September 18, 2020 | Reflect, Repair, and Resolve: Taking Responsibility for Our Very Lives (Erev Rosh HaShanah 5781/2020)
Maurice A. Salth
Dedicated in loving memory of Rabbi Aaron David Panken Zecher Tzadik Livracha
I miss you. I’m so glad we are here together. I can picture you and you are looking good.
Since you are watching me on a screen, let’s take advantage of this technology and play a game together. Are you willing?
It is a two-question Torah trivia contest about the first human beings in the Torah, Adam and Eve. Our tradition teaches we are all descendants of Eve and Adam1.
Many of you know that Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the legendary and infamous apple (the Rabbis do not believe it was an apple2), even though God told them not to.
But, do you know the answer, to these questions?
Question one: when God asks Adam why Adam ate the apple, what does Adam tell God?
Did Adam say:
A) I wanted knowledge.
B) Eve made me eat it.
C) The fruit looked amazing, so I took a bite; or
D) Hey, let’s put a giant one of these apples behind the centerfield fence
at the future N.Y. Mets baseball stadium!
Say your answer out loud.
Question number two: When God asks Eve why Eve ate the apple, did Eve say:
A) I wanted knowledge.
B) The fruit looked amazing, so I took a bite.
C) I am woman, hear me roar; or
D) The snake made me eat it.
Say your answer out loud.
Gentle people your time is up. Thank you for playing.
The correct answers are Adam tells God: Eve made me eat it and Eve tells God the snake made me eat it! Each of them chose independently and willingly to eat the apple. Yet, when God challenges them to take responsibility for their actions Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake.
A few verses later, after Cain commits fratricide, God asks him “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain retorts: “Am I my brother’s keeper? (The Torah does not answer Cain’s question3)”
These stories are two, of at least a dozen Torah tales4 whose goal is the same,
to teach the timeless charge we must take responsibility for our behavior.
This core value is fundamental to being a Jewish person and it is at the heart of these High Holy Days.
Now, you might think we would get a reprieve from the work of self-examination and repair when we are in the middle of a plague. In fact, the opposite is true. This is because when we do the work of taking responsibility for our actions, we reveal astute answers to our most pressing questions:
Just how will I find my way through this storm?
How can I remain strongly connected to my loved ones even though we are driving each other crazy?
And how can I best contribute to my struggling community?
This is a year unlike any other.
We are entering month seven of the pandemic. Each of us has been impacted. Going out to dinner, grocery shopping and entering an elevator now gives us agita. Jobs have been uprooted. Family members and friends have suffered, some have died. Now fall has arrived with a return to colder weather, school, threat of flu, and more.
My friends, we are in it, navigating one of the most difficult periods of our lives.
For millennia the practice of taking responsibility for our actions has kept our people centered, humble and grounded.
Each of us has flaws; this comes with our humanity. Instead of denying, excusing
and ignoring our mistakes, Judaism encourages us to do these three things:
Reflect upon our missteps.
Repair any damage done; and then
Resolve to live better.
This is hard work and the reward for doing so, priceless, the punishment for not, heart breaking and worse.
These High Holy Days ask each of us first to reflect upon our actions. In Hebrew this called a chesbon hanefesh, an accounting of our soul.
I have good news and bad news about this soul accounting. Bad news first: we are not perfect. And now the good news: we are not perfect.
This was true for Adam and Eve and it is true for each of us.
We live in a world where perfection is dangled before us as attainable; as a goal we should strive towards. A captivating concept, but not a Jewish one. Imperfection, teshuvah and chesbon hanefesh, now these are Jewish notions.
Just how are we to do an accounting of our soul? There is no Turbo Tax software for this one. For many, the pandemic has starkly revealed our strengths and weaknesses We can harness this insight to assist us in assessing our behavior.
We can utilize the Jewish teaching that urges us to ask these questions5 of ourselves:
How have I been treating myself?
How have I been treating the most important people in my life?
How have I been treating other people?
And how do I want to improve the way I behave towards myself, my loved ones
We can write our answers into a journal, record them onto our phones and discuss them with trusted friends and family.
For generations Jews on Rosh Hashanah have reviewed their deeds. The time for us to engage in this sacred task has arrived.
After we reflect, the repair work begins.
When I was young, television’s most popular show was called Happy Days. Its protagonist was the indomitable Arthur Fonzerelli, the Fonz. He was a mensch who happily cloaked himself in 1950s cool: leather jackets, motorcycles, and hair product, lots of hair product.
The Fonz did everything right except he could not admit when he was wrong.
When he tried to say the word, he would get stuck. He’d go “I was wwrrr 6!”
It was funny, and utterly human.
The Fonz knew when he had erred, but his repair skills were pathetic. I’m sure we know people with the same problem. Perhaps we are that person?
Thankfully, even in our perfection-obsessed society, there are individuals who have been able to make amends after their mistakes.
A million years ago, or what feels like that, on March 9th, NBA star Rudy Gobert downplayed reporters’ questions about the coronavirus. Then he playfully touched every microphone that surrounded him. Two days later, Mr. Gobert was the first NBA player to be diagnosed with COVID-19 and the NBA suspended the season.
What captured my attention was his statement after he was diagnosed. He wrote: “[I am embarrassed.] I would like to publicly apologize to the people that I may have endangered.I was careless and make no excuse7.”
Then he donated more than $500,000 to assist people affected by COVID-19.
Consider what type of nation we would be living in if public figures who made mistakes in sports, business and government always took responsibility for their behavior8.
In the 12th Century, Maimonides taught teshuvah, Hebrew for return and repair
occurs when one admits a mistake, expresses regret, and vows not to repeat the hurtful action.
For centuries this has been our blueprint. Apologies are central to repair.
Linguist Robin Lakoff teaches that “[sincere] apologies are basic to our social interactions…egregious wrongs cannot be made right without them9.” Sincere means a clear, direct statement of regret, with no qualifications. “I’m sorry if you were offended,” is not acceptable10.
When we are on the receiving end of an apology, our obligation is to listen
and seriously consider the expression of regret.
An apology is not the only act that results in healing, but it is often a first step,
a big one.
After an apology thorough healing still takes time, in some cases, years,
but it can happen.
We have the time to do this repair work.
As I prepared for this new year, I identified some wrongs I needed to repair. An instance when I did not take care of myself. An event when I should have stood up for a Black friend. And more than a few times when I acted poorly towards someone I love.
I find it challenging to say I’m sorry. There is a reason why Adam and Eve didn’t apologize and why us humans avoid doing so. It is emotionally demanding to face our flaws. It requires courage and can be embarrassing.
Our tradition recognizes that genuine apologies can assist in restoring our relationships. They lead to our growth and positive change and help us to sleep at night.
And trust me, we need our sleep.
Maimonides, also wrote about how easy it is to repeat our misdeeds. We are imperfect after all. Once we reflect and repair, it is important to complete one last step - resolve to improve.
Pirke Avot 11 teaches “one good deed will bring another good deed, one transgression will bring another transgression12.” Many of us have experienced the practical truth of this Rabbinic wisdom, one mitzvah leads to another. The hardest part is often at the start.
Change is essential and it is tough.
Our family and friends, professionals such as doctors and therapists, journaling and flat out willpower can help us change.
Here at Central our communal worship, study, meditations and relationships with each another can also help to strengthen our resolve. When we finish reading a book of Torah here, we proclaim Hazak Hazak V’nitchazek – be strong be strong and together we will be strengthened.
We say this, because when we study Torah, pray and engage in community with one another we are strengthening our pledge to being the people we want to be.
So it is with us tonight.
Together, we bolster each other.
In the beginning there was Adam and Eve. We may be their descendants, but we do not have to repeat their mistakes. We can forge another path forward.
This new year, it’s going to demand the best from us.
Our loved ones demand the best from us.
Our world demands our best.
As we welcome in Rosh Hashanah with apples and honey, and with gratitude for our very lives, let us commit to taking responsibility for our behavior.
Let us reflect on our past.
Repair what we have broken;
and resolve to do our best within our given time.
References and Additional Teachings
1 Sandhedrin 38a https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.38a?lang=bi
2 The Rabbis do not believe it was an apple. See: https://www.aju.edu/ziegler-school-rabbinic-studies/our-torah/back-issues/they-say-eve-tempted-adam
3 Genesis 4:9. Although the Torah does not respond to Cain’s question (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) We know the answer is definitively yes.
4 Torah verses with theme of taking responsibility for one’s behavior include: God’s words after the flood (Genesis 8:21-9:17), Jacob and Rebecca tricking Isaac to give Jacob the innermost blessing reserved for Esau (Genesis chapter 27) and when Jacob apologizes to Esau (Genesis chapter 33), when Joseph’s brothers lie to their father Jacob about Joseph’s disappearance (Genesis 37: 31-35), the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis chapter 38), Aaron blaming the Israelites for building the golden calf (Exodus 32:21-24) and Bilaam and Balam (Numbers 24:10-13).
5 inspired by the Jewish spiritual practice of Mussar, see https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-jewish-spiritual-path-to-character-development/
6 See these video examples of his inability to say he was wrong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwkU8-d1gIk and https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x26yzgd
7 Rudy Gobert’s apology: https://www.instagram.com/p/B9pXSG8l_J6/
8 You do not need to play in the NBA to be a superstar in the work of repairing one’s mistake. I was deeply moved and inspired by a story of reflection and repair that my teacher Michele shared with me. She and her friends gave me permission to write about it.
This July, Michele’s dearest friends called and invited her to find a week to spend in their home in upstate New York. The home was big enough for them to stay in safely together. They picked a week in August. She did all the logistical work to be able to get away. She found a cat sitter, re-arranged her busy work schedule and was careful to stay healthy in the age of COVID-19. She was packed and ready to go when her friends called. “We went out last night to an outdoor party,” they told her. “We didn’t wear masks. No one wore masks. We’re so sorry.” Michele was stunned. They didn’t have to say it, the week they had planned had to be cancelled.
Their apology was sincere, but Michele was still bruised. These were people that she loved deeply, perhaps that is why she was so hurt.
It took her a bit of time, but she called them back and told them she was still recovering from what happened. Her friend consoled her, writing “I absolutely understand your feels of being bruised. It’s real!” He added that he too had been struggling with his poor choice all week. He wrote: “I struggle with forgiving myself. Mistakes have many layers. One of the deepest is regretting the loss it caused. We were all looking forward to your visit. The loss: knowing what it meant to have you here vs. you not being here, as a result of our actions, was heavy. Love you deeply.”
When he gave his permission to share this story, he wrote: “This is a teaching moment, and I am grateful that our story will be told to help others as they struggle with and heal from looking back, taking stock, making amends and forgiving.
Michele’s friends made a mistake and they took responsibility for it, not everyone would. They could have lied or made up an excuse. They did not. They told her head on what happened and they began to make amends.
In a way, their choice to do so honored their true friendship with her and in some remarkable way, this event has the possibility to strengthen their friendship even more. When we take responsibility for our mistake like they did, unexcepted blessings can follow.
10 See also psychologist Adam Grant’s article “How Not to Apologize in Quarantine https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/08/smarter-living/how-not-to-apologize-in-quarantine.html
11 Pirke Avot is often translated at The Ethics of The Fathers and is a compilation of wisdom statements from the early Rabbis. See: https://reformjudaism.org/pirkei-avot
12 Pirke Avot 4.2 in Hebrew: מצווה גוררת מצווה, עברה גוררת עברה
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