Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
We have arrived at the culmination of the penitential season. The two High Holidays that bracket the ten Days of Awe stand at opposite ends of Judaism’s approach toward wrongdoing. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Din, was the Day of Judgment, but today, Yom Kippur, is the Day of Atonement, the day of forgiveness. Both judgment and forgiveness are valid responses to transgression. Criminals must be punished, but at a certain point they have paid their debt to society and they must be readmitted to it. When an individual has hurt us, we are justified in holding him accountable, but at a certain point, we ought to let go of resentment against him, if only for our own peace of mind. This is the spiritual trajectory along which the High Holiday period guides us: from justice to mercy, from blame to forgiveness, from a frame of judgment toa frame of love.
The movement from judgment to love characterizes the work of teshuvah. My spiritual efforts this year have focused on anger. What happened was: I lost my temper at someone, fractured the relationship and caused significant collateral damage besides. I knew that part of my repentance would require diligent self-examination: why did I get so upset to begin with? In my head—which creates its own reality—I mistakenly thought this person owed me money, andwasn’t owning up to the obligation, and this, after all the things I had done for the person, and Ididn’t deserve to be treated so disrespectfully, and so on. As I reviewed my litany (and after noticing the mind’s tendency to work itself up into fury by piling grievance on top of fictitious grievance!), I suddenly received an insight: as long as I continued to adhere to the metric of fairness—tracking my due, tallying my complaints, keeping score—I could never give up angerand resentment. I realized that my sense of right (one might say: self-righteousness) had to give way to an attitude of flexibility, generosity, and even gratitude. (“So what if I’m owed a littlemoney? It’ll get paid eventually. Thank God I have sufficient funds in the bank without this additional sum.”)
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t advocate radical forgiveness. Debts need to be paid, and justice needs to be served. I’m merely noting that the path of teshuvah, symbolized by the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, takes us from gevurah to chesed. A Beth Shalom member expressed it best in the following beautiful meditation she composed:
“Justice, justice ye shall pursue.”
We know how to pursue justice in society. But what we don’t always know is how to pursue justice in our closest relationships.
With intimate partners, with parents, with children, with siblings and friends and co-workers. With each other right here in this room.
Our birthday is forgotten. Our email is unanswered. Our children get tatoos without asking. Our parents give more money to our sibling. Our spouse plays video games when we want to snuggle. Our roommate doesn’t do the dishes. We are not invited to a party.
We are hurt. We want to get even. We want the other to “know how it feels.” We cannot forgive until we get a sincere—a very sincere, very tearful apology. Even then, we may punish before forgiving.
Or else: We forgive to bring peace. We forgive because we can’t stand the anger one more minute.
Or: We forgive because to do anything else is to cast the first stone. After all, we havebehaved badly, too.
Or: We forgive to stop the pain.
Or: We forgive because that is our Jewish concept of teshuvah.
Or: We forgive simply because we love.
Forgiveness is a product of holiness. After all, Yom Kippur, the day for forgiveness, is the holiest day of the year. In tomorrow morning’s service, many of us will read from the Holiness Code in Leviticus: “Holy you shall be, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” What does “to be holy” mean exactly? In one of his most famous commentaries, the sage Nachmanides explains: “Holiness means curbing even permitted activities. For example, a person may keep strictly kosher but consume food like a glutton. Another may adhere rigorously to the laws of proper sexual relations but fornicate like a rooster”—his words—“or he may spout vulgarity and/or assault others verbally, even though no commandment in the Torah specifically proscribes his speech.”
Consider the transgressions enumerated in the Vidui, the traditional long confessional we recite on Yom Kippur. Most of them cite conduct that the Torah does not explicitly prohibit. “We have sinned against You by being stubborn and obstinate… We have sinned against You by judging others rashly… We have sinned against You in food and drink… We have sinned against You through sexual immorality…” These behaviors are unethical but not necessarily illegal. It’s noteworthy that so many of them have to do with improper speech: “We have sinned against You by speaking ill of others… We have sinned against You by gossiping about others… We have sinned against You through idle chatter…”
In the same vein, the ethical discipline known as Mussar aims at refining one’s character beyond what the Torah stipulates. The Lithuanian Rabbi Yisrael Salanter popularized Mussar in thenineteenth century, but its roots go back to the Middle Ages, in Jewish philosophical treatises that explored human nature, and earlier, to Talmudic ethical teachings and maxims. One appliesMussar by pursuing a set of positive personality traits known as middot—such as humility, patience, gratitude, equanimity, generosity, trust, and so on. One reinforces the practice through daily reminder phrases, text study, journaling, meditation, accountability to a fellow practitioner, and behavioral commitments known as kabbalot—to name a few of the techniques developed bythe masters of Mussar.
Alan Morinis, who founded the American Mussar Institute, describes the connection between Mussar and holiness in his book Everday Holiness: “The starting point for understanding Mussar is the verse in Torah: ‘you shall be holy.’ Interestingly, when the rabbis combed through the Torah to seek out the 613 commandments that form the backbone of Jewish life, none of the codifiers included ‘you shall be holy’ on the list. Our spiritual pursuits form the all- encompassing goal of our lives, so this injunction can’t be brought down to the level of an ordinance. ‘You shall be holy’ is not so much a command but advice, encouraging us to heed and act on the ambition implanted within all of us to make something better of our lives. The Torah’s counsel is aimed directly at the soul.”
In short, “holy you shall be” is a kind of meta-commandment that overarches all the other commandments. In keeping with one of Lesley’s stated goals for her presidency, as well as my own vision of fostering sacred community, this year we plan to systematically introduce Mussar principles into our communal vocabulary at Beth Shalom. Beginning in October, a different middah each month will be promoted through bulletin articles, remarks from the bimah, at Board meetings, and on the website. Later the Middah-a-Month program might expand through art displays and community workshops. Mussar can focus us on qualities of spirit that enhance and strengthen our communal endeavors, in keeping with the vision of the synagogue as a set of
sacred relationships and acts, rather than a collection of services and offerings. In other words, it’s not just what we do but how we do it. Just as the commandments comprise the vehicle by which God (asher kidshanu be-mitzvotav) elevates the Jewish people at large to holiness, may the activities we perform characterize, and continue to characterize, Congregation Beth Shalom as a community that reaches for holiness.
What does all this have to do with repentance? Like the directive “holy you shall be,” Judaism’s insistence on teshuvah is not counted among the commandments but implicit in all of them. Moreover, teshuvah moves us beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law. How so? Because if the sole consequence of transgression were legal, then “the crime” would be resolved as soon as “the punishment” were imposed. (If, let’s say, I stole money, I would repay what I owed, maybe go to jail, but then be done with it.) Instead, our tradition additionally demands from us a thorough and painstaking process of self-examination, confession, remorse, and resolve never to repeat the offense. (It’s not enough to make restitution to the victim; I must go to her and apologize in complete humility, without justifying y actions at all but focusing entirely on her feelings and needs.) Teshuvah aims at improving inner character more than merely correcting outward behavior. Though the process may feel arduous, even painful at times, teshuvah leads to a joyous outcome. As the Talmud puts it: “the one who completes teshuvah stands at a higher rung (morally and spiritually) than the one who never transgressed to begin with.” In short, repentance spurs our growth toward holiness. It moves us from a narrow frame of crime and punishment to a more expansive perspective that encompasses forgiveness, compassion and acceptance.
In the words of the Haggadah, the Passover Seder begins in slavery and ends with freedom. Correspondingly, we might as well say that the High Holidays begin in judgment and end with love. Granting forgiveness means liberating ourselves from the burden of resentment and anger. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: “Forgiveness is not a favor we do for the person who offended us but a favor we do for ourselves. When we understand we have little choice as to what other people do but we can always choose how we respond to what they do, we can let go of embittering thoughts and memories and enter the New Year clean and fresh.” Likewise, asking for forgiveness means liberating ourselves from the burden of shame and guilt. With regard to our own offenses against others, there always comes a point, during the rigorous work of teshuvah, when God says to us: “Dai! You have done enough already, and you are absolved,” and then we get to enter the New Year clean and fresh.
My Rosh Hashanah sermon distinguished our lifetime identities—the roles, loyalties and affiliations that we cling to while we are alive—versus the soul, not delimited by any self- definition and the only part of us that will survive after death. I ended with the plea, in light of encroaching mortality that will someday soon eradicate all differences between us, for mutual tolerance, compassion, and acceptance of the stranger. “Can we draw on the part of us that is already indifferent to the identities we cherish to overcome our fears and love one another?” The same conclusion applies to our grudges and resentments. What do the affronts, indignities and assaults on the ego matter, when death will someday soon blot out all memory of them? Can we draw on the soul, which is already indifferent to our identity, to overcome our judgments and forgive one another?
In a beautiful reinterpretation of the story of Adam and Eve, the Hasidic sage Sefat Emet represents the twin frames of judgment and forgiveness by the two trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. Whenever we sin, of course, we must first judge and hold ourselves accountable to standards of righteousness and wrongdoing. However, if we never progress to the next stage, the stage of forgiveness, we remain unredeemed, in a condition of spiritual exile. It is as if we have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but have not yet partaken of the Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life symbolizes the elevated rung of holiness. We reach for the Tree of Life when we engage in teshuvah. We reach for the Tree of Life by moving from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law. We reach for the Tree of Life by leaving behind judgment and extending love and forgiveness. Ultimately, reaching for the Tree of Life means foregoing all that divides us andembracing our intrinsic unity, which is the promise and gift of Yom Kippur.