When You Can’t Fix Your Mistake
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shanah tovah! As children, we are taught that when we make a mistake, or do something wrong, we must apologize for it, and try not to do it again. It seems pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, the older we get, the more we realize that not everything in life is that clear cut. Sometimes we make mistakes without even realizing it. Sometimes, we are caught between a rock and hard place. Sometimes, we just cannot fix a mistake that we made. What happens then? How do we move forward?
On the Union for Reform Judaism’s web site, there is an animated film by HananHarchol titled, “Repair,” from his series, “Jewish Food For Thought, The Animated Series.” In this video, a father and son are discussing what to do when someone cannot fix a mistake they made. The characters, Hanan and his father, are discussing what happened to the father’s friend, Shlomo Eisenberg. Shlomo worked for a company. His job was to get people to invest their money, and he paid them 25% a year in return, guaranteed. When asked where the money came from, Shlomo would not answer(either he actually did not know, or he knew, and didn’t want to get in trouble). It was a Ponzi scheme. He swindled many people in their community out of a lot of money. Most had invested their entire life savings with him. In the end, Shlomo took his own life. This story leads Hanan and his father to talk about what, if anything, Shlomo could have done to try to rectify the situation.
Hanan is of the opinion that Shlomo could never be forgiven for what he did, except if he was able to pay back everyone. However, the amount of money was so large, there was no way Shlomo was ever going to get enough money to pay back his victims. Hanan’s father, on the other hand, had a different opinion. He would have preferred that Shlomo try to do teshuvah.
Teshuvah literally means to “turn.” On Yom Kippur, we do teshuvah, we turn away from any past wrongdoing, and turn towards the path of righteousness. If Shlomohad tried to do teshuvah, would it have mattered? What if his victims never forgave him, despite his best efforts to do teshuvah; would that have mattered?
Teshuvah does not mean “to fix.” No matter what the sin or mistake was, the fact is, we did something wrong, and that will never change. What we can do is change our ways so that we will never do it again. Teshuvah is the process that helps us to make that change.
Our great sage of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, said that there are six important steps to teshuvah. The first is regret. When we commit a misdeed, the moment we feel bad about it is the first step towards repentance, because it shows that we acknowledge the error of our ways. The second step is renunciation – recognizing that things did not have to happen this way. The third step is to confess our wrongdoing to our victims (which, by the way, includes ourselves). By confessing to those whom we have wronged, we are letting them know that we are aware of our mistake, and we feel remorse. The fourth step is reconciliation. To quote Rabbi Paul Kipnes from his blog, “6 Steps of Teshuvah,” “To reconcile with the person wronged begins with sincere apology. It continues with a long term investment of our time and energy, as long as necessary, until the sinner and the person wronged are able to work through this problem. We may need to spend significant time talking. We may need to give the other person time alone and space. Be patient. You see, we quickly hurt others but it takes time to heal.” The fifth step in the process of teshuvah is to make amends. If we can undo what we did, we must start there. If we cannot, then we must find other avenues. Rabbi Kipnes suggests a variety of options, including enrolling ourselves in therapy, offering to pay for therapy for our victims, and volunteering for worthy causes related to our offense. The final step in the process of teshuvah is resolve. The only way in which our journey can be complete is if we never make the same mistake again. This is what is known as teshuvah shleimah, “a completed turn.”
But, what if, after all these steps, our victims still do not forgive us? Is it possible for us move forward in our lives? If so, how?
In an article on talkspace.com called, “What To Do When Someone Won’tForgive You,” by Reina Gattuso, she writes, “Nobody owes you forgiveness.” This is true no matter how sincere the apology is. She continues, “it is possible that the person you hurt will never forgive you — and even if they do forgive you, they may never want you back in their lives. This can be terribly painful, but it’s something you have to accept. After all, the process of accountability isn’t about your guilt: it’s about addressing the needs of the person you hurt, and figuring out how to do better in the future.”
While the main purpose of seeking forgiveness is to be absolved of our sins and misdeeds, that is not the only purpose of teshuvah. Teshuvah is about accountability, as Ms. Gattuso said. It involves personal reflection, examining our past actions, and making changes to our lives in order that we may do better in the future. As therapist Kai Cheng says at Everyday Feminism, “self-accountability is about learning how we have harmed others, why we have harmed others, and how we can stop.” Part of this process is learning more about ourselves; what caused us to behave the way we did in the first place? Once we can answer this question, then we will be able to change our behavior so as not to hurt someone else in the same manner.
We can’t control whether or not someone forgives us, but we can decide whether or not to learn and grow from the experience. By choosing to go through the process of teshuvah, even if we are ultimately not forgiven by the wronged party, we can still gain something meaningful. We can come out the other side a better person.
I think Hanan’s father was right. Shlomo should have tried to do teshuvah. He could have had the opportunity to at least try to make things better for his victims. He could have had the opportunity to turn his life around. But, because he didn’t do teshuvah, not only did his victims lose their money, but Shlomo lost himself.
As we sit here today, thinking about our sins and mistakes, let us not merely seek forgiveness from those whom we have wronged. Let us take this opportunity to take a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls. Let us learn more about who we really are, and how we can do better. For when we do, we will have done teshuvah shleimah, “a completed turn.” L‘shanah tovah tikatevu v’tichatemu, may we all be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good and sweet New Year.
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
L’shanah tovah! For the fourth year in a row, I am continuing my tradition of beginning one of my High Holy Day sermons with a song from Broadway. From the musical, “Waitress,” by Sara Bareilles, here is a part of the song, “She Used To Be Mine:”
“She’s imperfect but she tries
She is good but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won’t ask for help
She is messy but she’s kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up
And baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine.”
Jenna, the young waitress who bakes pies, is pregnant and stuck in an abusive marriage. In this song, Jenna is taking stock of herself and her life to figure out where she lost herself; where things went wrong. She is doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing right now. She is taking a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of her soul. She’s examining her mistakes and her flaws – she’s imperfect, she lies, she’s messy, etc. At this time of year, we focus on our mistakes. We do so in order to learn from them. The purpose of Yom Kippur is to aide us in the process of Teshuvah, to bring us back to the path of righteousness. However, when thinking about all the things that we have done wrong, all of our flaws, it’s easy to beat ourselves up and forget all the good within us. We need to remember that that is not the intention of Yom Kippur. If anything, Yom Kippur teaches us to embrace our brokenness – to see that our flaws and misdeeds are, as Jenna says in the song, all “mixed up and baked in our own beautifulpies of life.”
Take, for example, the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Moses spent40 days and nights at the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, which were written by the hand of God onto two tablets. When he came down the mountain, Moses found the Israelite people worshipping the golden calf. In his anger and disappointment, Moses smashed the tablets. He then spent the next forty days praying to God on behalf of the Israelite people for forgiveness. Afterwards, Moses ascended the mountain again, and forty days later, on the 10th of Tishrei (which is today’s Hebrew calendar date), Moses returned with two new tablets. This was the sign that God hadforgiven the Israelites, and this day became the day of atonement and forgiveness. It was the first Yom Kippur. From that day forward, both the new set of tablets, and the broken set, were placed into the Holy Ark to take with the Israelite people on their journey to the Promised Land.
Why didn’t Moses dispose of the smashed tablets? What was the significance of carrying the broken set inside the Holy Ark? In Deuteronomy 10:1, we read that Moses was commanded by God to put the broken tablets into the Ark. While there is no explanation given in the Torah as to why, our great sages have answered that for us. We read in the Zohar that the human heart is the Ark, and a person’s heart must be full of Torah. However, the only way in which a person’s heart can truly be full of Torah is if they have a broken heart (this does not mean specifically a romantic broken heart, but a heart in which someone has experienced emotional distress in some way, shape, or form). The reason for this is because the Shekhina (the divine presence) only dwells in broken vessels. The Shekhina can be found in a broken, beaten heart, but not in the heart of someone who is arrogant. In fact, the Shekhina is driven away by haughtiness.,(Reshit Hokhma, R. Eliyahu deVidash, Gate of Holiness 7; 16th C Kabbalistic Moral tome). In other words, the Divine Presence can be found in the hearts of those who are not arrogant, and realize that they are not perfect, but are in fact, a little bit broken.
In Midrash Rabbah (Shemot 46:1), God told Moses, “do not be distressed over the First Tablets which contained only the Ten Commandments. In the Second Tablets I am giving you, you will also have Halachah, Midrash and Aggadah” (Halachah is Jewish law, Midrash and Aggadah are interpretations and stories written by the rabbis to better understand the Torah). In other words, the first set of tablets did not include Halachah, Midrash and Aggadah. The first set was written by God, but the second set was written by God in partnership with Moses. The second set of tablets were written with God’s forgiveness, and with the understanding of humanity’s imperfections.
The Kotzker Rebbe once said, “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.”What we need to take from all of these sages and texts is that brokenness is nothing to be ashamed of. Our imperfections help to make us who we are, especially if we learn from our missteps. Moses didn’t throw away the smashed tablets because they were still necessary, even in their broken state – especially in their broken state. The broken tablets serve as a reminder. They remind us that we are not perfect. They remind us that are human, and therefore, we make mistakes. They also remind us that we have the ability to embrace these imperfections, learn from them, and make something better as a result of them. I am not saying that we should all go out an intentionally make mistakes, but when we make a mistake, we should embrace that imperfection, learn from it, and grow from it.
In our prayer books we read Vidui, which means “Confession.” We give an (Hebrew) alphabetical listing of all our wrongdoings, and we physically beat our chests as we say each word. “Of all these wrongs we are guilty: We betray. We steal. We scorn…” But we also need to remember that our imperfections and mistakes do not define us. We have good within us as well. So, I would like to conclude with a new Vidui. This one was written by Rabbi Jillian Cameron and Cantor Juval Porat.
We’ve acted authentically
We’ve cultivated compassion
We’ve engaged empathically
We’ve favored fairness
We’ve kindled kindness
We’ve offered optimism
We’ve x’d out excess
We’ve zoomed and zoomed in
For all these, Source of Life
inspire us, encourage us,
Sustain our hope.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah! May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet New Year!
Coming Out The Other Side: Re-emerging Post-COVID
Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2021/5782
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shanah tovah! What a year it has been. I’m always happy to walk into this building, but I am especially grateful to do so now, after the trauma of this past pandemic year. As I said last night, this is a sacred space. Coming back into the building is symbolic of us taking our first steps as we (hopefully… cautiously) re-emerge back into society post-pandemic. However, it will take many more steps for us to enter into our new normal after all that we have experienced.
In our prayer books, we read, “Who shall die by fire, and who by drowning… Who by an earthquake and who by a plague, Who shall be strangled, and who shall be stoned, Who shall dwell in peace, and who be uprooted…” Trauma is not a new concept to the Jewish people. From slavery in Egypt to the Holocaust and more, we are no strangers to it.
Trauma is defined as an extremely stressful event outside the realm of usualhuman experiences in which a person or group of people’s safety is threatened.Traumatic events can change a person’s brain chemistry, forever altering who they are.But with the right tools, we can move past the trauma (not forget about it, but move past it) and into the future. Our Jewish tradition provides us with some of these tools.
Experts say that when dealing with trauma, we must first surround ourselves with a support system of friends and family. In Judaism, we know the significance of community. As Rabbi Hillel once said, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” We need each other. When someone dies in Judaism, a minyan (a quorum of a minimum of ten people) gathers around the mourners to lend their support during their time of grief. By connecting with our community, we are reminded that we are not alone.
Yet, one of the most difficult aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic was not being able to be with loved ones. When tragedy strikes, being around friends and family brings us comfort. GSJC had to find a way to be together without physically being together. Thank goodness for modern technology. With the help of Zoom, we were able to create a sacred space for us virtually. We were able to continue to meet, be there for each other, and support each other as we navigated the pandemic. At the beginning of each Zoom Shabbat service, we sang Hinei Mah Tov, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters are together.” While we weren’t together physically, we were always together virtually and spiritually. For me, that helped a great deal.
Another important step in dealing with trauma is to talk about it. When surrounded by friends and family at a shiva, the mourners are encouraged to talk about their feelings in order to help them through the mourning process. However, talking about any kind of trauma is not always an easy thing to do. Sometimes, people feel that if they talk about it, they will live the trauma all over again, which is completely understandable. However, experts say that talking about trauma can help bring us some relief. According to Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., of Psychology Today, here are five reasons why it is important to talk about trauma:
Dr. Hendriksen also cautions that it is important to talk about trauma at your own pace.
Another important resource in dealing with trauma is ritual. Last night, I mentioned an article from Ri J. Turner on keshetonline.org, in which she talked about how she finds it helpful to meditate in the same position, in the same location, using the same garb every single day. And she reminded us that we have similar ritual tools in Judaism. She used the examples of tallit, tzitzit, and the synagogue itself. Saying the prayers themselves is also a ritual that can bring us comfort. For mourners, reciting Kaddish, even if they don’t know the meaning of the words, can be comforting. The sound of the words and the cadence are familiar and soothing. By reciting Kaddish in their own home, surrounded by their community, during an otherwise emotionally confusing and difficult time, mourners can be made to feel more at ease. These rituals are meant to help. There is even a prayer that we say once we have finished going through a trauma, called Birkat HaGomel. While I desperately want us to say this now, we are still seeing a wave of cases of the different variants, so I would like to wait until this wave is behind us. However, I look forward to the day when we can use the ritual of Birkat HaGomel as hopefully the final step on our path to the new normal.
This pandemic year has been a time of isolation, sadness, anger, mourning, and loss. However, it has also been a time of great strength, resilience, community, and love. During this extremely difficult time, we have managed to stay together as a loving, caring community. I am proud of all that GSJC has accomplished during this incredibly challenging time.
As we move into the post-pandemic era (God-willing), I invite you to share some of the ways in which you have coped with this past year. Who has been there for you? What stories would you share about your time during the pandemic? What are some rituals that have helped you navigate the pandemic? In the coming year, I look forward to answering these questions with each and every one of you in person (God willing!). Kein yihi ratzon, may it be God’s will. Shanah tovah!
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021/5782
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shanah tovah! There is no better way for us to begin the New Year than by being back in our sanctuary! Although not everyone has been able to return in person, it is wonderful to see everyone both in-person and on Zoom. With the exception of Hailey’s Bat Mitzvah, we have not gathered together in this space for eighteen months. This is a Shehecheyanu moment. I invite you to join me in saying the Shehecheyanu right now to mark this auspicious occasion.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanulaz’man hazeh. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
Throughout these past eighteen months, all of us have been hoping and waiting for the day when we could safely gather together in person. Over the summer, we were able to do so outside. But now that we are here in our sanctuary, it seems even more meaningful. Many of you have said that this sanctuary, this building, is a sacred space. What makes a physical place holy?
In Genesis 28, we read, “God was in this place, and I did not know it.” These words were spoken by Jacob, upon awakening from a dream in which he spoke to God. He had run away from home, and stopped to rest for the night. Now, Jacob did not stop to rest a fancy hotel and spa. In this place, he used a rock as his pillow, and slept on the dirt. Yet, this place just so happened to be the exact location of the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, his father (of which we will read part of the story tomorrow morning). After waking up from his dream, God tells Jacob, “The ground upon which you lie I will give you and your descendants.” This place, the place where Jacob rested, the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, the place where God sent Abraham a ram, was holy.The Hebrew word for “place” is makom. The rabbis say that Makom is also another name for God, because in that place, our forefathers experienced God. As Rabbi Toba Spitzer says in the article, “God in Metaphor: A Guide for the Perplexed,” “The name Makom conveys a sense of being able to experience the Godly in any place.”
While we may not have prophetic dreams, or hear God’s voice in our sanctuary or our homes, we have the ability make a physical space a holy place. A couple of years ago, I watched a TV series on Netflix called, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.” On this show, Marie Kondo teaches people how to declutter and organize their houses. At the beginning of every episode, Ms. Kondo kneels on the floor, and silently thanks the house for keeping its inhabitants nurtured and protected. She says on her website, “I began this custom quite naturally based on the etiquette of entering Shinto shrines.” Instead of thinking about clutter on the floor, or lack of closet space, Ms. Kondo reminds the homeowner that the purpose of this space is important. It is not just a dumping ground for our stuff. By taking a moment of graditude for the house, Ms. Kondo is reminding us that this house is a home. She’s showing us that the space can be holy.
In an article on keshetonline.org called, “Sacred Spaces: The Tabernacle Women’s Work and the Body as Sanctuary (Parashat Naso),” the author, Ri J. Turner, asks, “What does it mean to create a holy space?” To get into a spiritual headspace, Ms. Turner suggests creating a physical space that is personally conducive to prayer. She writes, “I find it helpful to meditate every day in the same place… in the same position, under the same blanket, on the same beanbag chair. There’s something about that consistency that helps me find my way to a deeper place… I’ve discovered that my meditation garb has become sacred: every time I wrap myself in my meditation shawl, I feel calmed, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. In Judaism there are similar ritual tools: some of us wear the prayer shawl for morning prayers, some of us wear tzitzit all the time, we pray in a synagogue... Spaces, garments, and rituals put us into a mental and physical place to receive the Divine.” I very much agree with Ms. Turner. When placed in an unfamiliar setting, it can be more difficult to get into a prayerful mindset. We can become distracted by even the smallest of details, like the different fabric of the pews or the different color of the walls. On the other hand, think about this: how many of you choose to sit in the same seat every time you come to services? By having a familiar environment, we are comfortable and less prone to distractions. We can focus on our souls and connect spiritually.
Let’s go back to sitting in the same seat for a moment. Who is sitting next to you? Most likely, it is a friend or family member. What truly makes a physical space a holy place? The people who are in it. The Hebrew word for synagogue is Beit Knesset, which literally means, “a house of gathering.” Without the people, this is not a house of gathering, but instead, just an empty house. For so many of us, walking into this sanctuary feels like a home-coming. These four walls are not merely a structure. They are the walls that bring us together as a community. Inside these four walls, we have experienced holidays and lifecycle events together. We have shared joys and sorrows.This is the place in which we became a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. And while our building may not define us, it definitely is a part of us.
There is a song by the Jewish singer-songwriter, Beth Schafer, called, “In This House.” This is one of my most favorite Jewish songs, as it talks about what makes a synagogue a holy space, and what makes a group of people a holy community. The song reminds me of us, of Gishrei Shalom Jewish Congregation, and how lucky we are to have a place to call home. Shanah tovah! May we all be inscribed for a good and sweet New Year!
IN THIS HOUSE BY BETH SCHAFER
Words & Music by Beth A. Schafer © 2005
In this house beats the heart of a family
In this house is the center of a community
We study and we pray, find meaning in each day
In this house, in this house, in this house
In this house is a spark of God’s creation
In this house there is joy and celebration
By song or by word, your prayers will be heard
In this house, in this house, in this house
In this house, in this house, it all comes together in this house
In this house, in this house, it all comes together in this house of God
In this house we can shelter, we can clothe and feed
In this house there is always help for those in need
A stranger makes a friend, becomes inspired again
In this house, in this house, in this house
A house of study (in this house), a house of prayer (in this house)
A house of gathering (in this house), from everywhere (in this house)
How lovely (in this house) is your dwelling place, 0 Jacob (in this house)
Blessing (in this house) upon blessing fills these walls (in this house)