Thursday, September 24, 2015

Kol Nidre 5776

Message for Kol Nidre
Teshuvah: On the Road to Recovery

This past year, we had our first Yiddish class. It was well attended, and as a result we have Yiddish scholars sitting in the congregation tonight. I’d like to acknowledge them by beginning my message with a Yiddish proverb: A noyer meylekh mit naye gzeyres, a nay yor mit naye aveyres … Do I need to translate? “A new king with new decrees, a new year with new misdeeds.”

So, here we are, at the beginning of another year, confessing our transgressions and announcing our intentions to stay away from new misdeeds. If it were that simple! Yiddish poems are not only amusing, they are also wise … “a noy yor mit noye aveyres,” a new year brings its own challenges. None of us is perfect, and our imperfections will surely let down someone at one point or another. Yet, we need to strive to instill in our hearts the meaning of true teshuvah, of sincere repentance.

I will not translate the Hebrew word teshuvah moving forward. Being Jewish is a unique, wonderful way of seeing the world. If teshuvah could be simply translated into English or Spanish, with one word, then it would not be teshuvah any longer. The word Hebrew teshuvah suggests ideas of repentance, return, rehabilitation, of coming back to ourselves and to God.

The Talmud, a great source of Jewish wisdom, teaches: “Great is teshuvah for it transforms one’s deliberate transgressions into merits.”

What an odd thing to say!? I would have expected something like “Great is teshuvah, because it cleans us of transgressions.” No, our Sages teach that teshuvah can turn our imperfections into a positive. The focus of teshuvah is not on changing the past, but on defining a new direction for the future.

Teshuvah is about changing ourselves, so that we can no longer see ourselves behaving in old patterns. Teshuvah implies that we can always change, and that our wrongdoings do not define us forever. Teshuvah implies a different and unique approach to our misdeeds and transgressions, or as some might say, our “sins.”

The word “sin” is a loaded word; a word loaded with Christian meaning about the nature of human beings and how we behave. How many times have we heard notable Christian preachers, who after some financial debacle or sexual misconduct, would say “I am a sinner” or “In a moment of weakness I sinned against God, or my family, etc.” It is very hard for all of us to use the word “sin” and not be influenced by how our American culture uses the word. The Hebrew words used in our machzor to denote our understanding of “sin” are cheit and averah. The word cheit means to “miss the mark,” as in Archery. Averah means to transgress, to pass over or break a rule. Both words refer to actions, not to a condition of the individual. It might be impossible for us not to use the word sin, especially on Yom Kippur, but know that we mean something quite different.

So, just for one day, forget about “sin.” Even if you find the word “sin” in our new machzor, ignore it. They meant chet and averah; they meant the unique way Judaism looks at the world. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches,

“Judaism is the world’s greatest example of a guilt-and-repentance culture, as opposed to the shame-and-honor culture of the ancient Greeks.” (p. lxvi).

In other words, Jewish culture is the opposite of a culture of vendettas and tribal codes of revenge. Judaism is unlike the world of tragic operas or the mafia.

“In shame-and-honor culture, evil attaches to the person. There is no way back for one who has done the shameful deed,” teaches Rabbi Sacks, “In a guilt-and-repentance culture, like that of Judaism […] Repentance, rehabilitation and return are always possible.”

So here is the first insight into teshuvah. Teshuvah is about dealing with guilt, not with sin. Popular psychologist, author and TV host John Bradshaw writes,

“Abuse creates toxic shame –that feeling of being flawed and diminished and never measuring up. Toxic shame feels much worse than guilt. With guilt you’ve done something wrong but you can repair that –you can do something about it […].”

By no means do I mean to suggest that the shame caused by abusive relationships can be addressed just with attending synagogue once a year, on Yom Kippur. Religion is not the answer to everything. Some people may need professional help to deal with shame; at the same time, Jewish wisdom can help us navigate through the labyrinth of guilt where many of us find ourselves.

So, you see, as it turns out, Jewish guilt is a great thing! Guilt, but not shame. So first thing to remember about teshuvah: We CAN “do something” about our feelings of guilt.

Ready for more Yiddish? “Ver filt zikh, der meynt zikh.” Still need translation? “Whoever feels guilty, feels responsible.” The feeling of guilt leads to responsibility. Responsibility means that we do not blame anyone else for the wrong we have done. As the story of Adam and Eve shows, it is always tempting to blame others –it wasn’t me, it was Eve; it wasn’t me! It was the serpent. You can make the appropriate substitutions.

Teshuvah helps us work through our guilt, and take some responsibility for our wrongdoing. In this sense, teshuvah allows us to grow. At the heart of teshuvah is the belief that we can change. This is the second thing to remember about teshuvah: We are not destined to be forever what we were.

Learning about teshuvah or reciting this or that prayer will not magically change us; that would be too na├»ve. It would be too simplistic: We transgress all year long, and then, comes Yom Kippur, we repent and that’s that. No, teshuvah requires more involvement on our part.

As we reflect in the year that past, it comes to mind what I did last December. Last winter, I spent quite some time preparing a paper for a local organization to which I belong, “Quest Club.” I was asked to address the issue of how recent wars have affected our troops. I chose to concentrate on PTSD issues that veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars experienced.

As a rabbi and as a human being, whatever affects people’s souls so powerfully should be something of which I must be aware. I gained a new understanding of human suffering, and how to overcome failure and disappointment. All the lessons I learned from the stories of veterans I will carry on with me forever. One lesson I want to share with you tonight because it applies to teshuvah.

As part of my readings for the paper, I became familiar with the current treatment for PTSD. The two main psychiatric treatments available are Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE). They are both based on the idea that trauma causes our brains to learn some unconscious reactions to the experience, a kind of evolutionary defense mechanism, and that it cannot be unlearned. What can be done is to show the brain a way around it. It gives the brain other possible outcomes, which helps the individual cope with their symptoms. CPT is mostly based on writing it all down, “cognitive” as in “knowledge,” whereas PE is more about exposing the brain to situations, “triggers,” which heighten the symptoms initially.

For instance, if a veteran cannot tolerate crowds because they remind her of the terrible suicide bombing she witnessed in the market place in Ramadi, then, PE will consist on visiting a crowded mall or supermarket and staying as long a possible. The result would be that a veteran is able to see the world in a different way and live a better life.

PTSD is related to how resilient a person is. Life and the conditions under which we live allow us to be more or less resilient to what happens to us, each of us in our own way. We need to move away from the idea of “sin” when we think about teshuvah and concentrate on changing our behavior. Teshuvah is more akin to a form of therapy for our souls, than to a form of religious purification.

Learning about the treatment for PTSD suggested to me what our sages have taught about teshuvah for centuries. For instance, the great Medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides famously wrote:

“What is perfect repentance? It is when an opportunity presents itself to repeat the same behavior, and, while being physically able to do so, you nonetheless refrain, because you have had a change of heart and resolve not to behave this way.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T’shuvah 2:1)

I know it might a stretch, but Maimonides could have been talking about how to recover from PTSD, or for that matter, from any other mental illness. According to Maimonides, teshuvah is not something that happens during the High Holidays alone, but an ongoing process. Yom Kippur is a ancient form of rehab, a spiritual retreat: Jews come to synagogue this one time a year, and learn self-improving tools, which we are supposed to use throughout the year. Our machzor is more than a self-help manual. It is a spiritual map to help us do teshuvah as a life-long pursuit. Teshuvah is a road to recovery for our moral self.

We all know that life is never easy. Although we may not develop full-blown PTSD, it surely feels that way sometimes. Think about a family feud, a divorce, a death, a terrible illness, you name it. In the past year, all of us have personally been affected by any of these difficulties; and if not we personally, someone close to us has: a family member, a friend, one of our fellow congregants. We all hold grievances against someone, and against God. Indeed, our souls are in need of some spiritual therapy.

The third and last teaching to remember is that teshuvah is about living a better life within our own limitations, and within the confines of our life experiences. Teshuvah is a road to a better life for ourselves. When we change the way we think, we change the way we feel. And when we feel differently, we live differently; what we believe can shape what we become. And what we become is inseparably linked to the fate of every other human being who shares our journey through life –everyone, Jewish or not, family or not, friend or not.

For my paper I read a wonderful, yet difficult book, Redeployment, by Phil Klay. It is a series of short stories about the Iraq war written by a Marine. As a rabbi, I was drawn to the chaplain character in the book. At one point, the chaplain, who happened to be a Catholic priest, also stressed by deployment, tries to reach out to very soul of the marines, by delivering a moving sermon during the Sunday service, with these words:

“We are part of a long tradition of suffering. We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie. […] Do not suffer alone. Offer suffering up to God, respect your fellow man, and perhaps the sheer awfulness of this place will become a little more tolerable.”

The chaplain was speaking to marines stationed at some God-forsaken outpost in Iraq to remind them what many of us forget when we are in the middle of dealing with life’s difficulties: That as human beings, we all deal with the same issues, and sharing the journey with each other ease our burdens. Every Jew has a place among us tonight. Every wandering individual has a home here tonight. As we gather in synagogues around the world, we join in sharing our suffering, our disappointments, our mistakes, our shortcomings, but also our tremendous strength.

We gather and we pray for teshuvah for each one of us. We pray that teshuvah may turn our difficulties into merits. We pray that teshuvah will cleanse our guilt. We pray that through teshuvah we may become the best we know we can be. We join in sharing our hopes, our dreams, and our firm faith that teshuvah will continue to bring us all to a better place in our lives, that teshuvah will bring healing to our souls, to our relationships, to our communities.



Eloheinu … Eternal God of all generations may Your presence in our lives this New Year renew our spirits and renew our strength. Chatimah tovah, inscribe us and seal us in the book of live for a good year, for a sweet year.

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