RH 5779: Practicing Teshuvah
By Gordon Bernat-Kunin
I. Setting the stage: Questionable Teshuvah
A. After creating millions of fraudulent accounts on behalf of its clients and having been ﬁned over a billion dollars, Wells Fargo created a commercial in May, 2018 , entitled “Earning Back Your ” Here’s how Rolling Stone Magazine summarized it:
We know the value of trust. We were built on it. Back when the country went west for gold, we were the ones who carried it back east…
A rugged cowboy nods in agreement. Then: a montage of horses and locomotives and steamships, before we zoom into the prosperous future with stills from the happy ’70s and ’80s:
Over the years, we built on that trust. We always found the way…
…Until we lost it.
Fixing what went wrong. Making things right. And ending product sales goals for branch bankers. So we can focus on your satisfaction… It’s a new day at Wells Fargo [Asian child gives lowfive to AfricanAmerican female bank employee]. But it’s a lot like our first day [Wells Fargo coach barreling across the plains, horses, etc]…
Wells Fargo. Established 1852. Reestablished 2018.
B. A second case:
Following Facebook’s debacle with Cambridge Analyticathe company created the following ad.
We created Facebook to help people get together, and when we did…
We felt a little less alone [heart emoji!]…
But then something happened.
We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news and data misuse [angry face emoji]…
“That’s going to change. From now on, Facebook will do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy.” When this place does what it was built for, then we all get a little closer.
C. Finally, by contrast, compare the case of Starbucks:
When a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called the police to arrest two black men for trespassing, Starbucks acknowledged that its training and policies were inadequate, and then flew its CEO Kevin Johnson and chairman Howard Schultz to Philadelphia to meet with the men and with civil-rights leaders in Philadelphia. In a video speech, its CEO offered a personal apology. “To the gentlemen who were arrested in the storewhat happened was reprehensible.
They didn’t deserve this. I am accountable. There will be changes to policy, and training around unconscious racial bias. The company announced it was closing down thousands of stores throughout the country (costing 12+million) as an initial afternoon of training.
D. Now let’s compare two fairly similar approaches to teshuvah:
Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t DoIn a recent article in Forbes, she describes six key components of an effective apology:
- Expression of regret
- Explanation of what went wrong
- Acknowledgement of responsibility
- Declaration of repentance
- Offer of repair
- Request for forgiveness
In his Laws of Teshuvah, Maimonides describes four dimensions and six paths of teshuvah:
- first, awareness and
- second, for all sins, one must confess before God; sins against one’s fellow require confessing before others and detailing specific
- third, one must cease sinning and repay debts. Then, appease the injured and ask for forgiveness. In addition, teshuvah requires paths to inner change, the first of which is crying out to
- finally, Complete teshuvahthe sinner is in the same situation, with opportunity, capacity, and desire, and doesn’t repeat the sin out of ..
The primary difference between these two approaches is clearly the role of God in teshuvah. In the daily Amidah, we express our vulnerability when we ask God to help us turn to God’s Torah and God’s Service in complete teshuvah. Teshuvah is not only an act of self-mastery or self-overcoming (bildung). It is also an acknowledgement of dependence. In Buber’s language, every act of teshuvah involves both will and grace.
E. How do the Wells Fargo and Facebook commercials measure up against these categories of teshuvah? Not so well. Listening to the WellsFargo and Facebook ads, it is difficult to push past cynicism, to dan l’caf zchut (judge favorably). One could say they are truly striving to renew themselves as in days of old, struggling to recapture sources of value and vision gone You can imagine different voices in a theatre or board room in which the desire to recover one’s path vies with the marketing department and the business department and the legal department. One could say the ads mirror a battle within the human soul or they coopt the very process of teshuvah.
II. Two types of Teshuvah
1. For a meaning junky (like myself), every holiday has its imperative, the thing that challenges us to grow, prompting The imperative of these Days of Awe, the Yamim Noraim, is teshuvah, which induces us to shvitzby turning up the spiritual temperature.
Here’s another way of characterizing Jewish holidays. They create contexts or containers for fulfilling core Jewish and human needs. They create opportunities, based on the collective wisdom and experience of the Jewish people, to connect to God, others, and oneself.
2. The spiritual opportunity and demand of the Yammim Noraim is When I speak of teshuvah, I mean two things
- first, RIGHTING PAST WRONGSlooking backwards (reactively) to repair previous sins, realigning broken relationships with others, oneself, and
- And, second, RECREATING ONE’S FUTURE building proactively upon previous flaws, and embracing a vision of what could be in order to refine ourselves and repair the
For the remainder of this drash, let’s explore both types of teshuvah.
3. Particularly during this time of year, we reflect upon those we have hurt, misled, failed to support or betrayed–including Out of apprehension, fear, or shame, we avoid confrontation, rationalize and procrastinate, knowing full well that doing so hardens our hearts and deforms our souls. Each failure to risk teshuvah recalls Parker Palmer’s haunting admonition : Don’t conspire in your own diminution.
4. The 19th Century Hasidic master, the Sfat Emet comments on the following verse from Lamentations (see abovethanks to Wanda): Hashiveynu Hashem Elechah v’nashuva (Eicha 5:21) Return us to you God, and we shall return.” According to the Sfat Emet, the terms Hashiveynu (return us) and v’nashuva (and we will return) refer to two different types of teshuvahone which springs from fear and one which springs from
The first type is reactiverepairing, with God’s help, previous sins, The second type is proactive pursuing good and embracing God or godliness.
A. Righting Past Wrongs
- TRANSITION: Let’s start with the first type of teshuvah–the type which responds to previous
One of Maimonides’ key dimensions of teshuvah is that the offender must appease the injured party and ask for forgiveness.
Now, I’m not sure where I first learned the practice, but for many years I have recited the following formula to family, friends, and sometimes colleagues: If in the past year, I have offended you or hurt you in any way, intentionally or unintentionally, I ask your forgiveness. Some reply, quoting from Bamidbar and the Yom Kippur liturgy: salachti kidvarecha. I forgive you as you have requested,. The practice attempts to enable those seeking forgiveness to confess offenses and achieve a clean slate before YK.
Now, imagine if I were to ask you–somewhat mechanically– to forgive me for anything I have done intentionally or unintentionally during the past year, and you were to reply: Well, actually, you put me in a a bit of a tight spot. It’s a lot to respond to.
But come to think of it–I’m immensely glad you asked. Actually, I have been keeping a rather robust list in my phone. Here are 12 or 13 things which I would like to unpack with you.
2. Searching for the origins of this forgiveness formula, I began with Mishnah Yoma:
For transgressions between man and God, Yom HaKippurim effects atonement, but for transgressions between man and his fellow, Yom HaKippurim does not effect atonement, until he has pacified his fellow..
What the Mishnah doesn’t answer is: How does one pacify or appease one’s fellow?
Maimonides, connecting appeasement with forgiveness also leaves the content of how to ask forgiveness open:
In his MISHNEH TORAH, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:9-10, Maimonides writes:
Although he makes monetary restitution, he is obliged to pacify him and to beg his forgiveness…If his neighbor refuses,, he should bring a committee of three friends to implore and beg of him to forgive him (up to 3 times) We will come back to the Mishnah and Maimonides’ analysis shortly.
3. The closest I came to discovering a version of my asking for forgiveness formula was on-line:
First, on a site called “The Yeshiva World,” someone posted this rather expansive request for forgiveness:
I would like say to everyone here Please forgive me for anything that I may have said that caused any of you to be embarrassed, upset, hurt, annoyed, or (get this) anything less than happy, directly or indirectly. I sincerely apologize for it. And I absolutely forgive anyone here for anything they may have said that caused me any of the above feelings.
Please be mochel (forgiving) for everything.
(As an aside, on what some might consider a humorous note: the Artscroll siddur’s Bedtime prayer has a similar formula in which the person going to sleep grants every Jew forgiveness not only for intentional and unintentional sins, but for sins committed in this transmigration (gilgul) or other transmigrations.)
Like the Wells-Fargo and Facebook ads, the Yeshiva world post desire comprehensive forgiveness without much specificity or vulnerability.
4. After much fruitless searching, a friend suggested the following explanation for my quandary. The reason I couldn’t find a classic source for the forgiveness formula was that the specific content I was seeking was not meant to be found….In other words, the reason the Mishnah and the Mishneh Torah don’t fill in the blanks with a required formula for how to appease one’s neighbor and seek forgiveness is because this undermines the very purpose of seeking sincere forgiveness.
As Moshe Halbertal puts it, there are limits to what the law can and should specify. “Without the human field, the institution of forgiveness lacks any context or substance.” Put another way, just as the holidays can only create a container for meaning, the law can only get us to the threshold of asking for forgiveness. He continues “the law can only be effective where there exists a fabric of human relationships that allows for that effectiveness –a fabric the law itself cannot create.”
5. In addition to striving for sincerity and specificity in our words, it is our responsibility to create an effective and supportive context for appeasement and forgiveness. Part of that context might include sincere and sensitive listening to the conditions which could enable the other person to respond. Another part could mean seeking humility and relinquishing control by asking God for assistance in achieving teshuvah. Unlike creating commercials or asking for blanket forgiveness, which seem to maintain control, creating the proper context brings us part of the way to fulfillment.
So far, I have described two approaches to appeasement and asking for forgiveness. The first is a generic appeal for forgiveness, by which we express general regret and seek comprehensive forgiveness. The second requires a very specific acknowledgement of wrong-doing and requires a much greater degree of vulnerability. Now, I want to suggest an additional approach.
6. Each year, I approach my children (and sometimes my wife, friends, colleagues or students) with a simple question: I ask my child, in the coming year, what can I do to be a better abba to you? (husband, friend, son or teacher) I recognize that this simple question has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it does not take responsibility for specific offenses done and would ideally be done in addition to asking forgiveness for specific offenses.
On the other hand, I am enabling the other person to participate in identifying my shortcomings from his or her perspective. My commitment is not to do everything he or she recommends. Rather, it is to listen with as little defensiveness as possible–with an open and full heart to the possibility of change–My challenge is to prove Rabbi Tarfon wrong–when he said: I would be amazed if there is anyone in this generation who can accept rebuke.
Whether or not I agree to accept the criticism, I am open to the possibility of greater erevut— shouldering more responsibility for our relationship.
B. Righting Past Wrongs
1. I want to conclude with (an exercise which addresses) the Sfat Emet’s second kind of teshuvah, which I would call proactive teshuvah, teshuvah not from fear but from love.
The mishnah in Brachot tells of the sage (Tanna) Nechunia ben Hakanah (Brachot 4:2) who used to offer up a short prayer on his entrance into the house of study and on his departure. They said to him, “What is the intention of this prayer?” He replied to them, “On my entry I pray that no mishap occur through me, and on my exit I offer up thanks for my portion.”
When Nechunia prays that no mishaps occur on his account, what is he concerned about? (I assume) As a conscientious scholar, he fears leading his students astray through faulty interpretations of the law. As he leaves, he expresses gratitude for the privilege of transmitting Torah and dwelling in the House of Study.
2. Let’s read the passage more When I enter a classroom or the place of my work, I ask myself what are the different ways that I might lead my students or colleagues astray. Perhaps, at times, I act impatiently, take up too much or too little room or fail to explain myself clearly. Or I place my love of texts or ideas above my students’ well being. As I leave, I stop to acknowledge the joy of collaborating with colleagues, working in service of a sacred purpose or watching students’ grow.
When we enter the threshold our homes(or our cars or the public space), what kinds of offense do we seek to avoid? And when we leave, how do give thanks for our portion?
When I enter this sacred place of gathering and worship and study, what is my prayer for sanctifying my behavior and how will I remind myself of what I cherish here before leaving?
For each entering and leaving, how will I remember my intentions?
3. Two takeaways for leaving this sermon‑‑REPAIRING AND RECREATING TESHUVAH: (1) the imperative to figure out how to confront or appease one person before Yom
(2) Figure out the mishaps you cause and blessings you receive as you enter and depart one setting of your life.
As we enter this new year with all its perils and possibilities, may we grow as individuals and as a community in our capacity for teshuvah, may we find the courage and compassion to heal broken relationships, seek forgiveness, and…. May our comings and goings refine the soul, renew the Jewish people and repair a small piece of God’s world.