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Thoughts Before Rosh HaShanah

Two parts:

— Preface to Shabbat Thought – Regret and Renewal – Thought on the Shabbat Before Rosh HaShanah

— Shabbat Thought – “Points of Return” Thoughts Before Rosh HaShanah – see below

Regret and Renewal

Preview of Teachings for Shabbat morning

Of the many themes of Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year), forgiveness and regret are two of the most notable. As you have heard me teach of the past few weeks, interpersonal forgiveness is a very complex idea. There is little agreement among theologians, psychologists, and philosophers on what forgiveness is and how it operates in the life of a human beings. God’s forgiveness (and forgiving God, in some cases), can be even more complex. For this reason, I have chosen to use the phrase “working through hurts and wrongs with another person” instead of “forgiveness” because, whatever the word means, forgiveness is a process and operates in stages.

Regret and remorse are on the other side of hurts and wrongs. If we have hurt or wronged someone, we ought to feel some degree of regret and remorse as a prerequisite to working through. I have seen people who have wronged others say, “Can we just drop this?” That might be an excellent idea, but it not an admission of wronging, nor does such a phrase imply regret. The offended person might say, “Yes, let’s drop it,” because they know they will never get an apology. (Does agreeing to drop something mean that one has forgiven others? I’m not sure about that).

In addition to regretting wrongs, we can regret decisions we’ve made, even unconscious ones. We can regret the way we have behaved, even if no actual wrong was committed. Regretting things is a way to face yourself through facing past actions. If we regret something, it means that we have the potential to change. I think we ought to work through regret enough that we feel we are a different person. We can’t undo the past, but we can transform for the sake of the future.

On the other hand, there is a sense in our mystical tradition that regret and remorse can change the spiritual valence of the past when we become a different person. “Different” here means that if you were back in the same place, you would have acted differently. Life lived in time typically does not give us “re-do’s”, but in the life of spirit, we can repair the past.

This Shabbat morning, the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, I would like to end my thoughts for the month of Elul (the Hebrew month before Rosh Shanah) by looking at regret and remorse as acts of repair and renewal.

Shabbat Thought

Points of Return

Thoughts on the Shabbat Before Rosh HaShanah (coinciding with Parshat Nitzavim – Vayeilech 2023)

Every moment in time is a point of no return, no turning back the clock. And every moment in time is a time of teshuvah, a time of return. Teshuvah, turning, return, is a core theme of our Days of Awe, and carries several different meanings. Teshuvah can mean trying to repair harm done to others. Teshuvah can mean turning our life’s path to a path of truth and goodness. Teshuvah can mean repairing the harm we have done to our own souls. Each of these meanings is crucial for our spiritual growth. In these brief words for the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah (occurring next Shabbat, September 15-16), I would like to focus on the first meaning of Teshuvah.

Teshuvah, at its most simple and perhaps most difficult level, means working through harm we have done to other people. In the default position of many people, they don’t know what they have done, they won’t admit what they have done, or they don’t take seriously what they have done. Many people have reasons and justifications for hurting others.

If we caused harm to another, including emotional harm, we must apologize. First, we have to discuss with the other person what happened. You (or they) might not remember, or might not agree on the facts. We have to work toward setting out what happened.

We must say what we did and not offer excuses. We can ask if the other person wants an explanation (not an excuse). They might not want it. We ask how we can repair. Usually an apology is enough.

Your apologizing does not mean that things necessarily go back to how they were. The other person might want to avoid you or to downgrade the relationship. The acceptance of an apology does not mean the hurt is gone.

In the case of someone who does not know they have needlessly caused harm, we are duty bound to inform them, and not allow ourselves to bear resentment and grudges. In Jewish law, the aggrieved party is morally obligated to admonish those who have hurt us. If we don’t admonish them, we are complicit in their wrongdoing. We are ethically obligated to give others the opportunity to apologize and try to repair the harm.

The process of admonishing includes going over the facts of what happened. One often discovers that people don’t agree on what happened. Admonishing someone for something they don’t agree they did, will probably only lead to an argument.

The basic agreement on the facts includes what exactly the wrong was. Never, ever say “I’m sorry you feel that way.” We do not apologize for the feelings of other people. We apologize for what we did.

We are further obligated to admonish people, when necessary, in a way that allows them to feel remorse and apologize. We must not admonish with anger and condemnation. We are called on to reason carefully with others.

It often happens that when we prepare ourselves to reason with others, or in the course of that reasoning with others, we discover our part in whatever went wrong. Reasoned admonishing can be an act of discovery. In the course of admonishing another person, when we are working through establishing what exactly happened, we will hear their side, their experience of us. We might find that we, the aggrieved person, had our own part in what happened. I believe that one hidden reason we are morally obligated to admonish others is that we find out we might have trouble admitting what we have done. We tend to blame others in order to avoid looking at ourselves. In giving another person the opportunity to do teshuvah, we discover our own obligation to do our own teshuvah.

Shared responsibility does not divide up the moral obligation. Every person is 100% responsible for their part.

Once we realize that we have committed a wrong, we must confess in our hearts as truthfully as possible. One of the deepest parts of the Days of Awe is the process of confession, a conscious, sincere, and deliberate process of being morally accountable. We often find various ways to avoid sincerity. Defending ourselves by saying “I know I’m no angel” and “I’m not saying I’m perfect” are ways to avoid saying, simply, “I did something wrong.” Confessing wrongdoing obliterates the stiff defensiveness of the ego-self.

To engage truly in the process of teshuvah, unrelenting, courageous, and honest insight into the inner self is required. In Chasidic thought, there is special attention on hidden motivations. The patterns in the unconscious ego-self seem to conspire to create lives of inauthenticity.

I think if we do teshuvah correctly, we can feel distinctly uncomfortable in our own skins for a period of time. Achieving anything worthwhile always involves some suffering. Our goal during these Days of Awe is to inflict upon ourselves a kind of spiritual pain, labor pains, if you will, that gives birth to a truer version of ourselves.

To put this in terms of Chasidic thought, we aim to break through the husk of inauthenticity, of not being morally accountable, of not courageously gaining insight into ourselves. We break through that husk in order to release a spark of truth and life. The sparks accumulate to repair the vessels of the Divine Heart. As the Chasidic tradition teaches, as we repair ourselves, we repair God.

The teshuvah of working to repair things between us and others is the first and constant step.

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