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September 13, 2015 5:23 am

On These High Holidays, Pray for Others to Repent

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Torah scroll. Photo: wiki commons.

Torah scroll. Photo: wiki commons.

When I was a child in England, I often used to see men and women standing at street corners holding placards saying such things as, “The End of the World is Nigh! Repent before it is too late!”– or some variation on that theme.

It struck me as silly. Even in the era of the atomic threat, I had much more important things to worry about, such as the next soccer game. And repent? What exactly had I done that was so terrible? A few little lies to my parents like, “No, I did not eat that chocolate”?

Every Shabbat afternoon, my father made us learn one brief quote from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, and that was where I came across “Repent one day before you die.”

It seemed our religion took the idea seriously, after all. So what did it mean?

The Hebrew word “teshuvah” is used in the Torah of God and Israel in the context of “returning” to each other after Israel betrayed its covenant and suffered exile. This is not how we use it today, to mean personal repentance. This is not to say that there is no such concept in the Torah, but it is implicit rather than explicit.

The sacrificial system talks about sin offerings and the need to confess one’s errors before seeking forgiveness and atonement. Kapara, atonement, has the root of the name of Yom Kippur. The Torah requires atonement but also a process of confession, vidui. Unlike the Catholic concept, it does not require confessing to a priest. Instead one addresses oneself directly to God (or to one’s own conscience). In true Freudian terms, it requires one to give full expression to what it is one has done wrong. Only after that has been completed and any restitution effected can one be forgiven.

Maimonides adds a rider. Only when one finds oneself in exactly the same position as one was when one did wrong and with the capacity to do it again, and this time one desists, then can one be said to have completely wiped away the misdemeanor. But since one can atone at any time in the year, there is some debate as to why one also needs a Yom Kippur, be it for individuals, serious crimes or the community.

We need to be reminded of our limitations and forced into facing the consequences of our actions. Most of us just let things slip or fade from our immediate consciousness. This period of the year is designed precisely for that: reflection and introspection. But on the other hand, it could equally and simply be that the community needs this group catharsis, and it is there to reinforce our sense of community and national shortcomings.

Nevertheless, there is no actual, specific command in the Torah to repent — to do teshuvah in the obligatory sense. I believe this has a lot to do with the “psychology” of sin in early Judaism, before we were influenced first by Greek and then by Christian and Muslim theologies.

The three main Biblical words for sin are instructive. “Cheyt” derives from “missing the mark or the target.” “Aveyra” comes from the word meaning to pass off the straight and narrow. “Avon” means to be deficient in some way. All of them imply an error of judgment that can easily be rectified by adding a quality to our armory, by standing in a better or more appropriate position or by acting more skillfully or wisely. It is no wonder that the Talmud says, “A person only sins when he is possessed of stupidity.” (Sotah 3a)

There is no hint here of a “state of sin”– so beloved of hellfire and brimstone preachers. No heavy, awesome weight that can be debilitating and psychologically damaging. Just a recognition that people make mistakes that can usually, and often easily, be rectified.

The idea of “fearing sin” plays an important part in rabbinic literature. But I don’t think this is intended to induce guilt. It is nothing more than simply an instruction to always be aware, on the look out, and sensitive to possible mistakes.

The concept of “original sin” does not loom large in our thinking. Certainly not in the Christian sense of believing that humanity is born naturally evil and can only be redeemed by faith (specifically in Christian dogma). We do have the idea that Adam’s (emblematic) sin in the Garden of Eden changed the course of human history. And this is often referred to in the Talmud. But we are usually much more relaxed about such issues (except for intense movements like Mussar). Guilt is not a healthy emotion, and despite the myth of the guilt-ridden Jewish mother, I think we are much more laid back.

I believe the weight of Talmudic opinion is that humans tend to make the wrong decisions, to undo all the good that others achieve, to bring selfishness in to dethrone altruism. These, rather than intrinsic evil, are the features of human beings in general that make this world a less pleasant place to live in.

In theory, the most evil person has the capacity to change and to repent. Perhaps that is what we should all be praying for over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Instead of weighing ourselves down with guilt and regret over our own relatively minor mistakes, we should be thinking of the wider world. On Rosh Hashanah, as the Talmud says, “All God’s creatures pass before Him.” We should be thinking of everyone else. We should be praying for all the sad human beings, all the evil, violent people in this world who are destructive, selfish, and corrupt — and hoping that they might see the light.

Despite all the things I say to the contrary, I really am an optimist!

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  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Shanah Tova, R’ Jeremy!

    The idea that we should be praying for those who commit evil in this world is a marvellous one! I think if every decent Jew started today to pray for those evil human beings, it might be possible finish praying in about a millennium–just one thousand years! Such an orientation would certainly remove any focus on the peccadillos most of us Jews commit during the year and place a greater attention and focus on those rapscallions and miscreants who dare to threaten us Israelis with total annihilation, who massacre their own people in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, who commit grotesque barbaric violations of human rights in the African continent, especially in North Africa, China and throughout the Middle East in mass rapes, especially of Christian women, so-called honour killings in Muslim countries, and indiscriminate oppression, persecution, killings of women, children, and the elderly throughout several Muslim countries worldwide.

    I started this morning at the Kotel. My prayers centered on the injustices in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. This concentration of offences, hatred, and exacting violence made me exhausted, but fulfilled for the day.

    !גמר חתימה טובה

  • Terry Nelson

    Jeremy, as an intelligent Jew you are overlooking the obvious, being within the forest of olive trees and unable to see the forest itself. Yom Kippur is not so much about personal repentance but is a day given by G-d to His chosen for national, corporate repentance. May the veil be lifted that you may see the true Mashiach, soon-to-return after a singular offence to Him ~ 2000 years ago resulted in His return to His Father.

    Read this short passage from Hosea : 5.14 For I will be unto Ephraim as a lion, and as a young lion to the house of Judah: I, even I, will tear and go away; I will take away, and none shall rescue him. 5.15 I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early. 6.1 Come, and let us return unto the LORD: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. 6.2 After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.

    I understand that I am a dirty rotten Gentile, but G-d made it clear in the book of Isaiah that we too can be cleansed and declared righteous by Him just as a Jew can be made righteous. All praise, glory, honor, and THANKSGIVING to the G-d of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the True and Living G-D.

  • Living Out Loud

    Happy New Year!! Unfortunately, not many have the tools to change. They’d actually have to read and practice )). And, sick is sick is sick. Very sadly, these folks are mostly out of that loop… Its a special year, so I believe good things will happen. And the end is a beginning to some..let’s treat each other beautifully NOW, NOW!!! Peace..?❤️

  • enufizenuf

    On these High Holidays I pray for all kapo Jews who still support the Democrat Party crime syndicate to repent, and repent mightily.