Seventy Faces of Torah Communal Return and Personal Renaissance: What Forgiveness Makes Possible

By Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

Rabbi-SabathParshat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

The promise of profound renewal during the upcoming High Holy Days is tremendous, but whether or not we will merit the fulfillment of that promise depends largely upon us. It depends on what kind of a stance we have toward others, toward ourselves, and toward God. It depends on whether or not we find a way to turn simultaneously in all three directions with forgiveness, acceptance, love and hope. If we are able to do this –even partially– we might experience deep personal regeneration. Our relationships with others, our spiritual lives and our sense of our own wholeness as human beings might all be transformed. This profound regeneration and sense of fulfillment of our entire existence is, as the anthropologist Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) taught, a fundamental goal of sacred time in every culture.

Most of us, however, find all of this teshuvah or “turning” (a much better translation than “repentance”) even harder than it sounds. Each aspect of the process is enormously complex and demands deep personal commitment and spiritual struggle, and often engenders some disappointments. Texts from the Torah (especially in the book of Deuteronomy) to the Talmud, and from medieval philosophy to contemporary psychology, all describe the possibility, necessity, and dangers of such endeavors.

Sometimes, we cannot or are not ready to forgive. At other times, people we have hurt will refuse to forgive us. Sometimes anger blocks the way. But – fortunately– we are not trying to engage in teshuva alone. Like most everything else that is quintessentially Jewish, we’re doing it together, not only in community, but with a radical sense of togetherness with every generation that ever was or will ever be.

“You stand here on this day, all of you…. ” Every person in the community: the young and old, men and women and children, immigrants and native-born, laborers and leaders—we are all called together in the Torah portion that we read right before Rosh HaShanah, Parshat Nitzavim, to renew our covenant with God . “And not just with you alone am I re-establishing this covenant…. But with all who are here today … and all who are not here today…”  (Deuteronomy 29:30). The past, present, and future are conflated to create a moment that encompasses all of existence. If we truly “show up” for such a moment in these precious days, will we be ready for it to change us too?

Our covenant with the God of the past, present and future is renewed in the most radical transhistorical context of communal return. God isn’t only interested in each of us as individuals in all our preciousness, but is clearly as invested in us as a collective.  Despite all of our individualism and autonomy, we don’t stand before God only as our single selves, but also as part of a larger, radically transhistorical Jewish people. Jewish philosophers and theologians including Rabbis Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993), an Orthodox thinker, and Eugene Borowitz (b. 1924) a liberal/Reform thinker, have taught of this dual sanctity and double bond with God—both individually and collectively–as foundations of the covenant.

Beyond this covenantal significance, it seems that we stand together especially these days so that we might be motivated by the power of the community. Together, whether on a mountain or in a valley–or in the myriad of places we will gather in the coming days– we are more likely to grasp the power of our shared narrative and what it can inspire us to become. These are the moments that give us a deeper sense of what it means to be committed to something beyond ourselves, beyond our individual needs, and beyond time.

But how?  Just maybe, the wisdom and experience of those who’ve sought this regeneration over the ages can help guide us.  Those who came before us also struggled and often failed. How did they overcome their personal failures and forgive themselves and move on? How did they forgive those who wronged them? How did they transcend their anger and turn anew toward God, and know they would be welcomed “home” with open arms?

Glukel of Hameln (1645-1724), a remarkable businesswoman who kept a journal for her descendants, wrote: “[Torah] is like a rope which the great and gracious God has thrown to us as we drown in the stormy sea of life, that we may seize hold of it and be saved.” Perhaps there is some teaching, prayer, melody, or ritual for each of us that we will be able to grasp differently this year, that will help “save” us, that will inspire us to do what we know we need to do.

We also hope that we will hear –perhaps in the blasts of the shofar– or experience in prayer or in study or at a holiday meal something that will help us forgive others more. If we ourselves have a more powerful sense of God’s forgiving and loving embrace, we may be able to love and forgive others more easily. Perhaps this is why the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud assure us that the day of Yom Kippur itself atones for our wrongdoings toward God; God forgives and accepts us, just because.  Other places in rabbinic literature offer an image of God waiting for us, with wide-open arms, ready to embrace us with unconditional and unending love.

And perhaps there will be something, in prayer or in conversations with others, that will help us to love more and better commit ourselves to relieving the pain of those who suffer. In the wake of our individual and communal self-examination and reflection this holiday season, our moral compass ought to lead us toward ethical responses to all people and their human needs.

If we are open to and able to do this multi-directional turning, we can live more gently and at the same time with more purpose. We can move into the new year, grateful for all the sacred relationships in our lives and ready to move clearly toward a more perfect version of ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar.

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