Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775
Temple Sinai, Reno, Nevada
Two brothers, seated side by side. Their black suits and black ties reminiscent, perhaps, of earlier days, of matching outfits at grandparents’ funerals. Now they hold their breath and rise as the casket containing their late mother is lowered into the ground, and the rabbi chants a timeless prayer for the compassionate ascent of her soul. Two brothers, one mother. Two stories about her values. One said that their mother had been materialistic as a younger woman, and then realized her main motivation had been fitting in. This brother said she changed as she aged, and her values changed with her. The second brother, the older, had pursued a successful life, achieving social and material success. He spoke about his mother’s favorite necklace, her appreciation for the niceties of life. The younger brother, meanwhile, had taken care of the mother, had spent the previous years visiting her often, doting on her needs.
The younger brother was sad about losing his mom. But he wasn’t anxious about his grief. He was anxious about seeing his brother at the funeral. He was anxious because he and his brother barely shared a language, and had not spoken in seven years. After the Mourner’s Kaddish, mom safely tucked in under the earth, the brothers embrace. They tell each other I’m sorry, not with words, but through tears. The older brother had been just as anxious. And even though he hadn’t told me, the relief on his face was palpable, as he realized his younger brother bore no grudges. They had both missed each other. Yet their pride had prevented a reconciliation until that day.
(That’s a true story from a funeral last winter).
Soon after I moved to the wild west, to Reno, I decided to pick up a book I had been wanting to read for a long time, and once I did, I couldn’t put it down. East of Eden by John Steinbeck also tells a story of two brothers, two farmers, Adam and Charles. Charles is jealous of his brother’s close relationship to their father. As a young man, Charles almost kills Adam, but somehow Adam survives. Steinbeck describes Charles this way:
“Charles had one great quality. He was never sorry—ever. He never mentioned the beating, apparently never thought of it again. But Adam made very sure that he didn’t win again—at anything. He had always felt the danger in his brother, but now he understood that he must never win unless he was prepared to kill Charles. Charles was not sorry. He had very simply fulfilled himself.” East of Eden is based on the story of Cain and Abel; rather explicitly as even Charles’ and Adam’s initials match Cain and Abel’s. To the extent that the novel is a mashal, or parable, its message is the same as the message God gives Cain before Cain slays his brother: Namely: “Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” (Genesis) Steinbeck, through his character of the Chinese-American servant Lee, is obsessed with the word “can” in that last sentence: You can, you may, be sin’s master. It is possible to turn away from evil actions, even habits, and rise above the baser instincts of human nature.
The story of Cain and Abel introduces a theme in the Torah, a theme that is alluded to, though not yet fleshed out. This is the theme of teshuva, of returning to our truer, higher natures.
Cain does not do teshuva for his jealousy towards Abel. This is the first story about brothers in the Torah, and it stands as a warning of what can happen in the absence of self-control and self-responsibility. It is not until the story of Jacob and Esau that we encounter brothers who are men enough to put past differences aside, to embrace in reconciliation and love, and to rise above their rivalry.
Because of his ability to achieve reconciliation with his brother, Jacob is the first patriarch worthy of the name Israel, despite his mis-steps on his way to greatness. The Torah, too, is given on the basis of teshuva. Moses does teshuva on our people’s behalf following their sin of the golden calf. In fact, in the Talmudic tractate B’rachot 32a, my teacher Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler teaches that Moses is portrayed as one of the heroes of prayer who “hurled words at heaven,” using holy chutzpah to move God to mercy. God drops the hint that Moses needs in Exodus 32. God says, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” Moses hears, “Now, let me be,” and thinks, “What if I don’t let God be?” That is his cue to begin arguing. In the Talmudic passage, Rabbi Abahu comments on the outrageousness of Moses’s behavior with an equally outrageous analogy: “Moses took hold of the Holy One like one who seizes his fellow by the garment and said, ‘Ruler of the universe, I will not let You go until you pardon them and forgive them.’” Moses is, as it were, grabbing God by the suit lapels and demanding mercy.
The Torah itself is re-honed and re-revealed to the people following their grave sin, and subsequent teshuva.
The commandment of teshuva asks us to do an accounting of the person we have been, a cheshbon hanefesh. The English translations of teshuva are usually imperfect. Some might think, “Confession? Repentance? Discussing sins? These words don’t sound Jewish!” “Aren’t those themes at the heart of Christianity but not Judaism!” We have to remember two things: 1) Christians had to get these ideas from somewhere and 2) The true Hebrew word teshuva means “return.” It is often translated as repentance but the root of the word in Hebrew is lashuv, to turn. Its connotation is more holistic than confession. Admitting one has erred is only the first step of turning toward a new behavior. As Jews, we love intention, but actions speak louder. We also have no original sin. The sins we atone for on the High Holy Days and throughout the year, are mistakes we’ve made, words we’ve uttered, things we’ve done that are not reflections of our highest, truest personhood. They are not for thing beyond our control, such as in some Christian theology, being born into a world of sin. The first step is taking ownership for our actions within our control. The proof of having been successful in one’s teshuva is finding oneself in exactly the same situation in the future, and behaving differently.
In the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are supposed to do extra teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah, repentance, prayer and righteous acts in order to set a precedent for our actions in the year to come. According to the metaphors of our folklore and the Rambam’s Hilchot Tesuva, our fate hangs in the balance in these ten days between holidays. Except for the completely righteous and the completely wicked, whose fate is sealed right away on Rosh Hashanah, it is not until Yom Kippur that we are sealed in the Book of Life. For those of us whose deeds are a mixture of good and wicked—i.e. those of us who are human—we need these ten days to return us to a sense of wonder and awe in being alive, to start the new year doing good deeds and teshuva, because how we spend the beginning of the year sets precedents for how we dedicate our energy throughout the year.
The High Holy Days call us courageously to take responsibility for our actions—as individuals and as members of the Jewish community. Through these days of coming together for a group retreat, we are called upon to respond to the cry of the shofar. Our greatest strength comes through honest introspection. Through knowing our weaknesses and our good points. And striving to create reconciliation in all our familial relationships.
The story of Cain and Abel may be the first story about two brothers in the Bible. But the story of fraught, competitive and estranged siblings in literature and in life is timeless. Teshuva is hard, just as humbling ourselves and being vulnerable with someone who has hurt us in the past can be uncomfortable and even scary. Take the long view. You don’t have to become best friend—just speak your truth and ask for forgiveness for the piece of the pie that is yours to own. We all make mistakes and our job in this season is not to beat ourselves up for what might have been. But to take whatever steps lie in our control to facilitate teshuva, healing and reconciliation. If not you, who will for you? If not now, when?
May we each be worthy of being part of Israel this year, a member of the people who support and challenge, sometimes at once. And may you seize on the call of the shofar to wake you up to challenge yourselves in the ways you can yet be challenged, and to accept and support and love yourselves and loved ones for the aspects of your lives and theirs you cannot change. Hug often, be open and real with your loved ones, and seek forgiveness.
May you each be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year of teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah.