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Yom Kippur 2016/5777

09/10/2016 09:51:14 PM


Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

This is my 17th year as rabbi of Temple Isaiah.  On Rosh Hashanah, I did something for the first time in all of those years: I spoke about politics, or more specifically, the election. But only a little, and as those who were here know, I really spoke about how to respond to the challenges that the election has inspired. I did not endorse a specific candidate or even mention the names of any candidates. The high holidays are, and Yom Kippur is, in particular, about the timeless, about reflecting deeply on our souls and finding our best selves. And I had a sermon in mind that I was planning to give.

Next year.

 I honestly believed I would be able to stand before you today and not even mention the election.

I was wrong. I feel constrained to reference the debacle that is our current presidential election, even on this day devoted to transcending the world in which we live so that we can focus on our inner selves. The Hebrew term is cheshbon hanefesh, literally, an accounting of the soul. We take stock and account of who we are so we have a meaningful opportunity to determine who we are going to be. In fact, I feel especially constrained to do so today. I am sick about the level to which the discourse in the selection has sunk, and I have to believe that you are, too, no matter which candidate you support. The mudslinging, name-calling, and outright lies are nothing like we have ever seen before. Four weeks from today, the election will be over, and we will be left with the residue and an awful lot of work to do as a society. We will need to do a massive communal cheshbon hanefesh, and God willing, we will find our way to healing and reconciliation. But we have to get through the election first.

And I do mean get through it. I have to say that I have always appreciated my personal practice of completely unplugging on Yom Kippur, but never more than this year.

There are times, thankfully few and far between, when the elephant in the room is so large that it cannot be avoided, and sadly, this is such a time. Let me assure you that I will not be endorsing any specific candidate, though while I intend to mention both major party candidates, it is the behavior of one in particular that is going to be the focus of much of what I want to talk about today, in part because it is on everyone’s mind, and in part because it offers us an object lesson about some of the most important lessons that Judaism teaches, particularly lessons about this day and what it means.

After the story of the now infamous video broke, there was near universal agreement that the only way Donald Trump could possibly salvage the situation would be to offer a sincere, convincing, heartfelt apology.  He failed miserably. 

Look, apologies are hard.  Real apologies.

I will admit that there are times that I have said the words “I am sorry” with less than a full heart.

Saying the words “I am sorry,” when we are not truly sorry, is actually not that hard. It may be distasteful, but it is not hard.   Who among us has not, at one time or another, said those words without fully believing or feeling them?

The late, great, comedian George Burns once said “Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you have got it made.”

As a nation, we have been focused on the sincerity, or lack thereof, of Donald Trump’s apology quite a bit the past few days, along with, of course, the content of the video itself, which for some makes him irredeemable.  Not so for Judaism. He said awful, reprehensible, utterly unacceptable things. You all know what they are. Our tradition offers a path to redemption. It happens not to be the one he has taken, or appears interested in taking. More about that in a minute.

We would do well to acknowledge  that Hillary Clinton was not exactly a model of contrition either, when confronted with her use of a private email server for confidential messages. No equivalency here, but it is instructive nonetheless. Again, there was near universal agreement amongst pundits that had she offered a sincere apology for what was deemed extreme carelessness it would have been behind her, though probably not entirely, more fully and more quickly.

But apologies are hard. Real apologies.  And for Judaism, apologies are a necessary but insufficient condition for real teshuvah.  Real Teshuvah, is made up of three elements :

contrition and regret

confession and genuine apology

a sincere commitment not to repeat the behavior.

They are interdependent, and the absence of any one of them makes teshuvah impossible.

It is impossible to imagine that anyone can offer a genuine apology who is not genuinely contrite and does not genuinely regret what they did.  We saw that on Friday, with Mr. Trump’s initial “non-apology”, a concept that has been around for a long time and has gained a great deal of currency over the last few days. Making a statement along the lines of, “I am sorry if you were offended by what I did” is a classic example of an “non-apology”.

It may be a genuine expression of sorrow, which is etymologically related to the word sorry, but then it would be more accurate to say “I am experiencing sorrow at learning of your being offended by what I did.” In fact, what Trump said was not even that. His actual words were “I apologize if anyone was offended” - words that I suspect many of us have said at one time or another without thinking about what they actually mean. There is no responsibility in that statement, no contrition, no regret.

The Hebrew word for contrition is charata, which comes from the root word to engrave. The lesson is clear: real contrition has to cut deep, and make a lasting impression on the soul of the one who is seeking to do teshuvah. If it is only on the surface, it will not last. And you know what? It hurts. It is painful. 

But it is internal. Only we know what we have carved into our own souls. We might choose to share it with others, or it may be reflected in our behavior, but it is not visible.  And think about the purpose of engraving. Typically, it is done to indicate ownership of an item or to make a lasting statement. Is that not exactly the point? We need to own what we have done in order to move forward from it. But we mark our souls not for others, but for ourselves. It enables us to confess and to apologize.

Confession and apology go hand-in-hand. And you know what? When sincere, they are surprisingly powerful. Not too many years ago, the conventional wisdom in modern medicine, so I am told, was for physicians never to admit mistakes, for fear of being sued for malpractice. The physicians here today surely know better than I do, but it appears that the opposite is now the case.

A 2013 article by one physician in the Washington Post tells of how when he first joined his practice 18 years earlier, their hospital and malpractice lawyers told them never to admit guilt. But over time, the conventional wisdom appears to be increasingly replaced thanks to a new awareness: studies show that statements acknowledging an error and its consequences, taking responsibility, and communicating regret for having caused harm can decrease blame, decrease anger, increase trust, and improve relationships - and actually lead to a decrease in malpractice suits.

Some years ago, a working group representing Harvard-affiliated hospitals established that a disclosure policy must include three elements: The provider must take responsibility, apologize and discuss preventive measures with the patient or the family.

Sound familiar?

(I wonder if anyone in that group was familiar with the Jewish concept of teshuvah. If anyone here happened to be part of the group, or knows more, I would love to hear about it.)

And let us not forget that third component: a sincere commitment not to repeat the behavior. The Talmud is quite clear about this: “One who says I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone, Yom Kippur does not atone.”

Saying you are sorry with no intention of changing behavior is hardly a formula for enduring personal transformation. Of course, few people are quite as blatant as that. Instead, most of us are more likely to minimize what we have actually done, by, for example, describing the language of sexual assault as locker room banter, or by hastening to point out that an apology has been offered, and it is time to move on, perhaps even use the word distraction, suggesting that enough time has been spent on what you allege that I have done wrong, and there more important things to worry about in the world.

Nothing says I am sincere about not repeating my behavior like being told to get over it already.

For the record, I was equally offended when then-President Bill Clinton said something quite similar in August of 1998. And for the record, I spoke quite similarly about the thinness of his teshuvah that Yom Kippur.

As you may recall, after offering a statement of apology, acknowledging that his previous denial of his behavior was misleading if, according to his definition of sex, technically correct, he told us that we had, and I quote, “been distracted by  this matter for too long, and I take my responsibility for my part in all of this. That is all I can do.  Now it is time -- in fact, it is past time to move on.”  

Actually, Mr. Trump and President Clinton, you do not get to decide when it is time for others to move on.  None of us do. When we wrong another, the one who is wronged gets to decide when they are ready to move on, if ever.

I remember a couple I met with many years ago in a different congregation. She had betrayed him badly, and she apologized, in ways that he found somewhat sincere, but he was having a terrible time moving on. Her impatience turned to anger. She said she was sorry, and he said he believed her. What more could she do?

Prove it, I told her, by your behavior. Show him that you are sincere and that you have changed long enough for him to believe you. But he gets to make the call, not you.

The good news is, last I knew, decades later, they are still married. As you know, it does not always turn out that way.  Relationships cannot always be healed.  But with the exception of murderers, every human being can be redeemed.  There is little chance that either could take place, in the absence of complete teshuvah. 

On Rosh Hashanah, I mentioned the name of the great rabbinic sage, Resh Lakish. What I did not mention is that prior to devoting himself to a life of Torah, he was a bandit. A bandit! One of the greatest sages of our tradition had been a bandit.  Our rabbis understood that human beings are redeemable, but our tradition is quite clear as to how redemption occurs: when we take full responsibility for we have been and who we are choosing to be. 


And our tradition teaches that one who has done teshuvah exists in a special category of righteousness.  There is a remarkable statement in the Talmud:  Rabbi Abbahu said, “In the place where penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand.”  In the place where penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand. 

Resh Lakish probably understood better than most, what Abbahu meant, undoubtedly being the only one of his generation who traveled the road of teshuvah that he had. He spoke of the power of teshuvah in ways that we are still quoting today: “Great is teshuvah, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as errors”……but he also said that teshuvah is so great that premeditated sins are accounted as though they were merits……. The sages insisted that there is contradiction: the first instance refers to teshuvah derived from fear of punishment, the second case teshuvah due to love of God and a desire to be righteous. (Yoma 86b).

Rabbi Akiva Tatz explains this passage as follows:    The definition of complete repentance [as defined in Maimonides’ legal code] means that [the sinner] would not do the same thing again [if presented with the same opportunity to do so]. That means that the weakness has been eradicated—they’re higher than they were before. The person who’s fallen is a person who had a fall in their character, the fall has been used to reveal that, and they’ve used the opportunity now to eradicate the problem. ….They are now, through having fallen, a person who no longer has that problem. The mechanism is that the fall has become an intrinsic and inalienable part of their rise…… A person who looks back on such an occasion will relish the moment that he fell, retroactively—he wouldn’t give it up for anything because that was the experience that became part and parcel, as it were, of his growth.” And so, he teaches, the transgression becomes a merit.

My message, then, today, is not for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Bill Clinton, though I suspect they could all benefit from it. My message is for us. None of us have to worry about being unable to stand in the place of the penitent, because none of us wholly righteous. But in order to stand there, we have to recognize where we have fallen, and rise up to be even higher than we were by owning what we have done, reconciling with those we have wronged, and in the process, becoming new people, because we are no longer the person who behaved that way.

Ironically enough, the word teshuvah is commonly translated as repentance, but is derived from the word for return. We might ask: why would we return? Is not the whole point to wind up somewhere else? The answer, I submit, is that we are returning to the place we were before, only better. We are all changed by particularly meaningful journeys, and it is often only when we return home that we even begin to grasp just how much. We are in so many ways the same, but we are in so many ways different.

Such is the point of our journey. To return, more whole, more complete, a better version of ourselves.

Turn us, oh God, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.

Hashiveinu Adonai v’nashuva

Chadesh yameinu k’kedem

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783