Repentance and Debasement

The Jewish calendar has just entered into the Aseret Yemei Tshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, which began on Sunday night with the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  This is traditionally the time where we are called upon to be introspective, reflecting on what we have done wrong — in relation to ourselves, others, and Hashem — so that we can correct them in the coming year.  Moving from ritual to action, this often means seeking out friends, family, and acquaintances that one may have wronged over the past year to seek forgiveness.

However, as the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah makes clear, this period is begun by prostrating ourselves — literally and figuratively — before Hashem.  The dominant message of the prayers recited during the two days of Rosh Hashanah is the kingship of Hashem, and our ultimate subservience to the King.  This theme is highlighted by the Hineini (lit. “Here I am”) prayer that opens the central liturgical section (the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah) of both days of Rosh Hashanah, wherein the leader presents her- or himself before Hashem as utterly unworthy to ask for forgiveness, both as an individual and on behalf of the community.  Traditionally speaking, this is an especially strong statement, as Judaism requires that only the most fit (הגון) members of a congregation should lead their communities in prayer, especially on the High Holidays.  Thus, if the leader is not remotely fit to pray for the restoration and renewal of the community, it seems that the laity stand a particularly remote chance of effecting change through prayer.

This does not strike me as the right way to enter a week in which the goal is to seek self-understanding leading to mending broken relationships and charting out a course for a new year.  How can I hope to admit to myself what I have done wrong and vow to change for the better if I see myself as powerless?  This is also a barrier when interpersonal action is expected.  If I am hoping to summon the courage to approach friends who I genuinely hurt over the past year, consistently debasing myself for two days in a ritual setting would strip me of any confidence I might have had that I can mend the relationships in question.

The only sphere of Tshuva that seems to benefit from the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah is the sphere of repentance called in Rabbinic literature בין אדם למקום — between an individual and Hashem.  After establishing that Hashem is the supreme ruler of the universe, the liturgy goes on to force anyone who is following the meaning of the words (in any language) to see that the goal is forgiveness.  Hashem is King, and we are unworthy — from a strict perspective of justice — of being forgiven our sins, yet we hope that Hashem will be merciful and forgive us regardless (the reasoning for this is variously couched in Hashem’s undying love of His people, the righteous acts of previous generations, and a hoped-for future of peace and purity).  It thus seems understandable that Judaism could expect the following week to be particularly fruitful for amending one’s actions in relation to ritual that does not affect other people, but Hashem alone.

What of interpersonal and purely introspective Tshuva?  Does the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah have any advice for how to approach those types of repentance, or were they tacked on to the meaning behind this time of year for convenience sake, even though they are actively undermined by the liturgy?

I think that the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah can in fact help one to approach interpersonal Tshuva, while introspective Tshuva is supported liturgically more by Yom Kippur.  In the context of mending relationships with other people, Rosh Hashanah’s message of powerlessness does not apply.  We are not powerless as people, but rather powerless compared to Hashem.  The liturgy also drives home that Hashem is willing to forgive us our sins (if previous years can be taken as proof), which would seem to dwarf any worries we may have about forgiving each other our minor foibles.  Further, the beauty of Jewish prayer requiring a community (of at least ten people) for prayers like those recited on Rosh Hashanah is that we do not beat ourselves up individually over our flaws.  We are admitting, as a community, the need for improvement.  Thus, the following week is the best time to approach someone else in our community and, implicitly reflecting on the communal goal expressed during Rosh Hashanah, begin to mend our relationships (the problem of how to mend relationships with people outside of one’s community, specifically with those outside the Jewish community, is a modern problem that I do not see the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy being particularly helpful with).

The connection between the liturgy of the High Holidays and the brief time period devoted to repentance and forgiveness, then, is a perfect reminder of how, on our holiest days, we must weave what we pray about together with what we do.  These are not just words on a page; they set the mood for all Jews to approach themselves, one another, and Hashem in a conciliatory spirit, admitting previous wrongs (the attendant promise of no future wrongs being committed is not a major theme of the time) and hoping to improve in the following year.

Shanah Tovah


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