Saturday, September 12, 2009

L'Shana Tova

From the Jerusalem Post article by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

And you shall return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice in accordance with every thing I have commanded this day... with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deuteronomy 30:2).

Although this commandment which is germane 365 days a year it is especially relevant during the 10 days beginning with Rosh Hashana and concluding with Yom Kippur.

Though I am a Christian, I recognize that my heritage comes through Jesus or more properly, Yeshua. Further, Christians started out as a sect of Judaism. Therefore I believe in the need to acknowledge and embrace what we can learn from our Jewish brothers. This particular biblical reading, falling as it does only one week before Rosh Hashana, is especially opportune.

How do we fulfill this commandment? The noted 12th Century Rabbi, scholar and teacher Maimonides also known as Rambam who wrote the Mishneh Torah, which has become the basis of codification for Hebrew Talmudic law, explains this in clear terms:

"If an individual transgresses any commandment of the Torah, whether it be a positive or negative command, whether he transgressed wittingly or unwittingly, when he repents [does teshuva] and turns away from his sin, he is obligated to confess before God, blessed be He, as it is written, 'A man or woman who transgresses... must confess the sin they have committed...' This refers to a verbal confession, and this confession is a positive commandment..."

It seems difficult to understand how the commandment to repent, could be reduced to a mouthing of words which may be uttered by rote.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, whose Jerusalem Post column is the basis for this article states there are actually two aspects to the commandment of repentance:

First: kappara, forgiveness, the mechanical bringing of a sacrificial offering and/or the mouthing of the confessional - which are minimal, at best.

Second: the more optimal tahara, purity, which requires a transformational experience. Maimonides discusses this second, more powerful aspect of repentance in his second chapter, and calls it "complete repentance" (teshuva gemura).

Rabbi Riskin goes on to say that Maimonides hit upon a significant existential truth when he insisted that the fundamental commandment centers on confession. Apparently what many might think of as a fairly simple and even mechanical formula - "Please [God, spouse, parent, child, neighbor, coworker] forgive me, I have transgressed, sinned, rebelled against you by having done what I did; I am contrite and ashamed by my actions and will never do them again" - is exceedingly difficult for most individuals.

Recently we have seen an inordinate number of high-powered civil servants, senators, governors and Wall Street tycoons being indicted by the courts and brought to light in the Press. Some have been found guilty and several are beginning prison sentences. Others have lost their positions and credibility.

A significant number of high-profile rabbis and communal leaders in New York have been apprehended and charged with crimes. To the best of my knowledge, very few of them have confessed to wrongdoing or publicly admitted guilt. Very few have stood before the public that elected them, or the congregants who revered them, and said "I'm sorry; I repent of my actions, I'm ashamed. Please forgive me." They seem more ashamed of being caught than their misdeeds.

Why is confession so difficult? A great sociologist-psychologist once wrote: "There are four 'yous' to every individual:

· Who you think you are
· Who others think you are,
· Who you think others think you are
· Who you would like others to think you are

The distance between these four yous, especially between who you are and who you would like others to think you are, is what can cause a tragic disconnect within the psyche of many individuals, producing hypocrisy at best and psychosis at worst.

Every human being, from the biblical perspective, is a complex creature, consisting of earthly flesh and divine image: "And the Lord God formed the human being of dust from the earth, and He breathed in his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being" (Genesis 2:7).

Hebrew sages have taught us, in a prayer to which we rise each morning, "My Lord, the soul you have given me is pure. You created it. You fashioned it. You exhaled it into me from your divine essence." The essence of every individual is the divine entity within him; the external body is merely the shell, which can be peeled away.

Each of us wears an outer uniform. You may be a businessman, a pastor, a butcher, baker, teacher, even a parent. The word persona or personality comes from the Greek word meaning "mask." Many of our professional identities, the clothes we wear and/or the personality we exude, are meant to express the way we want others to see us. They are the manner in which we want to impress others, but are not necessarily our real selves.

Sometimes the garb, the mask becomes so powerful that it overwhelms the divine image within. And if our transgression is of such a nature that it will cause the mask to fall away and reveal the nakedness of the emperor beneath, then one dare not admit one's guilt - perhaps not even to oneself. There may be nothing underneath the persona. Jesus once spoke of “white-washed tombs.” (Luke 11:44)

If, however, we do play act - utilize an external mask to appear to others the way we wish them to see us, but nevertheless maintain a divine image within us not so far from our public persona - there is still the pristine "you" lurking behind the covering curtains. Then, one can apologize and peel off the external trappings, and the real "you" within the image of the divine can be freed from the mask we thought society wanted us to wear. Then, even a high priest can begin his holy day ritual, despite his eight priestly vestments, with a cry of repentance: "Please, God, forgive." His divine image within was always waiting to come out.

The Talmud speaks of a once-great Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who became a heretic during the Hadrianic persecutions. He joined the Roman philosophers and was called Aher, the other one. His disciple, Rabbi Mier begged him to come back, to repent. "No, he said. For me it is too late. Aher had overwhelmed his divine image; indeed, as long as Elisha was submerged, it would be too late for repentance as long as he was Aher. But for Elisha ben Abuya it was never too late.

Reactivate your truest self and no matter how far you may have wandered, you too can return to the God whose essence initially formed you.

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