Toward Transformation (Or The Holy Atonement Reset Button): Kol Nidre 5783
October 04, 2022
In the melody of Kol Nidre, I hear aching. I hear yearning. I hear the heartbroken cry of a soul who knows they’ve missed the mark. How the melody descends – and descends again – and then rises in hope! It’s such a powerful piece of music, I suspect most of us don’t think much about the fact that it’s a setting of… a legal filing.
In that legal filing, we ask to be released from “all the vows, promises, and oaths we make with God, the things we say only to regret them, the things we promise and forget, the resolutions we fail to keep.” We make this request in front of a beit din, a rabbinic court – symbolized by the rabbi or cantor flanked with two Torah scrolls. But really we’re making this request in front of the ultimate Judge. The Kadosh Baruch Hu – the Holy Blessed One. God on high.
This is not usually my go-to image of God. I like to imagine Shechinah, the immanent, reachable, intimate aspect of God, sitting in my car in bluejeans and listening to me pour out my heart as I drive. I like to connect with God as Creator, as Beloved, as Source of Life. But Kol Nidre invites me into a different kind of dialogue with the sacred. It invites me to open myself to the metaphor of God as source of Justice.
Tonight I imagine God in judicial robes. I can’t quite imagine God’s face – the image flickers between every face of every human being who has ever been or ever will be – but I imagine an expression at once serious and kind. Both gentle and solemn. Ready to give us the benefit of the doubt, and also able to see right through us to the things we don’t want to admit.
As some of y’all may know, earlier this year I got a summons for jury duty. The jury being selected was for the trial of two men accused of involvement in a fairly high-profile local shooting. When many in the jury pool had been disqualified, the judge called each of us who remained up to the bench for a private conference. Almost all of us in the room were white, as are 87% of Berkshire county residents.
The judge asked me questions like: the defendants in this case are people of color. Would that make it hard for you to be fair and keep an open mind? One of the defendants speaks Spanish and needs an interpreter. Are you inclined to think negatively about him for that reason? Jurors must operate on the presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise. Are you able to do that?
And I thought: I could opt out of jury service by claiming to have bias in one of these ways. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who would do that. So I answered truthfully, and the next three weeks were a rollercoaster.
Witness testimony was sometimes searing in its intensity. Some days I came home and cried. Each day I thought about Pirkei Avot’s injunction to "Give others the benefit of the doubt,” which is a lot like what the judge told us to do.
It isn’t easy to balance the presumption of innocence and the possibility of guilt. Justice is hard work. It asks us to listen attentively, to root out preconceptions or prejudice, and to approach everything with an open mind. It also asks us to be willing to call things what they are, and to accept that choices have consequences.
That set of instructions makes for pretty good spiritual practice: listening without bias, giving the benefit of the doubt, cultivating empathy and upholding accountability. Our mystics would say, this balances hesed / boundless love, and gevurah / boundaries. God holds these qualities in perfect balance, and we strive to do the same. And what happens when hesed and gevurah are in harmonious balance?
We get this year’s high holiday theme, Tiferet. Balance that lifts us up. Or as we learned on erev Rosh Hashanah, the sacred "and."
We’re supposed to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and uphold accountability. But what about ourselves? I may never know someone else’s heart, but I know my own, if I’m willing to look at it. Tonight we stand before the Judge and ask for our vows to be annulled. For errors bein adam l’Makom, “between us and our Source” – where we miss the mark in our spiritual practice or our intentions or our hearts – God forgives us with hesed, overflowing love. I believe this with all my heart.
But for errors bein adam l’chavero, where we miss the mark in relationship with each other, Yom Kippur does not atone until we do our work.
As Talmud teaches, “Yom Kippur does not forgive transgressions between people unless they seek forgiveness.” (Yoma 8:9) Or in the words of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, “The holy atonement reset button doesn’t work until we’ve cleaned up our own mess.”
According to Maimonides, a person doesn’t just get to mess up, mumble, “Sorry,” and get on with it. They’re not entitled to forgiveness if they haven’t done the work of repair. (And they’re not necessarily entitled to forgiveness even if they have.) Another human being’s suffering is not magically erased because the person who caused it says that they didn’t mean to do it.
This is true in our personal lives, and it’s also true of politicians caught saying racist things, celebrities named as sexual abusers, human resources departments that cover up employee complaints, and governments perpetrating harm against individuals or groups. Fixing damage involves taking specific steps; there’s a process. We can’t ever undo what happened, but we can transform the situation and ourselves.
That’s from her new book On Repentance and Repair. It draws on Judaism’s most enduring text about repentance, Hilchot Teshuvah by Moses Maimonides.
“Another human being’s suffering is not magically erased because the person who caused it says that they didn’t mean to do it.” I wish we could teach that to everyone. Kindergarteners. Adults. Celebrities. Politicians. Honestly the kindergarteners might have the easiest time internalizing it. The rest of us might get defensive, or deflect, or refuse to recognize that the other person is suffering at all, much less that our own actions caused the suffering.
This book applies Rambam’s principles of teshuvah on both a national and a personal scale. There are chapters about harm in the public square, about what national repentance can look like, about what our institutions can and should do. And… tonight I am focusing closer to home. Kol Nidre is a night for taking an accounting of our own souls. So I want to share R. Ruttenberg’s distillation of teshuvah into five simple steps. Simple, but not easy.
Step one is naming and owning harm. Rambam calls this “public confession,” and it’s evoked in our communal Yom Kippur prayers. Those prayers are in the plural – “we’ve abused, we’ve betrayed...” But often naming and owning harm needs to be in the first person singular. “I recognize that I did this specific thing that caused harm.” And it needs to be specific.
If you’re thinking:
I didn’t hurt anyone this year.
Or: every harsh word I spoke was necessary, they deserved it.
Or: it’s not my fault if they felt attacked.
– stop and notice… and ask yourself why you can’t bear to see yourself as the bad guy. What parts of your self-image would crack if you had to admit that you had hurt someone?
Remember, “Another human being’s suffering is not magically erased because the person who caused it says that they didn’t mean to do it.” Or the person who caused it says, “I don’t know why you’re so sensitive about this.” Sometimes we're more comfortable being the victim of harm than owning the fact that we've also caused harm. Because if I'm a victim, then I don't have to do all this work. But if I caused harm to someone, I have a responsibility to name it and own it and try to bring repair.
“Addressing harm,” R. Ruttenberg writes, “is possible only when we bravely face the gap between the story we tell about ourselves—the one in which we’re the hero, fighting the good fight, doing our best, behaving responsibly and appropriately in every context—and the reality of our actions.” Harm happens to all of us, and all of us cause harm sometimes. This doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It means we’re people, full stop. And the reason to do this work is that we want to be people who care about each other, and that includes admitting when we screw up.
Step two is starting to change. She acknowledges that this one can take a long time, and can coexist with the steps that follow. Changing ourselves is not one-and-done, it’s continuing work. And if we don’t deal with our underlying issues, we’ll bring ourselves repeatedly to the same conflicts and flashpoints.
So we need to deal with our “stuff.” Our habits, our unconscious patterns, our blind spots. Maybe something in childhood shaped us. Maybe we’re carrying old trauma we haven’t wanted to examine. Like jury duty, this step of teshuvah asks us to notice and root out preconceptions and prejudice that get in the way of seeing clearly. It asks us to look inward and discern why we do the things we do.
This step asks balance between judging ourselves too harshly, and not judging ourselves seriously enough. If we are too harsh with ourselves, we'll be too demoralized to change. And if we're too lenient with ourselves, we'll never have the impetus to become better than we have been.
Step three is restitution and accepting consequences.
If I broke your favorite coffee mug, I have to buy you a new one at least as nice as the old one. If I took money from you, I need to repay it and then some. When it comes to harms like stealing or property damages, this is pretty straightforward. But it’s also true for other kinds of harm – emotional harm, reputational harm, psychological harm.
Many harms can never be undone. We still have to make restitution. I think of the Hebrew verb לשלם / l’shalem, which means to pay someone, to make restitution, to make them whole, to bring them peace. That's what we're after here: making restitution so significantly that the injured party can feel some peace.
The other piece of this step is accepting consequences. Maybe the person who was harmed draws a boundary and says “I don’t want to speak to you anymore.” Or you admit to stealing money out of your parent’s wallet, and they say “Thank you for coming clean, and also, you’re grounded.” Accepting consequences is part of teshuvah. This is true on the interpersonal scale of a parent reprimanding a child. It is also true on the much larger scale of celebrities, public figures, and government.
Step four is apology. Notice how far down the list we’ve gone before getting to “I’m sorry.” This might seem counterintuitive: if I realize I’ve harmed someone, shouldn’t I apologize right away? But Rambam and Rabbi Ruttenberg say nope. I’ve got to own up to my mistake, start doing my inner work to become a better person, make restitution and accept whatever consequences come my way, and then I can apologize.
I love this because it cuts off the avenue of “I said I was sorry, what else do you want me to do?” (Real teshuvah, that's what!) We don’t get to say we’re sorry until we’re well and truly doing the work of trying to change. And, she notes, the apology needs to be genuine: spoken from a place of vulnerability, reflecting real regret and sorrow. “I’m sorry if you were hurt by this perfectly reasonable thing that I did” is not an apology.
Step five is making different choices. That’s the biggest one, and the most difficult one. It’s also how we know we’ve actually changed. When we’re met with a similar opportunity to cause harm, and we choose otherwise, repeatedly. “The goal here isn’t merely making amends,” Rabbi Ruttenberg writes. “It’s transformation.”
The goal is becoming a person who wouldn’t do the harmful thing again. That’s real teshuvah: growing into the self we know we could be if we lived up to our highest ideals. Rabbi Ruttenberg writes:
The work of repentance, all the way through, is the work of transformation. It’s the work of facing down false stories and engaging with painful reality. It’s the work of being open to seeing ourselves as we really are…. It’s about figuring out how to be the kind of person who sees others’ suffering and takes responsibility for any role we might have in causing it.
The work of teshuvah asks us to look inward and to make outward changes. (There's that sacred and again.) We need to engage in self-reflection and in taking action to make things right. This balance of introspection and outward action -- there's Tiferet again.
In the criminal trial where I served as a juror, one man was acquitted and the other was found guilty. I wonder whether the one who was acquitted feels like he got a second chance. I wish the man who was convicted could have an opportunity to learn about owning harms, making restitution, offering real apology, starting anew. In his prison sentence I see consequences, but not restitution or repair: not for the family of the boy who was shot, nor for the one who fired the gun. I do believe that repentance is always possible. I don’t think our criminal justice system is designed for transformation.
For mis-steps that harm ourselves and our Source, God is ready to forgive. When our actions or inaction harm others, forgiveness isn’t God’s to grant. The holy atonement reset button won’t work until we do what we can make it right. Whether or not forgiveness happens, this is the work. It might be the work of a lifetime, and that’s okay. It’s better to be doing it than ignoring it. Now is always a good time to start.
I’ll close with one more anecdote from R. Ruttenberg’s book. This comes from Danielle Sered, talking about a young man going through a restorative justice process. She says to him, “Now that the threat of prison is no longer hanging over your head, are you just going to go back and do the same stuff you used to do?” And he says, “Nah.” She asks why, and he points to his heart and says, “the judge is in here now.”
May the Judge be in here now, in our hearts, opening us to the work of repentance. May this Yom Kippur strengthen our resolve to clean up our own mess. To practice these steps not just today, but every day. To make teshuvah with humility. To balance inner work and outer transformation. And in that merit, may we be sealed for a good and sweet year.
This is the sermon I offered at Kol Nidre at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.) Shared with deepest gratitude to R. Danya Ruttenberg for her work, and to all of my advance readers.