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Kol Nidre 5783 On (Authentic) Teshuvah

10/06/2022 08:45:55 AM


Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, D. Min.

Each year before the holidays, the founder of Hasidism - the Baal Shem Tov – would hold a competition to determine who’d blow the shofar.     

         To qualify, of course you had to blow shofar like a virtuoso.  But you also had to master a series of complex prayers, called kavanot.

         Now there was one person who wanted to blow shofar so badly that he practiced the prayers for years.   But when he appeared for his audition, he froze.  He couldn’t remember a single prayer  – and he stood in total silence.  He experienced utter failure, his heart broke with regret, and he wept.

         On cue, the Baal Shem assured the man he got the job.

         The applicant was stunned and asked why?  The Baal Shem said that in Heaven there are many chambers, and there are keys for these chambers.  But the key that opens every chamber is the heart that’s overwhelmed with true emotion. 

         Tonight is about repentance.   Kol Nidrei jolts us out of auto-pilot, and asks us to think about teshuvah not in transactional terms, but in a framework that acknowledges our vulnerability and feelings, to produce repentance that is authentic and true. 

         A first story tonight about Spain…because countries do teshuvah just like we do.

         Antisemitism ripped through Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, leading to the Inquisition, and the expulsion of Jews in 1492.  Overnight, 40,000-100,000 Spanish Jews became refugees.

Thankfully: Jewish life flourished again in 19th century Spain. But during all this time, it never made amends for the violence and upheaval it inflicted.

         Until 2015…when the parliament unanimously passed legislation offering expelled Jewish families Spanish citizenship.  The law declared that after “centuries of estrangement,” Spain welcomed “Sephardic communities to re-encounter their origins [and…] homeland.”

         That sounded lovely.  But the reality wasn’t warm and welcoming.  The application window was only open for four years.  Applicants had to provide an official genealogy, pass a rigorous Spanish exam, a citizenship test, and had to travel to Spain to certify paperwork with a notary.[1] 

Of the 127,000 who applied, just 20% were approved.

I can’t help but wonder how sincere Spain’s teshuvah effort was.  Of course, they aren’t so different from us.  We hesitate to take responsibility for our mistakes, and when we do, how often do our attempts seem half-hearted?  

Short of the shofar blower’s emotional outburst, what does genuine repentance look like?

Maimonides, of 12th century Egypt, articulated a five step process: verbal confession, beginning to change, making amends, apologizing, and proving over time that you won’t repeat the mistake again.

It’s worth taking a closer look at these five steps as we more seriously consider the teshuvah we’re called to do in our own lives. 

The first step of a Jewishly-grounded repentance process is confession.   Confession, ideally done semi-publicly, occurs when a wrongdoer names what they’ve done, and can articulate the harm they caused.

Confession is a pre-requisite because repentance isn’t possible if the wrongdoer doesn’t understand their mistake.  As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of the recently published book On Repentance and Repair, reminds us: Even “this first step can be [..] painful.  […] It can trigger defensiveness – the desire to justify one’s actions […] to stave off shame, guilt, [and] humiliation.”[2]

As the Baal Shem story illustrated, a confession is only authentic if the person means it.  The rabbis of the Talmud compared the one who’s going through the motions to the case of sheretz b’yado[3] – the one who seeks ritual purification in the waters of the mikveh while secretly clutching a lizard.  The hidden presence of the non-kosher lizard invalidates the immersion, in the same way that a secretly inauthentic confession invalidates the teshuvah.

The second step is beginning to change.  Transformation doesn’t happen overnight.  Sometimes it requires work with a counselor who can help us see our tendencies, and give us tools to change.  But change we must, if we are serious about repenting.

Confession, and beginning to change, focus on the wrong-doer.  But teshuvah ultimately revolves around the one who was wronged.  And the third step, making amends or restitution, makes that clear.

Rabbi Ruttenberg observes that “one does not offer amends at the person harmed, but to them.”[4]  Making amends isn’t about throwing money at a problem.  Instead, a difficult dialogue has to play out with the one who was wronged to learn what they’d consider just compensation, financial and non-financial, to become more whole.

The fourth step is an apology.  Maimonides notes that even after amends are made, the wrongdoer is “obliged to pacify the person harmed to beg their forgiveness […] they must appease and implore until the harmed party forgives them.”[5] 

The fifth step of teshuvah is the permanent and recurring commitment to avoid the bad behavior of our past.  As Ruttenberg describes it: “It’s about […] how to be the kind of person who sees others’ suffering and takes responsibility for any role we might have in causing it.”  The proof of a successful teshuvah is that we’ll make the better choice when the situation comes up again because we have changed.

Maimonides’ five steps continue to offer wisdom about our relationships 800 years later.  And if we applied his standard to Spain’s teshuvah, I would respectfully suggest that they could have done better. 

What about a more recent example from another European country?  What might we learn from the gathering that took place in Munich a month ago as we wrestle with our own obligation to take responsibility for our shortcomings?

The gathering I speak of was a sad commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the massacre of 11 Israeli Olympians at the 1972 Summer Games.

Germany’s 1972 Olympics were branded as the happy and cheerful Games.  Organizers sought to showcase a revitalized Germany, separate from its Nazi past.  German nationalism was de-emphasized by dressing staff and volunteers in powder blue uniforms.  And security personnel were prohibited from carrying weapons of any kind.

Early in the morning of September 5th, 1972, eight members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization affiliated with the PLO, jumped the Olympic Village fence and broke into Israeli athlete housing.  Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano were murdered in the initial violence.  Nine other Israelis were taken hostage.

The terrorists’ demands included the release of 234 criminals being held in Israeli prisons.

Israel refused to negotiate, and instead pushed for its elite squad to lead the rescue.

The Germans, self-conscious about Jewish hostages during an Olympics meant to spotlight a rehabilitated Germany, insisted on handling the matter themselves.

Germany attempted a rescue.  In retrospect, it was an absurd blunder.  The operation was broadcast live on television, so the terrorists saw them coming and shut down the effort before it began.

Hours later, Germany attempted an ambush at a nearby airport, where the terrorists hoped to fly to Cairo.  Again in retrospect, it feels like another lapse in thoughtfulness.  German authorities failed to shut down highways near the airport.  As a result, armored personnel carriers got stuck in traffic and never arrived for the operation.

The rescue failed and all nine Israeli hostages - Yossef Gutfreund, David Berger, Yacov Springer, Ze’ev Friedman, Amitzur Shapira, Eliezer Halfin, Mark Slavin, Andre Spitzer, and Kehat Shorr were senselessly executed.

Of course primary responsibility for this bloodshed rests with the terrorists who pulled the trigger, and the PLO which underwrote their efforts.  And no, the Palestinian leadership hasn’t been moved to apologize to Israel yet. 

There was also a 50 year failure of leadership in the international community.  Until the Tokyo Games last year, the International Olympic Committee refused to create a moment of silence to remember this tragedy.

Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, now our country’s Special Envoy for Combatting Antisemitism, explained this failure in 2012 by writing: “The only conclusion one can draw is that Jewish blood is cheap, too cheap to risk upsetting [those…] that oppose Israel and its policies.”[6]

The question I raise tonight is about Germany, and its responsibility – as Olympic hosts – to protect the Israelis.

After the massacre, it took 32 years of negotiating until Germany agreed in 2004 to pay $3 million to the Israeli victims’ families.

But in 2012, Der Spiegel ran a front page story detailing 4000 secret German government files chronicling serious mistakes the country made in the run up to 1972.

One file indicated that German experts had brainstormed the most likely crises that could befall the Games, and a Palestinian terror attack on Israeli athletes was included in their list.  Yet the Germans made no attempt to plan for that eventuality, or to add security for the Israelis.

Worse: the files revealed that German spies in Lebanon knew – three weeks before the Olympics – that the Israelis would be targeted by Palestinian terrorists.  The German embassy in Beirut passed the information to its Foreign Service in Bonn, which verified the information’s credibility.  They passed it on to the German secret service and Olympic security planners – all of whom did nothing. 

The files are proof of dual transgressions: first, that Germany could have taken aggressive steps to protect the Israelis; and second, that there was a willful coverup, allowing Germany to avoid accepting responsibility.

Maimonides teaches[7] that the five steps of repentance apply both to our interpersonal relationships and to larger group settings.  Nations have to do teshuvah just like we do…which brings us back to the gathering in Munich a month ago.

Here are some of the words publicly spoken by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the President of Germany, at a gathering that included Isaac Herzog, the President of the State of Israel: “It is my duty and my obligation to confess our German responsibility” in the deaths of the 11 Israelis.  “As head of state of this country and on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany, I ask for your forgiveness.  I ask for your forgiveness for the lack of protection for the Israeli athletes […] in Munich and for the lack of trying to find explanations afterwards.” 

And at a state dinner to honor Herzog the night before, Steinmeier publicly spoke about his personal shame that it had taken Germany so long to admit responsibility.

In addition to his apology and contrition, Germany just recently agreed to an additional $25 million for the victims’ families, and the establishment of a commission to produce a comprehensive history of the incident, including its German failures.   Both were gestures of amends requested by the victims’ families.

It's true that it took Germany a long and painful 50 years to reach this moment.  But I am reminded of the rabbis of the Talmud, who said: “Great is teshuvah, for it brings healing to the world.”

Germany’s effort matters.  As Shlomit Romano Barzilay, daughter of one of the eleven, noted: “We waited years for this big day.  It’s a kind of closure for us after 50 years.  Finally, everything is being worked through.”

Germany’s effort ought to also matter to us.

Because if Germany can do teshuvah, and Israel can accept the gesture…then surely we can find the courage to sincerely repent for our misdeeds, and accept the repentance offered to us by others.  Great is that work, for it brings healing to our own inner selves, and to the whole entire world.  There’s no need to wait 50 years.  This difficult work can begin tonight.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav wrote: “If you believe that you can damage, believe that you can fix.  If you believe that you can harm, believe that you can heal.”

On this Kol Nidrei, we are called home to return….to do sincere teshuvah….to make things right…to become more whole…in the year ahead.

Keyn Yhi Ratzon – may this be God’s will.

[2] Ruttenberg p. 28

[3] Ruttenberg p. 31 and Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:3

[4] Ruttenberg p. 38

[5] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:9 as quoted on Ruttenberg p. 41

[7] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 7:5

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784