Correcting Mistakes to Reach Our Potential
My grandmother, Frances Kramen, was known for her sense of humor. Unfortunately, her sense of humor was rarely in good taste and few of her jokes were appropriate for use during services (or on Yom Kippur at all for that matter). In the kitchen, she had plaques with quotes on the window sill. I still remember one of them clearly: “The trouble with some people is that they won’t admit their faults. I'd admit mine if I had any.” During the High Holidays, we come to grips with our faults and mistakes of the past year. We realize that it is all too easy to imagine that the quote from my grandmother’s window applies to us.
Judaism acknowledges that nobody is perfect and that each person does not always do the right thing. Our tradition contains a method to deal with our imperfections and past mistakes. In Hebrew, the word chet means to miss the mark, to move off the intended path. To Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, chet is "the failure to live up to the highest moral potentialities in one's self in any given situation." Over and over again throughout the year, we miss the mark. We leave the path of our potential and need to get back on. The answer is the key process of Yom Kippur--tshuvah. The route of tshuvah is shuv—to turn or return. The celebration of the world's renewal on Rosh hashanah compels us to participate, so we return to our true selves and renew our relationships. We return to our true path as we simultaneously come closer to God. We respond to God's call to participate in renewing the world by returning to our potential.
Each year we reflect on the past year with new senses and greater wisdom. As we begin a New Year, we examine the accumulated feelings and actions of the year that just ended. Life is a continuous process of growth—both positive and negative--that leads us to new life choices.
Growth does not necessarily occur unaided; occasionally, it needs help in the form of reflection and redirection. We have lived another year of our lives. Some parts have been good and some bad--some choices the correct ones and others have not worked out so well--some time has been spent productively while much time has been wasted: still last year was what last year was. It is now in the past and the upcoming year must be different just as each day is different. We must live our lives freshly each day and each year. We have to respond to our physical, spiritual, and emotional needs and the ever-changing reality around us. We have to live for today and tomorrow and use the past as a guide and a learning experience.
Yesterday, I stopped into Haymarket Caf? in
Still, Judaism does not teach us that past actions disappear. Since we can’t erase our past, the tradition allows us to ‘reboot’ and start fresh through teshuva. According to the Talmudic sages, this possibility of altering reality after the fact, which is one of life’s mysteries, was created before the world itself. Before the laws of nature came into existence ... a principle even more fundamental and more exalted was proclaimed: that change – teshuva - is possible. It is only through a complex process of introspection, asking for forgiveness from individuals and Gd, and the unique prayers and customs of the Yamim Noraim--the High Holidays-- that we are able to aid our future growth.
Rabbi Sidney Greenberg offers a brief summary of how the process of teshuvah works: "On Yom Kippur, we pray for forgiveness and, of course, there can be no forgiveness without a prior awareness of having done wrong, and a profound yearning to remove the guilt through genuine remorse for the past and a resolve not to repeat the wrongs which produced the feelings of guilt." This is the basis of the process of teshuvah: First we have to decide we did something wrong. Then we have to have remorse and regret. This leads to resolve not to commit the same act. Only then, can forgiveness be given.
When we turn towards renewal, God responds by turning back towards us in forgiveness. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains: “Broadly defined, teshuva is more than just repentance from sin; it is a spiritual reawakening, a desire to strengthen the connection between oneself and the sacred .... At the root of the notion of teshuva lies the concept of return (shivah) - return, not only to the past ... but to the Divine source of all being.”
Before we can repair our relationship with God, we have to renew and repair our relationships to our close friends and family. Relationships require ways of fixing problems that develop over time. Sometimes these problems or mistakes are major—with severe consequences. Other times, they are minor and are significant only when they build up over a year. Have you ever noticed that when you are driving down a straight road or highway, you constantly need to make tiny corrections to the left or right with the wheel. Even in seemingly perfect relationships, there is always a need for adjustments. There is always a need for Teshuvah, to return to the potential of each relationship.
While it is not always easy to find our way back to the path of our potential, it is easy to take small steps one at a time. Rabbi Israel Salanter—known for his moral teachings and behavior—once asked a group of his students how difficult it is to completely change one’s direction. His students answered one at a time with long explanations of how a Jews should do tshuvah and perfect their actions. After nodding and listening to them go on and on, he stopped them and started walking quietly towards one end of the room. Right before he was about to walk into a wall he stopped and repeated his question. How difficult is it to completely change your direction? All it takes is one step. With a pivot he extricated himself from his collision course with the wall. That first step changed his direction 180 degrees. He quickly dismissed the class and continued walking out of the room.
We have to grow; that is our unique role as humans. Judaism acknowledges the need for change and provides us guidelines to wipe the slate clean from one year to the next. This allows us freedom for growth, a more meaningful growth that retains our past experiences as a guide. Tshuvah leaves us the freedom to choose a better path tomorrow than the one we took yesterday. The Kotzker Rebbe believed that to choose a path just because we were on it yesterday is the choice of a scoundrel. May Yom Kippur offer us the insight to return to the path of our potential and allow us to renew our relationships with our friends and family.
May we merit to finish Yom Kippur with our processors rebooted and the videos of our past and potential aligned. As we examine our past actions, may they inspire us and guide us in the year to come. May the High Holidays offer us the renewal and introspection we need so that we may have a meaningful New Year. Together, may we find the strength to fulfill our assignment in the renewal of the world. May the repair of relationships with those dear to us provide us comfort. And may our renewal lead to stronger communities and a peaceful world. Gmar Hatimah Tova. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.