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9.22.2017 Weekly Torah Portion

PostPosted: Wed Sep 20, 2017 10:34 pm
by RabbiMark
When I was studying in Israel last year, I had many powerful learning experiences. But an experience involving t’shuvah, the cycle of making mistakes and returning to the right path, was the most the most challenging experience of all. After over a year working at Beit T’Shuvah as a spiritual counselor, I thought I had developed a good understanding of t’shuvah. My learning was about to be put to the test.

Last spring a new person joined our school in Jerusalem. I’ll call him Boaz. After I met him a few times, something seemed off about him. Word quickly spread that Boaz had been accused of a serious crime, but that charges were dropped. Accounts of this incident were easily findable with a google search.

Distraught, I went to my rabbis, but most of their guidance was unhelpful. The least helpful advice of all was “Boaz has made t’shuvah.” I found myself unable to accept this. The people that were telling me that Boaz had made t’shuvah were the same people who tried to conceal the incident from the community in the first place. I found myself unable to trust them.

Finally I called Rabbi Matt Shapiro. He told me, “Maybe Boaz has made t’shuvah. Maybe he hasn’t. It’s between him and God, between him and the people he is closest to in his life.” In this insight I finally found comfort. I couldn’t know whether Boaz had made t’shuvah. It was up to me what to think, what to believe.

Things didn’t magically get better. I continued to struggle to be comfortable around Boaz, and I continued to distrust my rabbis who had assured me that everything was fine. I decided I had to continue learning.

I found that the single most authoritative answer to the question - what is t’shuvah - comes from Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, often called Rambam. He provides a clear outline of the steps we must take in order to make t’shuvah:

• We begin by realizing we’ve done something wrong.
• We next confess that wrongdoing publicly, before others and before God, expressing remorse and resolving to change.
• Further, we work to repair the damage we’ve caused; then, we sincerely ask for forgiveness.
• Moving forward, we avoid the situations that caused this in the first place.
• Finally, to achieve complete t’shuvah, we act differently when we are placed in the same situation again.
While this process is clear, taking these actions in real life is no easy task. In particular, public confession of wrongdoing seems to be problematic. It can embarrass the person confessing, and public embarrassment is distinctly problematic in Jewish tradition.

Back to my experience with Boaz: this was the issue that the rabbis in my community were most concerned about. They believed that it was best to hide the truth about Boaz’s past to save him from embarrassment. Yet their efforts were thwarted because stories of the accusation were available for all to see.

As I continued to learn about t’shuvah, I read another insight that helped me understand the importance of public confession. Confession repairs the relationships that are hurt by wrongdoing. As long as things remain secret, separation grows. But breaking the concealment and making the deed public can bring healing.

This spoke powerfully to me - indeed, I felt that my relationship with Boaz was like a broken link. For the whole semester we saw each other several times a week, and we spoke often. Yet in all these conversations there was a weight in the air: the weight of Boaz’s blemished past and the community standard that it could not be a topic for discussion.

Maybe I should have asked Boaz about his past and his present - but I don’t think so. To this day, I think it was Boaz’s right to keep things quiet, or perhaps, Boaz’s responsibility to find a way to take the first step to repair this link. It was up to me then, and is up to me now, to be at peace with the fact that Boaz’s t’shuvah is between him and G-d.

For all of us, in this season of t’shuvah, I bless us with the courage to take a closer look at the process of returning to the right path. I bless us with the power to imagine a future in which we repair our mistakes and begin again. May we all see ourselves, and each other, as God sees us - always able to return to the right path - and may we all have a good and a sweet new year.