What are you all doing here tonight? What made you come here? To see who is here – to be with friends? Curiosity? To hear Kol Nidre? Because that’s what you always do on Kol Nidre? Someone important dragged you?
I’m betting we’re all here for a bunch of different reasons. I want to talk about mine.
For me, it’s about the possibility for transformation, for making the turn from doing the same old, same old hurtful thing, to becoming someone who understands the preciousness of life and the patterns we can get stuck in, and who better understands that there is a way to change.
We Jews call this Teshuvah.
I spoke about teshuvah a little last week – within the Unetaneh Tokef, it’s one of the three actions, or spiritual practices that soften the decree of life’s suffering.
Teshuvah is usually translated into English as “repentance.” That’s the name of our machzor or HHD prayer book – Shaarei Teshuvah or Gates of Repentance. Repentance comes from the Latin for “to be sorry” or “to express regret.” Yes, regret is important, even essential, but Jews have traditionally recognized that it is only one element of it.
In the original Hebrew, teshuvah come from the root for return or just plain turning. Turning from one path, and toward God, toward our best selves.
Rabbi Harold Kushner relates the story of the Rebbe who told to his students: “We are as far from where God wants us to be as East is from West.” And then he asked them: “By the way, just how far is it from East to West?”
One of his students raised his hand and answered: “Eleven thousand miles. I just heard that on public television.”
The Rebbe replied: “No, that’s wrong.”
Another student raised his hand and ventured: “Twenty-two thousand miles. That’s the circumference of the world.”
The Rebbe shook his head again, “No, that’s wrong.”
A third student tried: “Six thousand miles.”
The Rebbe answered: “No, that’s wrong. The distance from East to West is one step. You are facing East – you take one step and turn round – and now you are facing West.”
In the same way, teshuvah is not a change in personality; teshuvah is a change in direction.
The torah and our tradition offer us many tools to help us redirect ourselves. Because, well, it seems nearly impossible to really change behavior. The Israelites needed ten plagues and the sea parting AND the drama on Mt. Sinai, and still we built a Molten, Golden Calf within 2 months of receiving the ten commandments.
It’s not just the slave generation that couldn’t keep their focus toward God; the succeeding generations continued with old, bad, destructive habits – throughout the Tanakh.
But it’s not just our biblical ancestors that this applies to.
Is there anyone in this room who has changed any major life issue or bad habit easily? A show of hands?
I thought not.
One of my teachers recommended a book that seemed impossible to pass up for this season. He said it would change how he would parent, how he would be in his marriage and how he would be as a rabbi. Now, this is transformative stuff, I thought. So I downloaded the book onto my iPad, not wanting to waste a moment. It’s called – Shame and Guilt, by Tangey and Dearing.
Do you know the difference between shame and guilt? According to the authors, shame is about evaluating an episode in our lives that might not have gone well by focusing on ourselves and our sense of self, whereas guilt is about focusing on the behavior or action. That’s the idea that we have been teaching our children for a few decades now – they are not bad people, what they did is the problem.
The reason we are supposed to focus on the behavior is that shame is a dangerous thing. When we feel ashamed, we want to hide, disappear, shrink into a ball and never be heard from again. Or else we lash out in anger. Either way – withdrawal or striking out, we are unlikely to change our behavior, because we will probably do anything not to acknowledge it.
But, according to the authors, guilt is good, albeit uncomfortable, fraught with regret, remorse and tension. It allows us the opportunity – the need – to figure out how to fix what we did, to problem solve solutions, and to see a path to change. If this doesn’t sound like teshuvah, what does?
But EVEN BETTER, is that the person who is self-reflective, who can look at their actions – that person is more likely to be guilt prone, than shame-prone. And the reason a self-reflective person is thought to be more guilt prone than the average person is because he or she is self-aware and WILLING to look at how to improve.
I read this and wished above all things I could call my mother and tell her – all that guilt induction was for a good purpose – I see that now! Thank you!
It seems to me that we can all use a little discomfort, a little tension every now and again, when our awareness alerts us to the possibility that we could have done things just that much better. And I think that’s why we Jews are so good with guilt. Our list of what we’re supposed to do is so long.
A couple of other key differences between guilt and shame: someone who feels shame is unable to access empathy, because the person is too focused on themselves; whereas a person who has accessed guilt is all about how to make it right for the other person. They quoted one study in which they caused the subjects to feel shame, and afterwards in a seemingly unrelated incident, the subjects generally were unable to express, or feel, empathy towards someone who needed help.
We Jews have known this for centuries. The rabbis have an entire section of the Talmud in which they discuss the problems with onaat devarim – wounding with words. They say one of the worst things one can do to someone else is to cause them to feel shame – to have their faces whiten – all the blood to drain from them. They believed that it was akin to murder, a spiritual murder. Causing someone to feel shame causes them to feel less than human.
And that seems to be a critical piece of whether we are able to use these holy days effectively. Can we look at our actions without wallowing in shame? If we think they are about us being bad people, we’ll never change. But if we look at them as behaviors that can be modified, we can move forward.
I know a sweet young woman, beautiful inside and out, who had her first boyfriend last year. The boy had had a really hard childhood. His mother was an alcoholic, his father was violent (do we think those two things are related?). Years later, he met the young woman, and he was smitten. But he also had an overwhelming need to control his environment. He wanted her all to himself, and tried to isolate her, and when things didn’t go his way, he’d get angry and act out. On the other hand, he also provided the warm, fuzzy addictive side, when he showered her with love.
You know where I’m going with this: One day, his anger got the worst of him. And he hurt the girl. Badly. He didn’t mean to, but he didn’t hear her “no” or else he didn’t get that No means No. And he never was able to own up to it. Of course, he said he was sorry – he said he was very sorry. But when asked to attend a successful men’s domestic violence program – his response was he wouldn’t do it because he didn’t need it. And then, rather than accept responsibility for his own actions, he started to blame her parents for keeping them apart: it was all their fault. And the doctor who diagnosed the severity of the injury was lying. His only concern was that he not be blamed– he was not even interested in the girl’s ongoing health problems resulting from his behavior.
I kept thinking, it’s too bad this boy isn’t Jewish, because he might have learned about teshuvah. Because this might have really helped him.
According to Maimonides, the 11th century commentator, there are four primary steps:
- Acknowledge that you’ve done something wrong. Recognize that you have harmed someone, and admit it out loud. Whether it’s hurting your spouse, or your best friend, or the clerk at the grocery store, or spreading rumors, or judging others, you need to own it before you can change.
- Resolve never to do it again – in your heart of hearts and in your actions. If you need an anger management program, go to it. If you need couples counseling, get it. If you need a time out, take it.
- Fix what you can. Make amends. This is critical: if you’ve hurt someone, figure out how to make it right. Right now, this evening. Before tomorrow night.
- And then, the way you’ll know you’ve really turned, is when you are faced with the same situation a second time, and you resist, refrain and manage not to do it again.
You can see how this is so much more than just being sorry or expressing regret…
And it requires enormous effort. Unbelievable effort. That’s what our tradition seeks to help with. That change, that turning toward to the light, is incredibly hard. Most of us fail at changing completely.
And that’s what we’re doing here tonight and tomorrow. We’re putting in the enormous effort to identify what we did and figure out what steps to take to assure it doesn’t happen again.
Do you know when people are most likely to change? When our backs are up against the wall: there is no choice but to change. A diabetes diagnosis leads to more weight loss than an upcoming wedding. A cancer diagnosis convinces many people to stop smoking. As Steve Jobs, whose death we note today, told Stanford graduates in 2005,
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose … You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart …”
Yom Kippur tells us – we don’t need a death sentence. We can do it NOW. We can imagine what our death might be like as we remove ourselves from the physical world – wear white, refrain from food, sex, washing, applying lotions and shoes for a day – and we can change. And wake up tomorrow with a new lease on life, if we embrace this one fact. So we should all live with the awareness that this last kiss or word might be our last.
Roger Ebert, the film critic, describes a similar phenomenon. He has cancer that resulted in his losing his lower jaw, tongue and throat. He can no longer speak or eat food. But he remembers food lovingly, especially the food of his childhood. But he can’t remember his last meal – because he had no way of knowing at the time that it would be his last meal. So too with us – we don’t know which word we say to our loved ones will be the last one they hear. Which do we want it to be? Angry or loving?
Another way to look at teshuvah is that it is a turning toward mindfulness. It is a spiritual practice about exercising our freedom to choose good. It is based on the radically optimistic belief that despite the mistakes we have made in our lives and despite the effects of the painful legacies we have inherited, there is always a possibility of healing and redemption.
And an amazing thing about this is we can make that turn, that pivot in the other direction, any time. We can make amends, that third step Maimonides names, until that last minute. But amends it must be: as we know, on Yom Kippur, one cannot be forgiven for hurting another person until things have been cleaned up with that person.
And I want to talk a moment about making amends. A study from the University of Illinois, gave its test subjects a hypothetical situation — an accident in which a cyclist injures a pedestrian. The researchers offered each subject one of three statements attributed to the cyclist and asked the subjects whether the injured party should accept a proffered settlement. The three statements:
- “I am so sorry that you were hurt. The accident was all my fault, I was going too fast and not watching where I was going.”
- No apology – just the offer of a settlement.
- “I am so sorry that you were hurt, and I really hope that you feel better soon.”
What would you have advised?
The study found:
- When a full apology was offered, nearly 3/4 of the subjects said the pedestrian should accept the settlement.
- When no apology was offered, about half said the pedestrian should settle.
- When the partial apology accepting no responsibility was offered, only about a third opted for a settlement.
How does that sit with you?
So what does a successful apology sound like? According to the study, it is Maimonides’ formula for teshuvah: an expression of regret AND an assumption of full responsibility. It also helps to put forward a plan for preventing similar mistakes in the future. When used well, words can heal — by lifting anger and guilt and allowing splintered bonds to mend.
So this is the work ahead of us.
Transformation requires that we be in balance with ourselves – that we recognize our strengths, our inherent goodness, our own capacity for compassion – as well as the areas that need some directional change.
While the HHDs are about transformation, and the rabbis gave us tools to do it, the chances are small that between tonight and Neilah, tomorrow, we will really change our behaviors. It’s just not realistic and we would be setting ourselves up for failure.
Rather, the best we can expect of ourselves is that the next 24 hours be the herald, the wake up call to change our direction, and set a path toward lasting change, so that every step we take, every move we make brings us closer to our truest selves, toward mindfulness, toward loving, toward a life in balance, toward the sacred. I pray that each of us can make that change in direction over the next 24 hours, and begin again.
 New York Times, 7/2/2010.
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