How to Use (and Not Abuse) Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is soon upon us. It is a time in which we focus on teshuvah, traditionally translated as “repentance,” but the Hebrew root is more closely related to “turning.” Teshuvah is the act of turning from past ways and harmful habits to create a new and better future for ourselves. It also involves turning to each other to seek forgiveness for past wrongs.

This last part of teshuvah—seeking and granting forgiveness—is very complicated.

Forgiveness is meant as a means to heal wounds. But the pursuit of forgiveness can sometimes have the opposite effect, and so how we engage with it must be handled delicately and thoughtfully. Here are a few random thoughts on forgiveness:

Forgive yourself first. The first part of teshuvah is to recognize what we have done wrong, whether to ourselves or another person. Once we recognize what we have done, then we will probably feel regret about it. That is ok, feeling regret is an indication that we are on the right track. But that regret should be used for the good, and rather than just live in the regret, we use that feeling to create positive change. And we do that through self-forgiveness.

When we forgive ourselves, we first and foremost recognize that we are human. This is what “atonement” is all about. It’s not about beating ourselves up for “sin,” it’s about recognizing how we have hurt others and why, and how we have been hurt and why, and moving to a place of acceptance and growth and renewal. If we don’t self-forgive, then while we may have been granted forgiveness from another, the hurt and guilt will still be there.

If you have gotten over old wounds and do not need forgiveness for your healing process, then to bring up those wounds may only cause further hurt. Time is a wound healer. You may not still be carrying an old hurt that someone did to you years ago, and they may have become different people in the interim. To then bring up past wrongs when you are not seeking forgiveness only causes bad feelings of upset and guilt that can be worse than the original hurt in the first place.

Also, Yom Kippur is about positive personal growth, not about making ourselves feel bad for what we may have done or not done. Just bringing stuff up to beat yourself up about it is not healthy and not the path of teshuvah.

Forgiveness does not mean acceptance, it simply means that you are not going to let a past wrong bother you anymore. It is possible to forgive someone for what they did to you without condoning the general behavior. Indeed, a granting of forgiveness may come with a tochecha (“rebuke,” “chastisement”) that the behavior is unacceptable and needs to change.

Forgiveness may only be necessary when there is an intention to hurt. Collateral damage is a part of life. There are times we do things and make changes in our life that will ultimately be the best for us. When we make these changes however, we may inadvertently hurt people we care about. The intention in these instances is not to hurt, but hurt feelings may be a by-product anyway. In these cases, if we truly understand the context and the relationship, we can raise the fact that we were hurt without needing forgiveness, and we can acknowledge and accept the hurt we have caused without feeling guilty about it.

Seeking forgiveness without a promise to change is incomplete. If we are granted the gift of forgiveness from one we have wronged, but we do not change our behavior that caused that wrong in the first place, then the forgiveness is incomplete. Think of forgiveness as being granted conditionally. When we are forgiven we must still do the personal work to examine and change our past behaviors. Saying “I’m sorry” is just the first step.

Yom Kippur is just a day. Teshuvah, forgiveness and healing is a process. Holidays are just days in which we hone our spiritual energy in a particular direction to remind us of important values that we really need to be thinking about all the time, and not just on that day. Just as we should be thinking of oppression, liberation and freedom the whole year and not just on Passover, so too do we need to think about repentance and forgiveness the whole year, and not just on Yom Kippur. To request and expect forgiveness on Yom Kippur just because it is THE DAY feels forced and disingenuous. To grant forgiveness just because it is Yom Kippur also feels forced and disingenuous. If anything, seeking forgiveness on the day puts a process of healing in place that continues into the days, weeks and months ahead.

The work of Yom Kippur is not about bringing up hurt just for the sake of bringing up hurts. And it’s not about forgiveness just for the sake of forgiveness. When we engage in the process of seeking and granting forgiveness, it must be for the sake of a greater purpose: becoming better people and strengthening relationships. Anything else will just hurt ourselves and others more.

Why We Get Sick

Recently on one of my rabbinic listservs, a colleague asked about this week’s Torah portion of Metzorah. The portion speaks of tzara’at, the biblical affliction commonly translated as leprosy (but not really connected to what we consider leprosy). This portion and last week’s, named Tazria, both deal with this issue. In fact the two portions are usually read together, but because of some calendar issues, they are read separately this year. Here is a longish excerpt from Tazria (bear with me):

God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. But if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body which does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him, and if the affection has remained unchanged in color and the disease has not spread on the skin, the priest shall isolate him for another seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him again: if the affection has faded and has not spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean. It is a rash; he shall wash his clothes, and he shall be clean. But if the rash should spread on the skin after he has presented himself to the priest and been pronounced clean, he shall present himself again to the priest. And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is leprosy. (Leviticus 13:1-8)

And another one from the portion Metzora (hang in there):

God spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel;  and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.  The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair — of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. On the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil. These shall be presented before God, with the man to be cleansed, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, by the priest who performs the cleansing. (Leviticus 14:1-11)

Quite strange. In short, if one develops this disease—this “scaly affection”—they go to the priest who examines it and makes a determination. Such a disease can render a person ritually impure, so the priest does an examination, makes a diagnosis and prescribes a remedy of isolation and ritual cleansing. Not the way we approach illness and healing in our day and age.

The text is not only strange to us. It bothered the ancient rabbis as well, but for different reasons perhaps. While we may find this notion of ritual purity a foreign concept, the rabbis are worried about the origins of the disease.  The Torah does not give a reason as to why one person or another would get leprosy, but the rabbis in the Talmud make a suggestion:

Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of: “This shall be the ritual for the leper?” [Leviticus 14:2] It means, “This shall be the ritual for him who brings up an evil name.” (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b)

Using word play, they say the one who brings up an evil name (Heb., motzi shem ra)—i.e., one who speaks ill of another—will become a leper. (Heb., the metzora.) The similar sounds in the Hebrew create the connection. In other words, one who uses hurtful speech will be afflicted with this skin disease as punishment.

On the one hand this is a nice midrash. If we understand the leprosy as metaphoric, then the rabbis are saying that hurtful speech has consequences. This is something we can understand. Unlike the children’s rhyme about “sticks and stones,” we know that the emotional damage brought about by hateful speech can be just as painful as broken bones.

But sometimes it is hard to read past the literal. Here then was my colleague’s question. This past year she was diagnosed with cancer. In light of this very real illness, how can she teach the traditional midrash of the portion which posits that illness is the result of the patient’s bad behavior? How can she teach a text that appears to “blame the victim?”

I appreciated her question as it is one I continue to wrestle with. Up until 10 years ago I was healthy, never broken a bone, never had a major illness, never been in the hospital. Then I began to lose my peripheral vision and a series of diagnostic steps led to my diagnosis of a cerebral cyst, followed by surgery. The cyst recurred two years later, followed by another surgery. (And so far, no recurrence. I recently went in for my routine 3-year MRI which was, in medical parlance, “unremarkable.” My next one has been pushed back for 5 years.) And then three years ago I contracted bacterial meningitis, which I amazingly not only survived but survived without any major complications, which put me in a small statistical set. Its been quite a decade for me, health-wise.

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Brain. Not mine.

One of the first questions people ask me when I tell them my story of meningitis is, “How did you get it?” The answer: I don’t know. In fact, the medical community does not know how anyone gets meningitis—I remember the infectious diseases doctor telling me this explicitly. And the cyst I had has no specific cause, it was congenital, and was slowly growing in my head since birth, not an issue until it was.

Through all these medical experiences I have learned that despite how much we have advanced in medicine and treatment and health care technology, there is still so much we do not know when it comes to how and why illness occurs. This is both humbling and scares the shit out of me.

I therefore don’t see the rabbis connecting tzara’at to negative speech as blaming the victim, but rather exercising a fundamental human impulse—to make order of chaos, the understandable out of the random, to create a clear cause and effect. It is an impulse we still have today when we talk about illness, we try to find causality in eating habits, or behavior, or family history. But the real answer oftentimes to how or why illness happens is, “I don’t know.”

That is what the Torah is saying. In the pshat (plain meaning) of the Torah text, there is no reason given as to why a person will get this “scaly affection.” And while I don’t like the midrash of the rabbis connecting it to harmful speech, I am sympathetic to their motivation. Because even though we may find it troubling to say that a specific act brought about a physical affliction, the pshat is even scarier: that tzara’at—or illness in general—is random. This is a truth that the rabbis were trying to come to terms with, and it is a truth that we must try to come to terms with as well.

It’s difficult and unsatisfying, but it is our reality. And yet we also understand the truth and reality of healing as well. For while the pshat of the Torah is scary, it is also hopeful. On the one hand it teaches that random illness exists. So too it teaches of the possibility of recovery.

A Prayer for Healing after a Hate Crime

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The Olympia community comes together for a New Year’s Day vigil for diversity and understanding. Love > Fear!

After the hate crime attack against my synagogue last week, we not only need to repair the damage and address security measures, but we need to heal spiritually as well. I penned this prayer that I shared last Shabbat and at our community meeting the following week:

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’eemoteinu

Our God and God of our ancestors,
Hate has been visited upon our community
Our sacred space has been violated.
We feel vulnerable, afraid, angry and broken.

God and God of our ancestors,
We pray to You:

May strength come from our vulnerability,
so we can support one another,
and receive the support of others with gratitude and humility.

May compassion come from our fear,
so we do not act from that fear,
and we can pursue justice not revenge, peace not more violence.

May wisdom come from our anger,
so we are able to see that an attack against us is an attack against all,
and we are able to join in common cause with those who are similarly oppressed and targeted.

And may healing come from our brokenness,
so we are able to rise from this challenge with renewed life, commitment and connection.

God and God of our ancestors,
In light of this act of violence and hatred,
We maintain our commitment to be the shearit Yisrael, the remnant of Israel, continually upholding the teachings and traditions of Your covenant
Pursuing righteousness and compassion
Justice and mercy
Peace and understanding.
Love and friendship.

May You frustrate those who seek to do harm
And uphold those who seek to do good.
May the shelter of Your peace spread over us and over all who dwell on earth.

And let us say, Amen

I Am Your Healer

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, is famous for the Song at the Sea. The Israelites, having survived centuries of oppression, and having witnessed the plagues which struck the Egyptians around them, finally make their way to freedom. Although at first confronted by the Red Sea in front of them while the Egyptian army was in hot pursuit, Moses splits the sea in two to allow for safe passage. As the waters close behind them, they enact their first impulse of liberation: to sing.

The fact of this song makes this Shabbat a special celebration, called Shabbat Shira, the “Sabbath of Song.” Congregations around the world—including our own—will use this as a special opportunity to celebrate the place of song in Jewish tradition.

There is an interesting turn of phrase immediately following the song. Soon after, the euphoria wears off and the Israelites need something to drink. While they find bitter water, God instructs them to toss in a piece of wood, which has the effect of making the water sweet. The people are satiated.

God then reiterates the covenant, and says, “I am Adonai your healer.” (Exodus 15:26).

The “healer” language in this instance is interesting. We often invoke the idea of God as healer in our liturgy—we offer a prayer for healing every time we gather for a service. And while theologically we may struggle with a deity that both creates and removes illness, the fact of praying for healing provides a sense of strength and support for those who are ailing, and a means of demonstrating that support for those who are connected to the patient.

In this case in Exodus, God is not claiming the role of healer in response to a particular disease or ailment. As the Israelites begin their journey, and they are in need of provisions along the way, God says “I am your healer.” The implication being, moving forward, I will take care of you.

An object lesson for us. As we move forward in our journeys, we have the obligation to be the healer, the caregiver, for one another. If one is facing bitter waters, it is our obligation to throw in the block of wood to make it sweet. We may not be able to fully cure that which is troubling our neighbor, but we can do what we can to show support and ease the way.

There are times, though, that we can be true healers, one of the most important obligations we have. To participate in pikuah nefesh—saving a life—is of such paramount importance that we are allowed to override other mitzvot and sacred acts in order to carry it out. (One must eat on Yom Kippur, for example, if his or her health depends on it).

As some of you may know, one of the teens in our congregation of Temple Beth Hatfiloh was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and is currently undergoing treatment in Seattle. He is getting great medical care, and the family—temporarily relocated up north—has much support. Yet the desire to do something is so strong that we are taking action here as well. This Sunday we will be holding a bone marrow donor registry drive to increase to pool of potential bone marrow donors.

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While it is unknown at this point whether our friend will need a bone marrow transplant, by holding the registry drive we are doing two things: we are showing him our support by letting him know we are thinking of him in his recovery, and we are creating a situation in which we are increasing the possibility that one of us will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh and save a life.

[The drive, run through Gift of Life, will take place at TBH between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.—before the Superbowl! Eligible donors need to be between the ages of 18 and 45 and in relatively good health. All that is required is a cheek swab! All are welcome!]

A few years ago, when another member of our congregation was fighting leukemia, we held a similar drive. I got my check swabbed then, and didn’t think much of it. A few years after, while standing in Target, I casually checked my email to find out that I was a potential match. I was excited, nervous and emboldened to recognize that I could be in the position to save a life.

A few days later a blood collection kit came in the mail, which I took to a local lab for a blood draw. It was sent off, and then nothing. I didn’t hear anything else. I guess I wasn’t enough of a match once the more extensive testing was done. I was a bit disappointed, but understood.

God tells the Israelites, “I am your healer.” We can tell our neighbors the same thing, “I am your healer.” There are many ways to do this sacred obligation of looking after and caring for our community. And one very special way starts with a cheek swab.