The Stumbling Blocks Faced on the Road to Repentance


The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are prime time for teshuvah, often translated as “repentance.”

By David Holzel 

Most of us have heard the pillow parable. A Jewish man goes around town, talking smack about the rabbi. Later, the man feels guilty and approaches the sage, asking if there was anything he could do to make it up to him.

The rabbi tells him to cut open a pillow and let the feathers fly across town, which the man does. “Now go gather them up,” the rabbi says.

“That’s impossible,” the man says. “The feathers are everywhere.”

“And so are the words you spoke about me,” the rabbi says.

The moral is clear. For gossip, known in Jewish tradition as lashon hara, or evil speech, the gossiper can’t expect forgiveness from the victim, no matter how bad he or she feels. The words, so freely spread, take on a life of their own.

The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are prime time for teshuvah, often translated as “repentance,” but closer in meaning to “turning” or “returning.” Jewish tradition has separate requirements for repenting for misdeeds against God (praying the Yom Kippur service, for one) and for wrongs committed against other people.

Just as in the case of gossiping, there are wrongs for which you just can’t gather the feathers again.

“You do something in public and things spread,” says Rabbi Avis Miller, president of the Open Dor Foundation. “With social media it amplifies the results.”

Teshuvah is not a single act. It is more often described as a process that takes the penitent through the stages of realization and regret, stopping the harmful action, articulating the wrong and asking for forgiveness, and resolving never to commit the act again.

Rambam, the medieval scholar, explained how someone knows if he or she has truly done teshuvah, Miller says. “It’s when you’re put in the same position and you do the right thing. That’s the test.”

Asking and receiving forgiveness is often key to clearing one’s conscience. “The emotional well-being of the person who has done wrong — that’s what Yom Kippur is all about,” she says.

But sometimes that’s not possible to ask for and receive forgiveness. A parent who has lapsed into senility or who has died cannot forgive you. Neither can someone you wronged who has disappeared.

“When I was growing up, there was a girl I was not nice to,” says writer Chaya Deitsch. “It still eats at me at what it must have felt like to her. Her family moved away and I wonder if it was because of me.”

In cases when it’s impossible to do teshuvah, Miller offers this adage, “If you can’t fix what’s broken, fix something else. If you can’t reconcile with that person, if they had a particular value, say, helping the homeless, you do that.”

According to tradition, if one sincerely repents, the victim must forgive him. Forgiveness may not be immediate, but if the penitent asks for forgiveness three times and is refused each time, he or she is considered forgiven. The unforgiving person is now guilty of bearing a grudge.

Certainly the stage where the richest stories of wrongs and forgiveness are played out is the family.

Deitsch’s new memoir, Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family, to be published next month by Schocken, is the latest in the mini-genre of books by authors who grew up in haredi homes but left religion behind.

It joins a small bookshelf containing Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return, Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots and Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir by Shalom Auslander.

Like the other memoirists, Deitsch became attracted to secular culture. Unlike them, no scandal surrounded her actions and she was not written off by her family. The difference, she says, is “they came from communities where it was just not tolerated.”

Because the family did not break up, it was able to improvise ways to ask forgiveness. “We do forgive each other,” she says.

Despite their confusion and disappointment, Deitsch’s parents decided that family — not social standing in their Chasidic community or strict adherence to ritual observance — came first, she says. “At the heart of it, you stick to family, no matter what.”

When it comes to the question of forgiveness in these memoirs of turning away and rupture, Deitsch wonders, “Who needs to forgive who? It’s a two-way street. Whose cautionary tales are these for?”

Ultimately, teshuvah is a two-way street.



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