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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

With Yom Kippur several days away, I share with you two articles about how to utilize this time of year to the best of your ability. The first piece, written by my former neighbor in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, explains that the biggest activity we do on Yom Kippur is not repenting; it is apologizing. The second installment, authored by award winning writer Yael Mermelstein, is about appreciating the connection between Teshuva and our email “Delete” button.  

Blog #1: 

Nearly twenty years ago when our second child was born, we lived in a Baltimore apartment complex with many Orthodox young couples. Whenever one family would be blessed with a child, the other families would provide two weeks’ worth of suppers. We were very grateful to become recipients of such kindness, one we repaid several times before and since.

One night during those two exhausting weeks, dinner never arrived. It turned out that the woman who volunteered to make us supper that night plumb forgot about it. No doubt she agreed to prepare a meal when asked, and then promptly hung up the phone and forgot all about it.

In actuality, it made very little difference to us at the time. As we found, when people make meals for others, they tend to round the quantities way up just to be safe. As a result, during those two weeks we were basically inundated with more food than we knew what to do with. And so, we were thus actually relieved not to have received yet another pan-full of chicken and rice, allowing us to dig into our ever-growing collection of half-eaten leftovers.

But the poor woman who had forgotten about us had no such consolation. She was utterly mortified, having let down a family in its time of need. And from that point on, for the remaining years we lived in Baltimore, my wife noticed something about that person. She basically began avoiding my wife, making sure never to come face to face with her again. (You know, you're in one aisle in the supermarket and she makes sure to take a different one...) She was just too ashamed to come before my wife after (in her mind) wronging us so deeply in our time of need.

Now I am quite certain that that woman never repeated her mistake again. No doubt she bought an appointment book, started tying strings around her finger, began writing notes on her fridge, etc. Who wants to go through such embarrassment again?

But she failed to do one thing – to own up to the people she had wronged (or at least thought she had wronged). Instead she simply avoided my wife – never even giving her the chance to explain how little a difference it actually made to us. They could have laughed off the entire episode and lived happily ever after. But she stayed away, and my wife, for her part, never felt comfortable enough to approach her either.

We tend to think of repentance as the equivalent of New Year’s resolutions – a chance to correct our past mistakes and start fresh for the new year. This year we will be greater, different. We will not repeat the same errors and indiscretions of last year. And we will never again have to endure the awkwardness of living with the consequences of our past mistakes.

But that is really only a part of it. Repentance is not just about personal introspection and self-improvement. It is about coming back. It means coming face to face with the one you have wronged (as well as the One you have wronged), asking his forgiveness, and patching up the relationship. 

Maimonides describes the obligation to confess as saying, “Please God, I have sinned, trespassed, and rebelled before You and I have done such and such…” (Laws of Repentance 1:1). You have to stand up and talk to God – as well as to any of the people you may have wronged. You have to return to Him and beg His forgiveness. You will fix your future too but you must first make up for your past.

The biggest activity we do on Yom Kippur is not repenting; it is apologizing. In synagogue we recite the viduy confession ten times throughout the day. We stand up before God and say “I am sorry. This is what I have done…” Of course, apologizing without intending to improve for the future is not much of an apology. But it begins with the apology, with the standing before God. Repentance is merely the demonstration that you really mean it.

At the start of his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides writes as follows:

All the commandments of the Torah, whether positive or negative, if a person transgressed one of them, whether purposely or inadvertently, when he repents and returns from his sin, he is obligated to confess before the Almighty, blessed be He.

In a work presumably about repentance, Maimonides makes almost no mention of repentance itself! He practically glosses over it, focusing entirely on our obligation to confess. And this is again because Yom Kippur is not about personal resolutions and private reflection. It is about standing up and talking to God. It is about apologizing, about reestablishing our connection with our Creator. We must tell God who we are, where we are holding in life, and what we know needs improvement. And naturally, we much actually improve as well – assuming we really mean what we are saying.

We all know how hard it is to come face to face with the person we wronged. How do we broach so awkward a topic? Who knows how he will react? We would rather spend the rest of our days avoiding our victims than having to actually see them again.

Happily, with God it is not so. He is loving and patient, and He eagerly awaits our apology. “A heart broken and humbled, oh God, You will not disdain” (Psalms 51:19). Unlike approaching the people we have hurt, apologizing to God is really quite easy and welcome. And besides, He knows what we did to Him anyway. But repentance must begin with the apology. Talk to the one you have wronged, apologize for your failings – and the improvement is sure to follow.

 

Blog #2: 

When spammers got hold of my email address, I started receiving all sorts of unsavory email messages, muddling my inbox into one giant moral morass. I was afraid to open my inbox for the sheer unpleasantness that the blurbs on the emails evoked. It was time for a new email account.

When I switched over to Gmail I was delighted. My inbox was unpolluted, and my new IP address seemed to have fallen out of the spammers' date books. Then I discovered the SPAM folder. The spammers hadn't forgotten about me after all. Gmail was just kind enough to filter them out.

I was about to delete those nefarious characters when I saw another interesting alternative: Delete Forever.

I loved the sound of it. The finality! Not only could I erase all vestiges of the offending intrusions, but I could send them off to some eternal slumber from which apparently there would be no return.

I gleefully highlighted the emails and passionately left-clicked the offenders into oblivion. I wondered where they could possibly be going. Was there a central computer which erased the messages in one irrevocable swoop? But where did they go from there? The delete forever function on my Gmail was causing me “cyber existential angst”. And it reminded me of another type of deleting I often try to do.

Every year during the ten days of repentance, a vague unease with myself begins to simmer as I reflect on my misdeeds of the past year, and as the High Holidays come around, it comes to a rolling boil.

It is the time for teshuva, repentance. A time specifically set aside for reclaiming our lost innocence by regretting what we've done wrong during the past year and committing ourselves to getting back on track. Part of me often wonders: can it really be done? Can a stain on a soul be so thoroughly cleansed through atonement so as to render it completely unsullied? It must be sitting in some celestial Spam folder of the soul, still there, just not as obvious.

The Talmud tells us that you can get rid of your transgressions for real. A person can do teshuva at any age and receive full forgiveness, no matter how far he or she has strayed. The sins are deleted forever, sent to some undisclosed destination, never to be viewed again. They are not saved in some dark corner of your soul for future reference. They are absolutely, positively gone.

During my years of teaching Jewish thought, I've had some pretty sad looking freshman students pass through my turnstile. Some of them lacked direction, others had difficulties with friendships and still others just didn't seem to fit in anywhere. All of those things were fixable. But when a girl would come to me with her sense of self-worth leaking out all over the place, I knew we would need more than a patch to fix the problem.

"I've treated my parents like dirt for the last four years, so I'm dirt too."

"I'm horrible. I spent all of high school doing everything for popularity not caring who I stepped on. I'll never be a nice person."

"I did disgusting things that make me feel sick when I think about them. I have zero self-respect. I'm a nobody."

But they were wrong. Because God didn't view them in the same way that they viewed themselves. They had reached the first stage of regret. Now He was waiting for them to pick up the pieces. The only thing these girls were missing was the belief that God could really take them back. The belief that real change was possible.

The Talmud discusses Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya who sunk so low he committed the most despicable sins, and only in the last moment of his life did he repent. And God accepted his heartfelt teshuva, earning him a lofty place in the World to Come.

Surely, we can do it too.

You cheated in business? First pay back your debt. Now you can start the teshuva process.

First you have to regret what you've done. Easy for some, but translating it into action is less so, because then you have to stop doing the sin. Then confess the sin directly to God, and finally, resolve to never do it again in the future.

When you have genuinely accepted and performed all of these steps, you have effectively deleted the sins forever. Don't replay that business deal in your head again. It is no longer real in God's eyes and if God's giving you another chance, don't you think you ought to give yourself one as well?

Teshuva is the car wash for our soul that removes the grime and lets us shine. You feel badly about a life mired in promiscuity? You can regain your inner compass and reclaim the self-respect that you deserve through the teshuva process. You were self-serving, egotistical, slandering, backstabbing, or deceitful?

Delete forever.

Nobody said it was easy. You can't just highlight the page in yellow and click on your mouse. Real change is an arduous spiritual process, grounded in genuine soul searching and remorse. And remorse hurts. But it also heals.

You can recoup your self-respect. We all can.  How? Teshuva the Delete Forever for your soul spam.