Thoughts on the Blessings for Repentance and Forgiveness
We have entered into the month of Elul this week, the month preceding the High Holidays. It is a season for preparing to undergo judgment, or perhaps self-examination, on Rosh Hashanah and to achieve atonement or reconciliation on Yom Kippur. Throughout this month the shofar is sounded each weekday morning to awaken us to the arrival of the new year or as Maimonides put it, to awaken the slumberers from their lethargy and encourage our return to the Lord. In the Sephardic traditions, Selichot prayers, prayers for forgiveness, an elaborate liturgy of poetic expressions of regret, are offered daily throughout the month. The Ashkenazic traditions limit the Selichot period to the week before the new month of Tishrei or even to the Saturday evening prior to Rosh Hashanah as we and many other liberal congregations do.
Last month, on the ninth of Av, we marked the commemoration of the destruction of the first and second Temples and other tragedies that are linked to that day in Jewish history. On Tisha B'Av there is a sense of alienation from God, our sins have created a barrier between us and our Maker, leading to calamity. However, during the seven weeks that follow, we gradually undergo the process of return, rebuilding, of teshuva, repentance, and we are urged to rekindle our relationship with the Almighty and attempt to draw closer to God day by day. As often noted, the letters of the name of this month of Elul, alef, lamed, vav, and lamed, are seen as a mnemonic for the line in Song of Songs, Ani l'dodi v'dodi li, I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine. Our sages taught that in Song of Songs the Beloved is God. In the haftarot of comfort read during these seven weeks from Tisha B'Av to Rosh Hashanah, we are told that relatively speaking, God's anger with us for our sins lasts but a moment in the vast scope of history and when it passes, He will take us back once more in everlasting love.
On the High Holidays our attention is drawn to the process of repentance. We are urged to make efforts to reconcile with family and friends whom we may have offended and hurt during the past year. Prayers to God will not effect forgiveness for such transgressions. We have to take the initiative to bridge the gap and bring healing to our interpersonal relations ourselves. Only then can we truly turn to God and seek forgiveness for our sins in the spiritual realm.
This is the season for repentance, yet if we look into the daily prayerbook, you will notice that three times each day in the Amidah prayer, among the thirteen petitions that make up the middle of that unit, there is a blessing for repentance and one after it seeking forgiveness. Apparently, there is no need to wait for the month of Tishrei and the Days of Awe to begin this process. We can begin today, any day, any hour, to repent of sin, to reconcile with others and to seek forgiveness for our shortcomings.
The Talmud of Shabbat discusses a statement of Rabbi Eliezer from Pirke Avot where he advises his students to “Repent one day before Your death.” When they asked him how one can know when that one day is, he replied, “Therefore one should repent every day.”
I recently noted the link between the verse in Genesis spoken by the patriarch Judah to his father Jacob and the closing verse of Psalm 27 which we read every morning and evening throughout this month of Elul and into the holiday season, through Sukkot to Hoshana Rabbah. I noted that both verses begin with the rather rare word “lulei” translated as “were it not.” In the Psalm, the Masoretes call attention to this word by putting three dots over it and three more beneath it. (The rabbis noted that when one takes “lulei” and spells it backwards we get the word Elul.) In the Psalm we say “lulei he-emanti lirot b'tuv Adonay, Were it not for my faith that I might see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living...” The verse is left unfinished as the Psalmist calls on us to “Hope in the Lord and be strong.” In Genesis, Judah argues in favor of taking his younger brother Benjamin with them back to Egypt to convince the Egyptian ruler (his brother Joseph) that they are not spies. He tells his father, “Lulei hitmahmahnu ki ata, chazarnu zeh pa'amayim. Were we not to have tarried until now we could have returned already twice.” I argued that we might take it as a good message for this season. There is no need to delay. If we had not delayed till now, we could have returned (to God), done repentance, already twice. The gates of repentance remain open year round. This season celebrates, as it were, the ability for humans to change their path, to redirect their efforts and to do teshuvah, to repent. But truly, teshuvah is available year round.
These two blessings in the Amidah come right after the blessing for knowledge that we examined a few weeks ago. The connection is when we have insight and understanding into ourselves, we recognize our shortcomings, we see our sins and transgressions and how they have impacted upon others, and from that insight we should be able to redirect our efforts, to change our ways, and to return to the proper path. At least that is our hope.
So we pray, “Hashiveinu Avinu l'toratecha, bring us back, Our Father, to Your Torah. V'korveinu Malkenu la-avodatecha, and draw us close, Our Sovereign, to Your service. V'hachazireinu biteshuvah shleimah l'fanecha. And help us to return in complete repentance before You. Baruch ata Adonay, harotzeh biteshuvah. Praised are You, Lord, who desires repentance.
As in many of the High Holiday prayers we address God as both Father and Sovereign, reflecting our changing relationship with God, that is both one of love and of fear. The Torah demands not only that we love the Lord our God, but also that we fear God, show reverence and respect for God. The relationship of love is that of a parent for a child. We consider ourselves to be children of God, the One who created us. We believe that God does not wish to inflict punishment on us for our sins, but encourages us to do better, to return to Him, to study His Torah, the instructions He has given us and improve our lives. Yet sometimes we feel more distant, we feel that we are in the presence of a judge, a Sovereign, who rules over his subjects. God makes demands of us both in the ritual and ethical realm and we believe that as we fulfill those commandments, we can draw closer to His service and feel a closer bond to the Lord. Easier said than done. We don't always feel that sense of commandment, of mitzvah. Sometimes it is inconvenient, we have other (better?) things to do with our time. So we pray in this prayer, “Help us return in complete repentance,” Let our repentance be sincere, bring us back before You. As we conclude the blessing, it is with a sense that God is not out to get us, but rather desires our return. As we say in our prayers, He waits for the sinner to return and when he does, He is quick to receive him.
Having returned to God, achieving repentance, we ask for forgiveness in the following blessing. As on Yom Kippur, as we recite these words, it is customary to pound our chest twice in a sign of regret. There is a taste of Yom Kippur in every Amidah. Again we address God as Avinu and Malkenu, our Father and our Sovereign. “S'lach lanu Avinu, ki chatanu. Forgive us, Our Father, for we have sinned. M'chal lanu,Malkenu ki fashanu, Pardon us, O Sovereign, for we have done wrong.” This is more than simply poetic parallelism. A chet, a sin, is when we “miss the mark” where we slip and do something we shouldn't have, and we know it and almost immediately we regret it. So we ask for forgiveness, just as we would ask someone to forgive us when we clumsily bump into them. God being a forgiving Father, of course, will forgive us these sins. More difficult is when we commit a pesha, really a crime, or an intentional wrong. For such acts we deserve to stand judgment before the Sovereign, the Judge, and regretting our wrongdoing, we seek pardon for this act, we ask Him not to execute judgment and bring punishment, but to offer us a pardon or to mitigate our punishment. As we continue in this brief prayer, we praise God, “Ki mochel v'soleach ata, for You are one who pardons and forgives, Baruch ata Adonay, chanun hamarbeh lisloach, Praised are You, Lord, who is gracious and forgives abundantly.”
Of course, it is not sufficient to say the words of prayer and receive absolution for our sins. You can't just recite 20 Hail Moshes and be forgiven. Speaking the words is a first step, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, but depending on the seriousness of the sin, we may have a lot of work to do to truly attain atonement, to really return to a relationship of grace.
Maimonides speaks of various levels of atonement for different kinds of sins. For some we can simply ask for forgiveness. Other sins await Yom Kippur to be atoned. More serious sins may bring suffering of one kind or another, an inner anguish or outside tribulations. For the worst crimes, he claims, only the death of the sinner brings full atonement. Those sins we live with all our lives.
In one of his books, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes of a young couple who having completed their exams to enter a graduate program successfully, went out to celebrate and had too much to drink. On their way home they got into an accident resulting in the death of a young boy who was on the side of the road. Kushner writes how their lives were transformed from their moment of celebration by the consequences of their actions. Legal punishments were only the beginning. Their lives were ruined and they were wracked with guilt. Kushner explains that they could never make up for what they had done. They could only try to offset it by the positive actions they would do from then on. Hopefully none of us will find ourselves in such a terrible situation, but we all have our own transgressions and sins to deal with and to live with. After seeking forgiveness, it is important for us to find ways to offset the power of our sins through deeds of lovingkindness,by positive actions, that truly lead to forgiveness.
As we enter this season of retrospection, may each of us begin the process of return, of redirecting our lives where we have gotten off the path, and of finding new ways to do good in the world, to serve God and to make this world a better place through our efforts.