Re-Righting Our Stories

Parashat Nitsavim-Vayelech, Deuteronomy 29:10 – 31:30

by Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Shuvah Yisrael, W. Hartford, CT

 I am now one hundred and twenty years old; I can no longer be active. (Deuteronomy 31:1)

With that surprising announcement, 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 Deuteronomy Moses gave Israel its code of law, ethics, and ritual practice, but also he recorded for posterity his own story. But not only did he write his story, Moses managed to right his story.

The life of Moses was 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 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.

This reminds me of Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) the inventor of dynamite, who had the rare opportunity to read his own death notice. When his brother passed away a newspaper believing Alfred 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 created 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. 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 as we approach 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 taught 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.

Recognition – 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, but when we recognize that we are created in the image of a loving God we can separate our mistakes and misdeeds from the litany of accusations we carry around as scars from living in a debased culture. 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 we have done to ourselves, to God, and to our fellows. When we deflect criticism and externalize our difficulties it eliminates our own culpability and short-circuits God’s plan to liberate us.

Remorse – Though shame is inappropriate for a child of God, guilt can be altogether proper. 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 to feel badly 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.

It is human nature to avoid feelings of remorse. Three common ways to dodge these feelings are:

  • Confessing what has been already corrected. These are exercises in clever subterfuge and false humility, such as recovering alcoholics reveling in old war stories from their drinking days. Past victories cannot protect us from today’s spiritual battles.
  • Blame shifting from ourselves to others. To make teshuvah we must focus on our own culpability.
  • Indictment of others. By pointing out other’s deficiencies we can avoid criticism. After all the best defense is a good offense.

Restitution – making things right. Eliezer ben Azariah said, “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 conciliated the man he has sinned against.” In the same way, the atonement of Yeshua has been accomplished once and for all, but we have a responsibility when we accept God’s forgiveness to make amends for the wrongs we have done against others. Yochanan asks, “How can you love God whom you have not seen if you don’t love your brother whom you have seen?” (1 John 4:20).

 It is not imperative that the other party forgives you, rather that you are willing to make amends.

Reorientation – This is the firm commitment to do things differently from now on. We can’t go back to where we have been, but somehow opportunities to change re-present themselves. “Let the wicked forsake his ways, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7).

Restoration – There is no feeling like that of divine pardon. If shame is an unbearable burden, then God’s forgiveness is an incredible lightness, an enormous easing of burden:

  • 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 of old 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 has done wrong and repents is on a higher spiritual plane than the person who 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 more abundant.

L’shana Tovah

Stephanie Escalnate