(September 18, 2018 / JNS) Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur on Sept. 19, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. They will go to synagogue, fast, dress in white (like angels), refrain from wearing leather, and ask G-d to forgive them (for their sins and wrongdoings) and to seal them in the proverbial Book of Life for the upcoming year.
On Yom Kippur, Jews also perform the important act of teshuvah, where they seek forgiveness from those whom they have wronged. While the act of teshuvah is oftentimes considered in the religious context or during the Jewish High Holidays, perhaps it should find a more regular place in our lives, and in the way that we interact and communicate with one another?
Recently, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who is no stranger to controversy, tweeted that “Trump is damaging the dream of America more than any terrorist attack ever could.” Apparently, Scarborough was promoting a column he wrote one day before the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Scarborough said “the question for voters this fall is whether their country will move beyond this troubled chapter in history, or whether they will continue supporting a politician who has done more damage to the dream of America than any foreign adversary ever could.” Many people were hurt and/or outraged by the fact that he allegedly chose to politicize the worst terror attack to ever occur on American soil.
Scarborough also faced a backlash earlier this year for provocative comments that many considered vile and insensitive. Speaking about the country’s immigration policies and laws under U.S. President Donald Trump, Scarborough stated, “I know children are being ripped from their mother’s arms, even while they’re being breast-fed. I know children are being marched away to showers, marched away to showers. Being told they are—just like the Nazis—said that they were taking people to the showers and then they never came back.” These comments offended many people who had lost friends, family or loved ones in the Holocaust.
Scarborough was likely well within his rights to make these comments. However, having the right to say something does not necessarily mean that it is right or appropriate to say it. While differences of opinion are expected and encouraged in a free and open society, care must be taken so as to avoid hurting others unnecessarily. When our words or actions hurt another person, Judaism provides a “road map” for repentance, otherwise known as teshuvah.
Commonly translated as “repentance,” teshuvah literally means “return.” Teshuvah is the soul’s capacity to return to its original state, to its pristine core. As we pass through life, we are invariably coarsened and sullied by our errors and misjudgments, or simply by the travails of physical life; but our innermost self, the “veritable part of G‑d” that is the essence of our soul—remains untouched. Teshuvah is the G‑d-given ability to access and reconnect to that untouched self, re-establish our lives upon its foundation, and even redefine a negative past in its purifying light.
What does repentance mean? If a child hits his friend during a playdate and quickly says that he is “sorry,” does that constitute teshuvah? Suppose that two adults on opposite sides of the political spectrum get into a heated argument and one of them says something very hurtful to the other one, only to quickly apologize a few minutes later with a generic “I’m sorry.” Does that suffice?
According to the Rambam (Maimonides), “In order to do teshuvah for a sin committed, you must: 1) regret (and deal with) what you have done wrong; 2) commit yourself to not repeat the act (complete teshuvah would be when you encounter yourself in the exact same situation and refrain from committing the sin); and 3) verbally confess the wrongdoing committed.” In this sense, true/complete teshuvah is not easy to achieve because it requires the wrongdoer to commit that he/she will refrain from committing the same wrong in the future.
Therefore, in Scarborough’s case, doing teshuvah would compel him to: 1) admit that his specific words were wrong; 2) genuinely/truly regret what he said (unlike the child or the adult in the examples who quickly apologized and moved on); and 3) commit that he will not repeat the same wrongdoing in the future.
Of course, it is not just the TV morning-show host who would benefit from doing teshuvah. Sadly, we hear comments by members of government, the media and everyday people that are cruel and/or mean-spirited. We hear calls for people to “engage” members of Congress, personal attacks against reporters and members of the press, vile remarks against a Supreme Court nominee during his confirmation hearing, and/or personal and tasteless comments by so-called “comedians.” In other words, all people, by virtue of being human beings, engage in wrongdoing at some point.
How should we view people who engage in wrongdoing? Are they “bad” people because they committed a chet (“sin”)? Obviously not. In the Bible, the term chait is used in reference to a slingshot that “missed the target.” Similarly, when we say something irresponsible or hurtful, we have simply missed the target or made a mistake “due to a lack of focus, concentration or skill.”
The act of teshuvah is powerful, and compels people to truly pay attention to what they say and/or how they act. When people verbally confess their wrongdoings and commit not to repeat them, they are forced to be more cognizant of what they say and how they act. In that sense, teshuvah facilitates responsibility. It also fosters more cordial and respectful dialogue.
Interestingly, teshuvah does not compel people with different views and/or opinions to compromise their positions/beliefs. Rather, it gives people the opportunity to look deep within their souls, to start “fresh,” to learn from their past mistakes, and to treat others with kindness and respect. “Every human being has a soul, a pure piece of [G-dliness] that distinguishes us from the animals. When we do something wrong, it is because the soul’s “voice” has become temporarily muted by the roar of the physical body. This confusion is what we call the yetzer hara [“evil inclination”]. But our essence remains pure. We only need to make a few adjustments―and we’re back on target!”
In such a divided country, this is vital.
Elad Hakim is a writer and an attorney. His articles have been published in The Daily Caller, The Federalist, The Western Journal, American Thinker, World Net Daily, Sun-Sentinel and other online publications.