During the High Holy Days, we are asked to focus on sins we have committed on purpose or by accident. It is during this period that we are to rid ourselves of these transgressions and vow not to repeat the behavior. The Rabbis suggest that there are two ways we can do this:
- T’shuvah mei-Yirah, “Repentance out of a sense of fear”, or
- T’shuvah mei-Ahavah, “Repentance from the perspective of love.”
T’shuvah mei-Yirah seeks for us to make our confessions out of fear in order to minimize punishment. We are very used to this kind of arrangement in our lives. We punish people who are doing wrong, so they will do what is right. If they do what is right, then they are rewarded.
Rosh Hashanah Morning
This is clearly how the Bible operates. We read story after story in our sacred scripture where God lays out the correct way to behave. If you do that, then you will be rewarded with wealth, with children, and satisfaction. On the other hand, when you violate these rules, then God will punish you. You will lose everything and be miserable until you “turn” yourself around and behave.
This theme is very much a part of our High Holy Day liturgy as well. We repeat again and again the transgressions we are to avoid. If we do avoid them, then being written in the Book of Life for another year rewards us. If we do otherwise, our fate is sealed for death.
The idea is to distance ourselves from wrong-doing. We are to make a commitment to keep these temptations at arm’s length. We have the same approach during our ritual of Tashlich, which our congregation will observe next Sunday at Ft. Lowell Park. We will participate in the ritual of “casting” based on the verse from the Prophet Micah,
“You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (7:19).
We do this at a body of water where there are fish because during these Days of Awe we are to liken ourselves to fish suddenly caught in a net. So are we caught in the severe net of divine judgment. Ideally, one would want to cast out the sins by a river so that your sins pass away from you, out of sight, where the sight of them no longer burdens you.
This is all well and good; but as I look out on all of you, I know that this does not completely cleanse us of our sins. With our family, with our co-workers, and with our friends, we engage in repeated bad behavior. Some may identify them as our idiosyncrasies, or a part of our personality, or merely an occasional annoyance we are willing to tolerate. I would venture to say that for most of us, if not all of us, there are times when we act in an annoying way to others. Perhaps it is due to ongoing stresses in our lives. Maybe a word said in the wrong way or a tone of voice. Though we may take these holy days to absolve us of past sins, we are not absolved of our bad behavior.
Now, T’shuvah mei-Ahavah, repentance out of love, is a different repentance entirely! Sins are not merely cast aside. They are retrieved, confronted, raised up, and relationships are re-established. Love is about relationships. It is about a partnership with others. I know this is hard to grasp for some of us: It is not all about me! This also means that we have to examine why we act and react the way we do that annoys others so much. The answer to what we need to do is found in our observance of our next holiday.
On Sukkot, the priests used to gather up waters and bring them to the altar. This is based on the verse from Isaiah 12:3:
“With joy shall you draw waters out of the wells of salvation.”
On Rosh Hashanah we distance ourselves from the memory of our sins: arrogance, bigotry, cynicism, deceit, egotism, flattery, greed, and so forth. During Tashlich, we cast them on the waters and watch as they float off in the distance and out of sight. On Sukkot, those very sins which were cast upon the waters are retrieved and raised up and we have to take ownership of them. T’shuvah mei-Ahavah is our opportunity – if we are willing to make a positive change in the way we operate – to look into our hidden angers and resentments and vengefulness that are the sources of our actions that hurt others. When I raise up my annoying and repeated behaviors, and search deeply into why I react the way I do, I can come to understand why there are moments when I drive others away from me. These are moments – and I do mean moments when we feel anxious or stress – when we repeatedly use power, force, and bitterness to impose our will over others.
- Don’t want to be ignored, so I act in a negative way to be accepted.
- Fear of being abandoned, so I act in a negative way so as not to be alone.
- Fear of not being loved, so I act in a negative way to be embraced.
- Fear of not being acknowledged, so I act in a negative way in order to gain respect.
Repentance out of love explores the depth of these indiscretions of the person. It is not just a matter of cleaning the outer shell, like we seem to do when we repent out of fear of being punished. This is about your very character, and your character affects your friendships, your peculiarities, your level of ambition. It influences the manner in which you give and the way you are able to receive from others. It affects your loves, your children, and how you demonstrate respect for others. It can put you gently to sleep or keep you long awake at night.
How your character is exposed to the world is through your personality, your ego, your temperament. These are assimilated into your personal behavior and represent who you are as an individual.
When we say of someone, “She died too early,” or, “His death was premature,” it certainly is an expression of our awareness that due to biology of disease or accident, they did not reach the expected chronological years. And yet, perhaps, it is an expression that their character had not come to full term. Or, that the expression of their character will be missed. If that is what we want others to say of us, then we need to examine these “waters of salvation” that the prophet Isaiah is speaking about.
We all remember the poem by Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle. Sitting at his father’s deathbed, he was demanding that his father T’shuvah mei-Ahavah, “Turn [to him] in love” and make the connection he so desired:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
For Thomas’ father and for the poet, it was too late. His father desired no deep connection with his son and on his deathbed, it was too late. But it is not too late for us, if we desire. Kris Allen, the 2009 American Idol winner, said it well in his lyrics:
…We gotta start lookin’ at the hands of the
time we’ve been given
If this is all we got, then we gotta start thinkin’
If every second counts on a clock that’s tickin
Gotta live like we’re dying
We only got 86,400 seconds in a day to
Turn it all around or to throw it all away
We gotta tell them that we love them
While we got the chance to say
Gotta live like we’re dying
Now is the time to draw these waters of salvation, look deeply, and make a correction toward your healing and the healing of your relationships with those whom you care about. Maimonides teaches that this “Teshuvah is great because it brings a person close to the Shechinah, to God’s Presence in the world … Teshuvah brings close those who are far off” (Hilchot Teshuva 7:6).
While Maimonides does not use the phrase T’shuvah mei-Ahavah, it seems that here he is describing “turning out of a sense of love”, which comes from a desire to make “close those who are far off” – or those whom we have pushed away – to return to a state of intimacy with all that is godly within ourselves and with those around us. We do this teshuvah when we become aware that it is our own negative actions that are getting in the way of our intimacy and our love for yourself and for others.
This is a “turn” towards my best self, embracing and challenging the negative that is within me while at the same time realizing that it does not define who I am anymore.
Allow me to conclude my sermon with a story about this kind of needed focus in our lives.
There was once a mighty ship whose engine had failed. The ship’s owners summoned one expert after another, but none of them could figure out how to fix the engine. Then, on the recommendation of some friends, they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a youngster. He carried a large bag of tools that he could hardly manage. When he arrived, he immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully top to bottom. Two of the ship’s owners were watching this man, hoping he would know what to do.
After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped a small piece close to the engine. Instantly the engine lurched to life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!
A week later the owners received a bill from the old man for $10,000.
“What?” One of them exclaimed. “He hardly did anything!”
So they wrote the old man a note: “Please send us an itemized bill.”
The man sent back a bill that read as follows:
– Tapping with a hammer = $2
– Knowing where to tap = $9,998
Effort is important. However, never forget that knowing where to make an effort in life makes all the difference. We have been falsely taught that if we work hard, we will succeed. Working hard is no longer a guarantee of success. Modern success – the kind our increasingly complex and sophisticated and technological world requires – is not driven just by how hard we work, but by how smart we work.
May we pray for a year beyond “fear”; one in which we teshuvah, “turn” inward and embrace our loving connection with our own character and behavior to have it teshuvah “turn” lovingly outward to others. Amen.