I once saw a particular cartoon that I thought was clever and, as it turns out, may have something to say to us about repentance and renewal. A child shows his report card to his father, which contains mostly Cs and Ds. The father expresses his displeasure, to which the child says: “What do you think it is, Dad, heredity or environment?”
The answer, of course, is that while both heredity and environment could contribute to a child’s academic performance in some small measure, the most influential factor in personal growth is taking responsibility for our own actions. This is the message of the season of repentance and renewal that we are now engaged in and that will reach its climax with the celebration of the High Holidays- Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. During these days we are asked to look within ourselves and perform an inventory of our behavior, our attitudes and our commitments. In our stock-taking we will surely find things that we must change in the coming weeks and months. We have to be willing to recognize our own faults in order to improve ourselves. We have to be willing to admit that we were wrong, that some of our behaviors and actions are not healthy or productive or positive. We have to be able to admit that we’ve hurt people, either directly or indirectly. If we are truly courageous, we will decide to approach some of the people we’ve hurt or disappointed to ask them to forgive us and enable us to start afresh. Stripping away the prayers and the music and the readings that we will experience in the days ahead, this is the essence of what these occasions are about. We are summoned to perform an act of Teshuva, or turning around and starting over.
This week’s Torah portion – Nitzavim – is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana because it contains ideas and passages that are inspirational at this time of the year. My favorite is Deuteronomy chapter 30, verse 11:
Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
The passage can be understood to be referring to the practice of Judaism, to honoring the covenant with God through what we do as Jews. I choose to understand the passage as encouragement to each of us that the things in our lives that we perceive as too hard to accomplish are really not that difficult. We may be afraid to confront ourselves on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur by listing the behaviors we must change. We may feel that it’s too emotionally depleting to acknowledge our failures. But the Torah reassures us that doing so is within our reach.
Yuli Markovich Daniel was a Soviet dissident writer, poet, translator, and political prisoner. He wrote these words of poetry on the theme of self-judgment, which I find inspiring at this season of the year.
When your life is tumbling downhill head over heels,
Thrashing and foaming like an epileptic,
Don’t pray and offer up repentance,
Don’t be afraid of jail and ruin.
Study your past with concentration,
Evaluate your days without self-flattery,
Grind the fag-ends of illusions underfoot,
But open up to all that’s bright and clear.
Don’t surrender to impotence and bitterness,
Don’t give in to disbelief and lies,
Not everyone’s a cringing bastard,
Not everyone’s a bigot who informs.
And while you walk along the alien roads
To lands which do not figure on your maps,
Count out the names of all your friends
As you would do with pearls or prayer-beads.
Be on the look-out, cheerful and ferocious,
And you’ll manage to stand up, yes, stand up
Under your many-layered load of misery,
Under the burden of your being right.
Our tradition asks us to do something that may be challenging, difficult and painful. But it’s within our reach to do it, and the benefit of getting out from under the “burden of being right” is certainly worth the effort.