Just One Person Erev Rosh Hashannah Sermon by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Just One Person Sermon on Erev Rosh Hashannah, 5770/2009 Rabbi Dov Gartenberg Given at Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach One thing you can get every scholar, thinker, and dreamer of Judaism to admit is that our religion puts great value on relationships. Our God, as imagined by the Jewish people, is not a loner. Our God craves relationships. “Shall I hide what I am about to do from Avraham?”, (Gen 18) God says to himself before revealing his plans about the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah to Avraham in the Book of Genesis. This is a God who cares about His relationships with human beings, something no other religion of the biblical age could imagine 3000 years ago. The 3000 year unfolding of Judaism only reinforces this emphasis on relationships. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” “Honor your father and your mother.” So much of Jewish life is focused on maintaining good and ethical relationships with others.

This is perhaps one of the reasons that Judaism has no monastic movement. We did not send our children to remote places to live in solitude; instead we send them to summer camps. Life is with People is not only a title of a popular study of Jewish neighborhoods in the Lower East Side. It describes the Jewish way of life. Nothing is more relation centered in Judaism than the Jewish teaching on repentance-Teshuvah. Unlike the secular new year in which we make resolutions of self improvement-going on a diet, stopping smoking, joining a gym, the Days of Awe are a time for changing and repairing relationships . Our tradition is very clear that the period we are now entering should be centered on the repair of our relationships with those in our family, our circle of friends and acquaintances, and our community. The next 10 days, which we call, Aseret Ymai Teshuvah-the Ten days of Teshuvah- are focused on making repentance with the people in our lives. Maimonides states clearly that Yom Kippur, a day focused on our relationship with God, is only efficacious to the extent we have fulfilled the prerequisite of repairing our human relationships.

Yet my sense is that most of us give lip service to this demand of Jewish tradition. We believe that our most difficult relationships are unfixable. Or we are too lazy move to repair a relationship stuck for years. Or we ask everyone forgiveness without really exploring deeply what we are asking forgiveness for. Or we somehow have fallen into the habit of thought that sitting in shul for so many hours at this time of year fulfills our obligation so that we are cleansed of sin. But it is clear from the sources that the most important and consequential act of the High Holidays is making Teshuvah with people in our lives. So I have a suggestion, dear congregant. Focus on one relationship you want to change for the better. Go through the process of making Teshuvah with that person. Make your Teshuvah with that person in the most thorough going way possible. This person could be a spouse, a child, a coworker, a relative, a former friend, even your rabbi.

In considering a person you want to approach, it makes sense to weigh how this person may respond to your approach. There are three things to consider.

1. Is this person also aware that this is the season for Teshuvah? A person who is culturally conditioned to the practice of Teshuvah during the season of the Days of Awe is more likely to welcome and respond constructively to your approach than a person who is not.

2. Approach a person you know that you have wronged, even if you are very much aware of a wrong they have done to you. Making Teshuvah is not keeping a scorecard. Teshuvah is taking responsibility for your own actions, regardless of the behavior of the other.

3. It is difficult to make teshuvah with a person who is begrudging, unforgiving, or vindictive, since it is likely that a sincere attempt at Teshuvah with this person will be rejected out of hand. Rambam taught that after three sincere attempts of reconciliation, a person making teshuvah with a begrudging person no longer bears the sin he originally committed. The cold hearted response of the begrudging person has made him or her the sinner. This is because bearing a grudge is a transgression (a negative Mitzvah)of the Torah. (Lev 19). Forgiveness cannot be withheld forever.

Once we have identified a relationship we seek to repair, what are the steps to follow? I follow the recommendations of Maimonides in his Laws of Teshuvah in his great code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah.

1. First, reflect deeply about how you wronged the person so that you can be clear with him or her about what you did that was wrong. Your reflections may be accompanied by guilt and remorse. These feelings are essential for real Teshuvah to take place.

2. Second, arrange to meet the person privately before Yom Kippur . Explain to that person why you want to meet with him or her.

3. Third, the first thing you must do at the meeting is make a vidui-confession or acknowledgement of the sin or wrong you committed against the person.

4. Fourth, after the confession make a sincere expression of remorse for your action. This is called Mehilah.

5. In some cases restitution may be necessary such as a case of stealing or not returning a borrowed object.

6. Fifth, apologize for the act. Our tradition encourages the person making Teshuvah to ask for forgiveness-Selichah from the person we offended or hurt or wronged. The next step is up to the recipient of your apology.

Ideally the process you set in motion concludes with the other party granting forgiveness. It is often the case that the other party will be moved to confess a wrong or acknowledge his role in the difficulties of the relationship. Hopefully your initiative introduces a new dynamic to the relationship. The other party may be moved by your effort. The other party may reveal feelings that you were unaware of. Your initiative may cause mutuality and trust to be restored to the relationship. Can the relationship regain its former mutuality? This is not always achieved. The ultimate test is time. Rambam teaches that if you find yourself in the same circumstance later on, similar to the original moment of transgression, and you do not repeat that wrong, then the process of Teshuvah is complete.

This is the main mitzvah for this season, my friends. It is the aim of blowing the shofar to spur us to change human relationships for the better. That is why I am urging you to make a Teshuvah effort with just one person this season. If we can make real Teshuvah with even one person we have improved the world. The daily prayer book states that God wants Teshuvah. Any effort you make to repair relationships makes Yom Kippur a day of affirmation and hope, for our tradition imagines a God who derives joy in reconciliation and the restoration of relationships. And if we succeed with people, then on Yom Kippur we can succeed in making Teshuvah with God. He who saves a life is as if he saved the entire world. This beautiful expression from our Rabbis refers to the act of Teshuvah. Which life is saved and which world is sustained? You be the judge. It could be not only the person you reach out to. It could be yourself. Shannah Tovah v’tikateivu.

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