Here is how I originally started my column: “Repentance is one of the greatest and most gracious of Judaism’s gifts to its faithful.
In the alphabetized confession – in both the long and short versions in the prayer books – we admit to an astounding row of sins. Some of them we have never committed. But we confess...
just in case, and we repent having done them.”
I then continued: “Here are some sins that I will not repent, for which I feel no compunction.”
Then I began listing instances of immoral behavior I could never forgive.
The list was incomplete and the night’s dreams made it worse. It was the second night in a row that I simply could not sleep through to morning.
I’d wake up in the wee hours, shaken by shock, by the inconceivable acts and words, the ignorance, the stupidity and the racist incitement.... Anger tossed me out of bed. Disgust dripped from my writing fingers.
Venom soured my soul.
Many readers may guess the triggers for this poison.
That was what I originally began to write and what drove my pen. But....
But then came the second thought. The main characteristic of the sins I began listing was hypocrisy. Of course some of these sinners were indeed ignorant, and some were quite stupid, in fact. But being ignorant is not a sin, is it? Or maybe it is when you try to impose your ignorance upon others. And stupid – well stupid is forever.
I did not get to other sins people commit: egregious love of and pursuit of money, relentless search for power, endless misleading of the public – or in plain English – mendacity, lying. (I have always been impressed by the Hebrew of the “Ashamnu” confession: not only does it say ”we have sinned,” but “we have made others sin.”} Then the third thought came to me. Am I not being guilty of the sin of self-righteousness? Am I as pure as driven snow, and “they” covered in scarlet sins? “Rebuke yourself,” the Talmud tells us, “before you rebuke others.”
And then the final thought.
These words will appear just a few days before Rosh Hashanah.
Why share words of anger with my readers? Those who agree with me are already convinced.
Those who usually disagree and still read the column have their own convictions. As we prepare ourselves for self-examination, which might just move us to improve our behavior, why distract good people with negative words.
I think it was the beauty of the liturgy that changed my mind.
Whether we believe literally, figuratively, or not at all, the liturgy contains verses lovingly written that speak to our depths.
In the Sefardi, Mediterranean and Eastern synagogues, and in many Conservative congregations, the opening prayer of the New Year’s service is a poem written in Gerona, Spain seven hundred years ago. Its first words are “little sister.” The poet, Avraham Hazzan Gerondi, opens by describing the travails of “little sister,” the Jewish people. In the refrain at the end of each verse, he uses the Talmudic expression “May the curses of the past year end.” In Hebrew, just three words.
Only the last verse has a different refrain. Hazzan closes with three other Hebrew words, which mean “Let the year with its blessings begin.”
So, dear reader, though I will not repent of the “sin” of not forgiving those who are so immoral, at least I did not burden you by enumerating them! This Rosh Hashanah will anyway be a struggle between what we see and what we hope for. The world is such a brewing cauldron, with so many deaths and so much suffering, it is very hard to be optimistic. Yes, today is a cauldron, but tomorrow – some tomorrow -- we hope that through the steamy fog rising from the tortured earth – we will see a happier future.
Will that happen? These matters are beyond our control. All we can do is to battle the evil in ourselves, admit that prayer-book list of sins, and repent.
The English word ‘repentance’ is pallid compared to the Hebrew word “teshuvah.”
Repentance means to be sorry for doing something, and it hints that we won’t backslide and repeat the bad, the evil deed. Teshuvah came to mean that as well, but each language has its roots and associations, and in our case, Biblical and later resonances.
The root meaning of teshuvah is to return. En route, (as it came to mean), you shed the evil you have done by confessing your sin. In plain language, first admit to yourself the wrong you have done another person, and try to make up for it; turn away from the bad in you. and return to your restored good self.
We do this, and almost inevitably, we slip and we backslide.
And every year we confess and maybe do a bit better, or maybe not, but we are trying to “return” to the good within us.
What the future holds we do not know.
One thing I know, I learn from my ancestors, from my parents: to turn away from inflicting hurt and pain on others. This turning and returning in effect relieves us of guilt, and restores hope to our souls....
May the New Year bring its blessings! Avraham Avi-hai is a Jerusalemite whose career includes journalism, government service and leadership on the world Jewish scene.
Completing a cycle which began over 60 years ago as a reporter on this newspaper, he now writes The POSTman Knocks Twice column.
Comments and criticism welcome at email@example.com.