Last Sunday our Jewish friends heard the sound of the Shofar, the blowing of a ram’s horn, to signal the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
When we think of a New Year’s celebration we probably think of parties, football games, brunches, perhaps resolutions for the next 365 days.
The Jewish New Year is a bit more serious. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of 10 days of penitence, known as the Days of Awe, which culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year, which this year begins at sundown Tuesday.
Repentance and atonement are not uniquely Jewish concepts, of course. They also lie at the heart of the responsibilities of Christian life.
As our Jewish friends are in their time of penitence, it seems appropriate for us to consider what true repentance looks like.
This week The Washington Post had an article about the Days of Awe.
“It’s the beginning of the annual season of repentance, and once again rabbis around the world are searching for ways to make the old themes new again – often to teach the Jewish holidays’ age-old message of atonement through current examples,” it begins.
They are having a hard time finding examples this year.
“I’ve looked and looked,” one Washington rabbi said. “In almost every one of my sermons recently I’m actually using examples of ways public leaders have gone astray.
“I was trying to be more positive, to think of someone I feel really exemplifies what atonement really looks like,” but she has not been successful.
She is not alone in her dilemma.
“It’s really hard,” another rabbi concurred. “It’s really difficult to come up with examples of public figures who have done what we would call full teshuva,” the Hebrew word which means the process of repentance and atonement.
“To have political leaders in this day and age, leaders of all sorts, who are so proud of being unrepentant in any way, shape, or form only adds to the problem,” he said.
Indeed, we seem to be living in an age where to admit and take responsibility for wrong doing is seen as a sign of weakness.
But true repentance and atonement require strength.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg describes repentance this way:
“There are specific steps: The bad actor must own the harm perpetrated. Then they must do the hard internal work to become the kind of person who does not harm in this way – which is a massive undertaking, demanding tremendous introspection and confrontation of unpleasant aspects of the self.
“Then they must make restitution for harm done, in whatever way that might be possible.
“Then and only then,” Ruttenberg says, “they must apologize sincerely to the victim.
“Lastly, the next time they are confronted with the opportunity to commit a similar misdeed, they must make a different, better choice.”
New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, writes during this season of penitence about the lack of repentance she sees from some men accused of sexual harassment and misconduct.
She notes one such figure who recently wrote a long essay in a major magazine about his life since he was fired from his media job after numerous women accused him of harassment.
The main tone of the essay was self-pity, casting himself as the victim of the women who spoke out against him.
“In the nearly 7,000 words of his essay, as he demands that we consider his misery and embarrassment, he never really grapples with the misery and embarrassment he caused, never thinks deeply about how he affected the lives of the women who changed jobs to escape his advance,” Goldberg says.
“I do feel sorry for a lot of these men,” she adds, “but I don’t think they feel sorry for women, or think about women’s experience much at all.
“These men are not proposing paths for restitution. They’re asking why women won’t give them absolution.”
The writer of the essay may admit the truth of the allegations against him, but he has not done the hard work of repentance.
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, whose search for a public figure who exemplified repentance was unsuccessful, is instead holding up members of her congregation as exemplars of atonement.
Chief among them is a family supporting a relative in the grip of addiction. In doing so, other members of the family have come to grips with ways in which they have acted wrongly in the past, and the harm those actions have caused.
“When that family shares with others the ways in which they have failed to support each other and are now striving to be better, they provide a far better example of repentance than our national leaders do,” Holtzblatt says.
Another example of what true repentance looks like is Christian Piccioline, who became part of a white supremacist group in Chicago at age 14. “I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before – as if I was a part of something greater than myself,” he says.
He embraced the white supremacist message and became part of a white-power punk band, White American Youth, writing and performing songs that inspired others to commit racist acts of violence.
But after eight years he began to question the hateful ideology he had embraced at such a young age. He remembers a specific incident in which he was beating a young black man. His eyes locked with his victim, and he felt a surprising empathy.
That moment was a turning point that ultimately led him to withdraw from the movement and begin a non-profit that counsels members of hate groups and helps them disengage.
Picciolini expects to spend the rest of his life atoning for his time as a white supremacist.
Both Christianity and Judaism teach us that there is always a path toward repentance, toward understanding the harm that we have done, and toward doing the work of repair and restitution.
God is always ready to forgive, to give a second chance when the hard work of repentance has been done.
Sometimes that is the work of individuals; sometimes it is the work of groups of people or even nations.
One Washington rabbi, Daniel Zemel, plans to preach about the problem of white nationalism in this country during this season of repentance.
Zemel notes that Germany as a country made reparations for the atrocities of the Holocaust. South Africa went through excruciating national soul-searching after apartheid through its Truth and Reconciliation Hearings.
Americans, he notes, are still locked in fierce debates about whether to take down Confederate statues, a sign that we have not done the work of repentance for the sins of our past.
“We’re at a pretty low place, I think,” he says.
Instead of teaching and preaching about atonement during these High Holy Days, he will focus on a prayer which asks, “Today, strengthen us! Today, bless us! Today, exalt us!”
“I think the message in this moment is now’s the time to stick to our resolve more than anything else,” he says. “If our faith teaches us anything, it’s what to love and what to fight against to the very, very end.”
Zemel’s message to his congregation is one that all people of faith can heed.
“Today, we are going to strengthen our resolve,” he says. “Today, enlarge us. Make us feel a sense of the holiness of what it means to be a civic-minded, passionately ethical American who’s standing up for what’s right.
“Tomorrow, maybe, we’ll be able to point to more evidence of atonement.”