Thursday, September 16, 2010

Just before Rosh Hashanah I wrote about my aversion to blanket "if I've hurt you, please forgive me" statements as a method of teshuvah (which technically means "return" but is often used to mean repentance, as in a return to G-d). I am not alone.

Maimonides first outlined the steps of teshuvah, steps that one must go through to fully return, whether the thing you're asking forgiveness for is between you and G-d or between you and another person. But I'm not going to talk about that. I'm going to let Bev and Sara talk, in this excerpt from Strength to Stand:

    Sara watched from her peripheral vision as Eli approached David and then led him out of the house, the look on her husband’s face like that of a boy about to be taken out to the woodshed. The door closed behind them and she let out a deep breath. Maybe Eli could pound some sense into him.
    She stood and stretched, then set the book down on the sofa and went to the kitchen. “Okay, put me to work,” she said to Bev.
    “Uh uh,” Bev said, shaking her head and chopping a head of broccoli into smaller florets and collecting them in a bowl. “I cook tonight. You relax. Don’t think I don’t know who’s been keeping us in clean towels all week.” She stopped and looked at Sara. “Or you can stay here and keep me company.”
    “I can do that.”
    “Good.” Bev returned to her chopping. “You want to tell me what happened Shabbat morning?”
    “Not really.”
    Bev reached for a scrubbed carrot and began slicing it on the diagonal, creating long, thin strips. “Okay. You want to tell me why David’s been in the doghouse for three days?”
    Sara picked up a broccoli floret that had fallen on the counter and put it in the bowl with the others. “There are five steps to forgiveness in Judaism, right?”
    Still slicing carrots, Bev looked thoughtful. “Hmm. I thought there were three.”
    “David gave a sermon this past fall about forgivenessteshuvah. I remember he was nervous that it sounded too preachy, which I thought was kind of funny. It all tied into a bigger picture about how we need to make teshuvah for ourselves, not only for the person we’ve wronged, how forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting, and how not forgiving can keep us from moving forward in our lives. He really put a lot of himself into that sermon.”
    “It sounds like it.”
    “He worked on writing it for over a month. As good a speaker as he is, he gets anxious about the High Holy Days and actually starts practicing, like he’s in speech class all over again. I must have heard that sermon a dozen times.” She stared at the growing mound of sliced carrots. “I wish he’d done a little less practice delivering it and a little more practice doing it.”
    “Hasn’t he apologized?”
    Sara ticked the steps off on her fingers. “According to his sermon, first you have to recognize that you did something wrong. Then you have to decide you’re not going to do it again. Third, you confess what you did and fourth, go to the person you wronged and apologize. And last, you take steps to keep it from happening again.”
    Bev stopped slicing and wiped her hands on the white dishtowel hanging from the oven handle. She looked at Sara. “Okay. I think when I learned it, one and two were combined and three and four were combined. So why is David still in trouble?”
    “He did apologize. He admitted he wasn’t listening to me with an open mind and that he rejected anything I said that wasn’t already in his perception of how things should be regarding the shul and my role in it. But we never resolved it. I’m waiting in limbo, and since he seems to think that my forgiveness will solve everything and we can go back to being a happy family without ever addressing my needs, I’m not ready to forgive him yet. How can I if the problem that started it all is still there and still unsettled?”
    Bev sliced a jicama in half and set one half-sphere aside. “You need to give him a chance to redeem himself, Sara. Maybe he needs your forgiveness before he can consider your needs without a guilty conscience.”
    “Maybe. But it would be much easier for me to forgive him if I knew we’d work toward a solution. Right now I’m afraid if I forgive him, he’ll think things are all better and we’ll never address my role. Or worse, we’ll wind up repeating Saturday night.”
    “You might have to tell him exactly that,” Bev said, stripping the fibrous brown peel off the turnip-like vegetable. “He may be able to recite the steps of teshuvah backwards and forwards and upside down, but Sara, he’s a man. The male brain sometimes needs to hear these things explicitly stated. And occasionally repeated. Slowly.”
    Sara laughed. “I guess I was hoping it was as clear to him as it is to me.” She watched Bev slice the jicama into half-inch wide shavings. “What do you think Eli’s saying to him?”
Bev pursed her lips. “Oh, I don’t know. They have a really deep friendship. Well, you know that better than I do. Eli doesn’t have any really close friends in Spokane. He has lots of distant friends, and I mean lots. But his nickname for Davidwhen he calls him ‘bro’he doesn’t take that lightly. He’ll do right by him.”
    Sara turned toward the voice. Jonathan was standing in the dining room, looking forlorn, a clump of orange Play-Doh in his hair and smaller bits clinging to his clothes. She managed to stifle a laugh. “You need some help cleaning up, Jonathan?”
    “Judy did it. She didn’t like that I poked a hole in her turtle so she smooshed it on my head. She got a little off the plastic you put down, too.”
    “And why did you poke a hole in her turtle?” Sara asked calmly.
    Jonathan shifted his feet. “’Cause she took all the orange and I got green. She says orange is a girl color and green is a boy color, but I like orange better.”
    “Does that make it okay to destroy something of hers?”
    “No.” Jonathan hung his head. “But if she gave me the orange like I asked, then I wouldn’t have gotten mad. It’s her fault her turtle got a hole.”
    Sara glanced at Bev. “Time to put that first step of teshuvah to work.”

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Teshuvah and Controversy: is the relationship causal or casual?

So here it is just before Rosh Hashanah and I'm about to create some controversy. Maybe. For the two people who still read my blog (Hi there!). But maybe this is good and well-timed, like so few other things in my life, so maybe it will work out.

Okay, here goes. You know how lots of people post generic "If I have hurt you in the past year, I'm sorry" statements on blogs and Facebook statuses (stati?) and email and all manner of mass-directed communication?

I hate those. I really do. It is at or near the top of my Rosh Hashanah Pet Peeve List. And I'll even tell you why.

Yes, you could go back into my childhood where, by the ripe old age of seven, I developed an intense interest in religion and was shocked by the idea that some Christians -- nice Christians who lived in my neighborhood, even -- did all kinds of things the church considered sinful, then went to church on Sunday and said a forgiveness prayer with everyone else, while the pastor said they were forgiven because 2,000 years ago the Romans executed one of many, many thousands of Jewish "troublemakers" and he forgave them so now everything's peachy and they can go do whatever they want now and just go get forgiven again on Sunday.

You could go back there, and I'm sure my odd view of comparative religions as a seven-year-old might play a factor. But you might get an even better view of why this is such a pet peeve if you were to have been a fly on the wall during a particularly powerful conversation with my mother (aleha hashalom). Confronted, rather politely in fact, with an overwhelming amount of evidence that her acts of "discipline" were far more likely to succeed in casting calls for "Mommy Dearest" and not in teaching children anything like what she'd intended, she admitted to all such acts, offered a few of her own that I didn't know about, and then proceeded to say, "I know I did these things. I know I could have made better choices. If I've hurt you, I'm sorry."

How do you fess up to years of what most states in the country define as abuse and then say, "If I've hurt you, I'm sorry"? If I've hurt you? If?

Whatever the source, these "blanket apologies" are not apologies. Any apology that is a form of an if-then statement is not an apology. (If I've hurt you, here's a generic sorry. If not, please ignore this message. You decide which camp you fall in.) No, that doesn't work for me. That's a cop-out. That's an end run. That's just wrong.

Actually, what that is is a way to avoid facing those you've hurt, and looking for all the world like you're still apologizing to them. But in my view, you're not. Not yet.

A true apology means that you have to talk to the person (not in a text message, not on Facebook, not through Twitter, not in an email, even worse in a newsletter or some other formal communication) and tell them that you're sorry and for what. That's the key. If you don't know why you hurt me, how can you avoid hurting me again? If I don't tell you what I'm apologizing for, how do you know which action I regret and am trying to mend?

A blanket statement (If I've hurt you in the past year, I'm sorry. We good? Case closed. Let's grab a beer.) may look good on the outside, but it does nothing to actually mend a relationship harmed. Not until you go to that specific person and offer a specific apology for a specific event, will that harm truly be repaired. The rest is all window dressing.

And if I have harmed you in the past year? Well, if I've given you a specific apology about a specific harm and you've accepted it, let's go get a drink. If I haven't yet, I might have forgotten, or I might not even know that you were hurt, in which case I wouldn't want you to have to make due with a blanket apology. Let me know what I did to hurt you and I will do my best to apologize and make sure it doesn't happen again. And then we can put it behind us and grab a beer. (Why beer? I don't even drink beer!)

To everyone else, may you have a joyous and peaceful New Year, filled with fun, food, and memories, and surrounded by people you love. Shana tova, k'tivah v'chatimah tovah.