Monday, April 15, 2024 -
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Repentance is optimistic

The High Holidays are around the corner and it’s hard to believe that we are once again facing decisions on how, where and with whom to spend them. With the recent COVID resurgence, we are left feeling disappointed, scared, perhaps even depleted after living a COVID-restricted life for the past 18 months. For what we hoped would be a holiday spent in community, praying and dining with family and friends, may once again result in Zooming services from a living room couch or missing services altogether.

This feeling of frustrated pessimism isn’t permanent; I know it will change as we manage this next wave of pandemic life and come out on the other side.

I am reminded that it is at just such a time as this that we need to hear the message of hopeful optimism that is the essence of the High Holiday liturgy.

As Jews, we have a powerful tool for navigating life’s difficulties and disappointments. We are able to remain positive and hopeful about the future because we are taught that through “owning” our mistakes and taking concrete steps to change our behavior, we can become better Jews and better humans.

Simply put, Judaism teaches us that it is never too late to get it right.

In Judaism, we are inspired to become personally engaged in acts of faith, mercy and justice. There is no better example than our liturgy to express this idea.

The High Holidays and its liturgy challenge us to take stock of our lives, to review the things we are proud of as well as acknowledge when we have let G-d, ourselves and others down.

We are beckoned to take a hard look at our relationships, commitments, goals, successes and failures. This type of personal introspection is called heshbon ha-nefesh, which in Hebrew literally means “an accounting of the soul.”

As humans, it is inevitable that we will say or do things that we regret. Judaism accepts that we will err — not in spite of being human but precisely because we are human. And because we are a “work in progress,” Judaism gives us a path of laws (halacha means path in Hebrew) that enables us to engage positively with ourselves and our community.

Maimonides, the 12th-century rabbi and philosopher, taught that it is through repentance that we can become our best selves. If we repent our lapses and indiscretions, we can rise to a higher level personally and within the community.

Maimonides taught that confession is necessary in order to repent and seek forgiveness.

So how do we confess — in public, in private, on Zoom? What do we say?

The answer comes in the Viddui, or confession, the central prayer of the Yom Kippur service that lists acknowledgment in an alphabetical acrostic of different sins we have committed. It is said in the first-person plural because while each of us may not have committed every sin, we as a community most likely have. Thus, we stand together seeking forgiveness, our fates intertwined.

According to Maimonides, the essence of repentance focuses on four things:

First, we acknowledge and confess before G-d that we have transgressed.

Second, we show remorse for our wrongdoing.

Third, we resolve never to do the action again in the future.

Fourth, when faced with the opportunity to commit the same sin, we don’t.

That is the complete and true path of atonement. From that can come forgiveness.

Maimonides also teaches us that Yom Kippur wipes clean wrongs committed between a person and G-d, but for sins committed between people, a person must ask for forgiveness directly from that person. And forgiveness should be generously granted.

Our confession does not relieve us of personal responsibility: rather, it reinforces that we have a continuing obligation to work towards living a more righteous life.

It is a supremely optimistic and hopeful view of humanity that offers us the powerful truth that if we remain committed to “doing the work,” we can become our best and truest selves.

Copyright © 2021 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Columnist | Reflections

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