(I DELIVERED THIS YESTERDAY AT my synagogue‘s Yom Kippur morning service, and am posting it by popular post-service demand.)
For the past 10 years, Ann & I have shared a small apartment on Sonoma’s France Street. We have hosted weekly Torah studies, annual Instant Family Passover Seders, and our once-in-a-lifetime remarriage under the chuppah in 2002. But it was also recently the setting for a powerful lesson in the mechanics of teshuvah.
When I say the apartment is small, I mean /small/. The bathroom is just big enough for a shower, sink and toilet, and doesn’t leave much space for the steam which fills it after a nice hot shower. The bathroom opens on a small dining room with a window overlooking the back yard, and as nobody usually uses the back yard I often step out of the bathroom to dry off and cool down — whether or not the blinds are drawn.
You can probably see this coming.
There I was, drying myself off, looking out the window at the finches flitting in and out of the backyard bushes when our upstairs neighbor and her two children walked by, each looking in the window at me drying my hair. A few seconds later, after I had wrapped the towel around my waist, they filed back in the other direction — each shading their eyes with their hands. Neither of us spoke during the encounter, and none of us has mentioned it since.
To me, this is the very model of aveirah and teshuvah.
We all know that teshuvah means “turning,” as in “turning to God.” An aveirah is what you turn /from/. “Aveirah” is usually translated as sin, but the word “sin” carries with it connotations quite alien to its Jewish counterpart. “Aveirah” comes from the same root as the word “Hebrew,” and means “crossing,” as in “crossing the line.” By Judaism, there are three ways to cross the line of ethical behavior — mistakenly, consciously or deliberately. For example — and I’m sure we all have our own examples — sometimes we hurt each other’s feelings without knowing it. Sometimes we know it, but think it’s okay “just this once” (especially if you buy flowers afterward). And sometimes, for whatever reason, we do so intentionally.
But teshuvah isn’t always easy. Asking for forgiveness is scary — just like standing in front of someone while naked. We are vulnerable, we are open, we are defenseless; our future hangs in the balance of someone else’s action and forgiveness.
But it can be just as scary and difficult to forgive! When someone hurts us, sometimes the last thing we want to do is say “That’s okay.” We might be afraid that they’re insincere. Or that they’ll do it again. Or we might want to forgive what they did, but not be able to forget. So we make an agreement — to let the past stay in the past, and try to build a better future starting with the present. We deliberately cover our eyes to the hurtful things, consciously deciding that those hurtful things shouldn’t be so important.
And somehow, someday, suddenly — with the help of God and each other – they’re not.