“I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active.” With that surprising realization, Moses begins his final address to the children of Israel. When Moses completes this address he will have accomplished what few others take the opportunity to do. With the completion of Devarim Moses gave Israel its code of law, ethics and ritual practice, but also he successfully managed to record for posterity his own story. But not only did he write his story, Moses managed to right his story.
It has been observed that the life of Moses played out like a three-act play in which each act had a forty year duration. In the first act, Moses thought he was somebody, having found himself through providence a prince in Egypt, removed from the lowly plight of his brethren. In the second act, Moses found out he was nobody, having been sent into exile in the wilderness of Midian and encountering the inscrutable God in a fire retardant bush. Finally, in the last act, Moses learns what God can do with somebody who thinks he is nobody. Though Moses could not control the events of his life, he nonetheless took the opportunity through obedience to write and re-right the conclusion of his own story.
Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) the inventor of dynamite, had the rare opportunity to read his own death notice. When his brother passed away, a local newspaper, believing he had died, ran his obituary. They described him as the man who had made it possible for more people to be killed quickly than any person had had ever lived. It was not how he wanted to be remembered so he began to re-right his own story. He used his accumulated wealth and influence to create the Nobel Prize and his name is now tied indelibly to the peace process, and the advancement of the sciences and the humanities.
Though few will ever reach the level of renown of Moses, or even Alfred Nobel, each of us has the same opportunity to finish our own stories and to not only write them, but also re-right them. The process is called teshuvah, commonly translated repentance. But teshuvah is the process of turning our lives around, and reorienting our stories to the script that our creator envisioned for us. Teshuvah is a good idea anytime throughout the year, but during the yamim noraim, the ten days of introspection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our attention is especially drawn toward repentance. But how do we affect teshuvah without merely going through perfunctory motions? When my parents were in school they learned the 3R’s – reading, riting, and ‘rithmetic. If we want to do a re-righting of our own stories we must go back to school and learn the five R’s of repentance, Recognition, Remorse, Restitution, Reorientation, and Restoration.
This is the act of separating what we are from what we have done. Shame is a heavy feeling associated with a sense of worthlessness. When we recognize that we are created in the image of a loving God we can separate our mistakes and miscues from the litany of accusations we carry around as scars from living in a culture filled with anger and hostility. According to a midrashic saying,
“The moment a man is willing to see himself as he is and make the confession ‘I have sinned’, from that moment the powers of evil lose their power over him.”
It is imperative, then, that we recognize the wrongs that we have done to ourselves, to God and to our fellows.
Though shame is an inappropriate image, guilt can be altogether proper. In fact, guilt is quite Jewish. Proper guilt is the nagging feeling that we are culpable for having done wrong. One of the reasons we don’t really repent, one of the reasons we don’t really change from year to year, one of the reasons Yom Kippur becomes for too many people an exercise in really bad play-acting, is that we have lost the capacity or the willingness to feel bad about what we have done. We won’t even let God tell us how we are doing. In effect we can become immune to guilt, but are left to the dull aching pain of shame. True repentance requires that we cultivate sensitive spirits that ache when we are in unrepentant sin. To make teshuvah we must focus on our own culpability.
“For transgressions against God the day of Atonement atones, but for transgressions against a fellow man, the Day of Atonement does not atone, so long as the sinner has not redressed the wrong done and reconciled with those he or she have sinned against” (Eliezer ben Azariah).
This is the firm commitment to do things differently from now on – we can’t go back to where we have been; time takes care of that. But somehow opportunities re-present themselves.
There is no feeling like that of Divine pardon, yet it is indescribable. If shame is an unbearable burden, then God’s forgiveness is an incredible lightness, an enormous easing of burden.
Like removing a piece of uncomfortable clothing
Like a huge burden lifted off your shoulders
Like a beautiful day after muggy, drizzly weather.
Like coming home after being away for a long time.
Like being able to scratch an itch you couldn’t reach.
Like the exuberance that comes with falling in love.
All these are inadequate attempts to explain the kind of freedom of conscience you feel when you engage in teshuvah.
The Rabbis have said,
“The Gates of Repentance are ever open. As the sea is always accessible, so is the Holy One, blessed be He always accessible to the penitent. The person who done wrong things and repents is on a higher spiritual plane than the person has not. Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the world to come”
Much of our stories were written before we were even aware how life had enveloped us. Yet there is much that we can take responsibility for. So, take the time to learn the five R’s of repentance, and write and re-right the best part of your story – the part that starts today. May this year be one of genuine teshuvah, and may the rest of your life be ever more abundant.