Hard To Repent If It's Everyone Else's Fault

Time To Think About Those Wronged, Even in Name of Right

Channeling Hillel: Rep. Jared Polis warned against ignoring the views of those we disagree with, like Christian conservatives. In a sense, he was channeling the teachings of Hillel the Elder, who discussed the dangers of ‘righteous anger.’
getty images
Channeling Hillel: Rep. Jared Polis warned against ignoring the views of those we disagree with, like Christian conservatives. In a sense, he was channeling the teachings of Hillel the Elder, who discussed the dangers of ‘righteous anger.’

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 11, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Well, the High Holy Days are upon us once again, and from the look of things, it seems the season of repentance and atonement is going to prove harder than ever to slog through this year. Not that we won’t give it our best. The trouble is, it’s hard to repent effectively when you believe all your problems are someone else’s fault.

Oh, we’ll say all the usual things: We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen. We have lied, dealt falsely and led astray. But we’ll really be thinking: Not me. It was the other guys. Sure, some of my crowd may have lied and betrayed, but it wouldn’t have happened if they’d listened to me. Anyway, it was the other guys who started it. My folks were just minding their own business.

Mind you, the scene inside the synagogue will look the same as it always has. Our fellow congregants will be standing up and sitting down at the appropriate moments, as they have throughout the generations. They’ll beat their breasts convincingly and recite the prescribed words. And, to be fair, they’ll probably be reflecting earnestly on things they wish they’d done differently over the past year. Many will be thinking about individuals they’ve wronged, clients or neighbors they treated poorly, friends and loved ones they let down. Perhaps they’ll be thinking about something the rabbi said about the teachings of our forebears and the excellence of our heritage.

But they — we — will be missing the hard part: The collective we that lies at the heart of this season of repentance. To be sure, each of us has our share of missteps and misdeeds to repent and atone. But that’s not the point of these holiest of days. We had the month of Ellul leading up to the New Year to make amends individually to the friends and colleagues we wounded and betrayed. The Days of Awe serve a different purpose. On these days we gather to repent the wrongs we have done as a community, a people, a nation. We have sinned, the prayer says. We have betrayed. We have led astray. Not some of us. Not the other side, the ones who don’t get it, but all of us, together, as one mighty band of fools.

The hard truth is that these misdeeds we have committed as a community are hard to repent because we did them in the light of day as sacred acts in defense of the truths we hold dear. We wronged those who wished us ill, those who attacked us and wronged us, when we failed to hear and consider their grievance, or when we failed to find a way to fulfill our destiny without shattering theirs:

The neighbors we evicted and made homeless, because their mortgages were in default, or their homes could be flipped for a profit. Or, perhaps, because we were taught that God promised us the fields they live on.

Those who fell in our path when we rose up to defend ourselves, because we forgot the moral imperative to use the least force necessary, not the most force possible. And those whose unavoidable downfall we celebrated instead of mourning because we forgot the infinite value of every human life. Because we forgot God’s response when Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the Red Sea and the angels burst out in song: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing songs?”

Those we drove to despair and rage because the things they called holy were not the things we called holy — those we called immoral or deviant or fundamentalist or narrow-minded, ultra-Orthodox, jingoist, peaceniks or settlers. Those who are, at the end of the day, our brothers and sisters.

Those invoked by Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado in his opening-night speech to the Democratic National Convention, when he called on his fellow Democrats to “respect the Christian family concerned about decaying moral values and crass commercialism,” and to “respect the difficult decision of a single mother to bring a child into this world, because of her heartfelt beliefs.” This, after Polis introduced himself with the words: “My name is Jared Polis. My great-grandparents were immigrants. I am Jewish. I am gay. I am a father.”

For some reason we have come to think that the rules governing our collective behavior as a nation or a community or a political or religious movement are different from the rules governing our behavior as individuals. As individuals we are taught to be kind and understanding, to love our neighbor, walk humbly and share what we have. As a nation, we expect ourselves to be proud, unyielding and mistrustful. We think we can bifurcate our souls. But we can’t. A nation that teaches its young contempt of strangers will find its young attacking strangers in the street.

Hillel the Elder, that wisest of teachers, is remembered for his admonition to stand up and be counted: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” But he had another warning that’s too often forgotten. He cautioned us to think twice and three times before we rise up in righteous anger: “Be not sure of yourself until the day of your death, and do not judge your fellow until you have come into his place.” That’s a rule we transgress at our peril.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.