response to our unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. To believe that Palestinian society can never change is not only a self-fulfilling and destructive belief; it is also antithetical to the concept of teshuva. We must believe that nothing is inevitable, that no future is predetermined, and that people of goodwill can indeed both transform themselves and in so doing, transform the future.

IN THE classic confession of Yom Kippur, we chant the words ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu. We have done wrong; we have been unfaithful; we have taken that which is not ours.

Teshuva is all about taking responsibility for one’s own failures. It is not about giving an account of the others’ shortcomings. We do not say ashamta, bagadeta, gazalta.

You have done wrong...

We and the Palestinians alike can fill books with our perception of the others’ failures. In the spirit of our High Holy Days, let’s stop wasting our time. In our tradition, if there is a “blame game” to be played, it must only be self-blame.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as you go to Washington, my blessing to you is that you go as a Jew. I pray that you allow the spirit of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to define the attitude and spirit of the policies you represent. They must be about bringing back the belief in the possibility of a new and better future for us all. They must be about recognizing that attaining this future begins with giving an account of what we might have done to impede it and what we can do to help make it a reality.

They must be about recognizing that greatness is not achieved through atonement but by shaping one’s destiny through the difficult and noble path of teshuva.

The writer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.


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