Temple Aliyah


Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Posted on October 4, 2018

When I was a kid in elementary school I attended a Jewish day school. Every year at this time, our teachers taught us that if you commit a sin against God, you have to ask forgiveness from God directly. That’s why we beat our chests and spend so much time in services today. We were also taught that if we committed a sin against another human being, then we had to apologize to that person directly.

We thought that was the coolest thing. Here was God, the all-powerful, all-knowing God, and there were things that even God couldn’t do. God could not forgive us for our sins against each other; we had to get forgiveness directly (okay, so we didn’t exactly have a great concept of “cool”).

We were told that we had to ask our fellow classmate for forgiveness, and if we asked three times, and they didn’t forgive us, then the onus was on them. So, what did we do? At recess, we ran around the playground shouting after each other, “Do you forgive me, do you forgive me, do you forgive me? No? Okay, it’s your fault now!”

It wasn’t exactly a path for true teshuva, true repentance. Here we were, kids, running around trying to forgive and be forgiven at the same time. Each one of us was chasing the other trying to make sure that we were clean. We were not paying any attention to the people from whom we were asking forgiveness. The result was that no one was able to either truly atone or truly forgive.

I’d like to say that we are much more evolved than those kids chasing each other around the playground demanding forgiveness, but I’m not so sure.

This is the time of year set aside to reflect and improve. We ask ourselves what it is we haven’t we done right. We think of how we’ve let others down, and how they’ve let us down as well. The process of Teshuva is a complicated one. It’s an intricate web of internal and external forgiveness. Even the name, teshuvah has multiple layers. For some the word means “repent” or “atone,” for others, it means “return.” For the rabbis, it means returning to God, that we have sinned, and the process of teshuvah means that we turn back to God.


There is another way to see it. Teshuva is a return; a return to being ourselves and to helping us become better. Teshuva is the process of self-improvement. We know that we’re not expected to be perfect no one expects that. Let me repeat myself, no one, no human nor anything divine expects perfection from us. If they do, that’s called abuse.

Just because we’re not expected to be perfect doesn’t mean that we can be satisfied with our status quo. Bettering ourselves is a process, and the rabbis knew this. In Pirke avot we read, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This is the work of teshuva. This is the work of becoming better people. We will not finish it, but that doesn’t mean that we’re exempt from trying.

Every day during the month leading up to RH, we read psalm 27. It is called the penitential psalm. In it, we read the words, כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי; וַיהוָה יַאַסְפֵנִי. though my father and my mother have forsaken me, God will take me up.

Unfortunately, at some point in our lives, our parents will abandon us. But this sentence is not just about the death of our parents. The psalm is telling us that even our parents, our primary caregivers, the people upon whom we’re dependent, even they will disappoint us. The psalm is saying that every single person in our lives will disappoint us at some point or another.

And we will, at some point or another disappoint them as well. The challenge we’re up against isn’t to rid ourselves of these moments, that’s impossible. Part of the price of the beautiful gift of vulnerability is that we can and will disappoint and be disappointed. Those only happen when we let ourselves be vulnerable. It’s our job then to be transparent and vulnerable when get hurt or hurt someone else. Too often we beat ourselves up when we disappoint someone we love. We beat ourselves up in private, and then, when they bring our attention to their hurt or disappointment, we’re already so tortured that we get defensive cold. We stonewall the people we love not because we don’t care that we hurt them, but because we’re flagellating ourselves so harshly that we’re embarrassed to talk to them.


And so, we end up being just like the kids, chasing each other around and demanding forgiveness from each other.

We fling our apologies out between gritted teeth and if our loved one doesn’t accept it wholeheartedly, we say, it’s on them. If you’re wondering if this applies to you, here’s a test to offer yourself. We can ask ourselves when we’re more honest and open with our mistakes. Is it when we’re with the person we’ve hurt? Do we make ourselves vulnerable and allow ourselves to feel the full hurt they experience? Do we allow ourselves to remain open and refrain from the defensiveness and shame that comes when we’ve hurt someone, or do we issue denials, rationalizations, and half apologies in their presence, and beat ourselves up when we’re alone?

We don’t engage in these habits because we don’t care. It’s the opposite. We care too much. We flagellate ourselves so much that by the time we’re in front of another person asking for forgiveness, we’re so raw that every word stabs us in a wound that is still fresh and tender.

Unfortunately, as Jews, we’re born with guilt. Beating ourselves up is our own national pastime. But it’s misguided. We need to love ourselves in private. We need to be compassionate and understanding even of those parts of ourselves that are sub-optimal. And, when our loved one comes to us with their hurt, when we’re standing together acknowledging our failure, we come to them with vulnerability. We lay ourselves bare in asking forgiveness. We open ourselves up to hear their hurt and pain.

If for no reason other than the fact that they’re much more likely to forgive us than we are to forgive ourselves. We know that their true forgiveness is a prerequisite for our own forgiveness. And even then, it might not be enough.

The process of teshuva is a process in which we must engage. We must become better people. But we can do so while loving ourselves as well. The one relationship that we will never get away from is the relationship we have with ourselves. It becomes the basis for every relationship we ever have. If we’re judgmental of ourselves, we’ll be judgmental of others. If we’re critical or abusive of ourselves, we’ll criticize and abuse those around us.


Think about this for a second. How often do you look in the mirror? Most of us would say that we look in the mirror at least a couple of times a day. The problem is that whenever we look in the mirror, we are looking at what is wrong, what needs to be fixed. We poke and prod, we pull and flatten seeing all the flaws, but when was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and loved what you saw? When was the last time you (and I know some of you may laugh at this) said something nice to yourself?

Loving and being compassionate to yourself does not mean you can’t improve. Self-compassion is a prerequisite for positive change.

It’s our obligation as beings created in the divine image. It’s our burden.

And it’s our privilege. We get to improve. We get to become better versions of ourselves. And the only way to do that is through self-compassion. Some people worry that self-compassion is selfish, that if we’re nice to ourselves and like ourselves the way you are, then we won’t change. But the kinder we are to ourselves, the kinder we will be with others. Self-compassion is a cornerstone of positive relationships. The more judgmental and critical we are with ourselves, the more likely we’ll be judgmental and critical of others.

In the words of Dr. Christopher Germer, “accepting our flaws doesn’t mean that our behavior can’t or shouldn’t change. Each of us has room to grow and grow we must.” But, he says, “We start by befriending who we are today, no matter how fumbling, incomplete, or clueless we are.”

It is my hope and prayer for all of us that over the next few days, we are blessed to experience the give and take of real forgiveness. May we learn from our mistakes, and compassionately guide ourselves back, may we do teshuva and return to the people we want to be.


Shana tova

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