A poem we read at Selihot services this past Saturday night:
Teach me, my God, blessing and prayer
for the secret of the withered leaf,
the brightness of the ripened fruit,
for this freedom to see,
to sense, to breathe,
to know, to wish, to fail.
Teach my lips a blessing, a song of praise
in renewal of your day,
each morning and eve.
That my today not be
like all my yesterdays;
that my day not be – merely routine.
Our brilliant speaker before services examined her problems with the idea of forgiveness. When we excuse those who committed grievous wrongs because they themselves were victimized, she observed, we no longer have to forgive them--we’ve decided they were blameless in the first place. Much of what we call forgiveness in popular culture falls into this category. She also defended anger, often considered a trait to be overcome, an unenlightened state. But in a world where so many of us are afraid to rock the boat, anger can spur much-needed action. Anger fueled the Prophets, she noted, in the form of righteous indignation.
I wish I had asked her what she meant by this phrase. To me it suggests self-centeredness, an attitude that ignores other points of view, and I think of the Prophets as expansive and equal opportunity in their anger--including themselves in the category of sinners. If on Yom Kippur we ask forgiveness for all humanity, not just ourselves, I imagine God prefers this kind of inclusive anger.
But I also have some issues with the communal vidui, the confessional sections of High Holy Day services where we beat our breasts (ever so gently) and recite lists of our failings over the year. I understand the importance of bearing the burden of all humankind--we may not be guilty, said Heschel, but we’re all responsible. But what gives me the right to assume the person next to me did any of those awful things? Maybe she’s a saint. Isn’t it equal hubris to cover my bases and act like she’s guilty so that I can be forgiven?
On the other hand, I guess there can be no atonement--within ourselves or from God--unless we first acknowledge that we live on this earth with others. Our prayer has no right to be self-centered.
I make the mistake of thinking of teshuva like New Year's resolutions, a list of stuff to fix. Llike every other list I make, I know I won't ever get to the last few items. I'm ashamed at myself for even putting them on the list, but it seems like the correct, albeit doomed, thing to do.Teshuva, I'm beginning to understand, really is a turning, just as the word implies--a small twist in a different direction, a subtle reorientation so you're looking ahead at a new path. Teshuva isn't a big shove to send me reeling down that path, but rather the sun starting to peek over a hill so I can see where to put my first steps.