Parashat Vayelech 5779

Rabbi Jackie Tabick – 14 September 2018

So have you sinned today? I don’t want to impugn your good self but I think you would be in a tiny minority if you haven’t. Though I suspect you would be part of a far larger group of people if you feel that you haven’t sinned today… or for that matter, sinned very much at all in the past year. Which makes these days of Repentance and Yom Kippur a really difficult spiritual exercise.

Most of us try to deny uncomfortable facts. I am reminded of the typical way young children act when faced with something that they have done wrong. ‘It wasn’t me’, they say, ‘who scribbled on the wall, it was my hand’. ‘It wasn’t me, they claim, ‘who deliberately tripped the baby up, it was my foot’. As if the hand and the foot had wills of their own.

Then the next stage. ‘It wasn’t me, it was an accident. I did not mean to hurt you through leaving my toys where you were bound to trip so I don’t have to feel sorry that you have a bruise on your arm’. Unless there was real premeditated, provable, malevolent intent, then there is no blame, no need to apologize.

And then, perhaps one of the most irritating phases of all; the time when the children have taken on board the fact that apologies are expected, so they say sorry, all the time, for everything, but you know how little the words really mean and yet they then expect the matter to be totally forgotten. Wiped out of your memory, as if the hurtful words, or the discovered lie or the dreadful deed had never happened.

Now the really annoying thing is that on an adult level, we are all still guilty, at least occasionally, of the same misconceptions. But complete Teshuvah, repentance, the spiritual work at this time in the Jewish year, does not work like that. There are recommended steps that have to be followed, in order, and incomplete teshuvah is just that, incomplete, and no number of prayers on Yom Kippur can magically complete the process for us.

One teenage joker in a class I taught said that the first step of Teshuvah is to do something wrong. And he was of course right. Not that there’s any shortage of such wrongful acts in our lives. As it says in this week’s sedra, after the death of Moses, ‘This people will go after alien gods in their midst in the land which they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant with them’ (Deut. 31:16). In other words, God knew that we are bound to commit sins. That’s what we do. The problem is, what we are going then to do about them. For sins may be what we do, but they are not what we are. We are capable of being better than that. And Teshuvah is the way forward out of the sinful morass we often find ourselves mired in. But it’s not a simple task. Complete Teshuvah asks that as mature adults, the real first step of repentance is full acknowledgement that we have done something wrong, followed by a real attempt to put the wrong right through apology and appropriate actions and then to make a firm resolve never to commit the same sin again.

One of the sad realisations that may come upon us if we truly try to acknowledge all our sins, is that there are some for which repentance is very hard, if not impossible. If we have spread gossip, how can we know who heard it and acted upon it as if it were true? If we have polluted the environment, do we know which asthmatic suffered? And anyway, cars and lorries are sometimes essential. If we bought something on the quiet, cheaply, then we know it probably fell off the back of a lorry or that it is a forgery, hurting someone’s legitimate business, and how can we pay back the money we really owe on that item if we don’t know who actually lost on the deal? The matter is so complicated, some may say, ‘why bother’?

Well perhaps because it sensitises us to the moral issues in our lives, the process of Teshuvah makes us think more about the consequences of our actions, and encourages us to avoid certain actions in the future. And if it teaches us to reflect, just occasionally, on the probable outcome of our often rash words or actions, then surely the world around us, the world in which we bring up our young, will be a better place. In the face of such imponderables and difficulties, we can’t just sit back and give up. As it says three times in our sedra for this week, ‘Be strong and of good courage’. Teshuvah is not easy. But don’t give up! We must try to really face our sins. Try to really repent. Try to make this New Year a better place for us all.

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