In New York City the streets are buzzing with questions about mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner and comptroller candidate Eliot Spitzer, who both face questions about returning to office after being embroiled in sex scandals during their previous tenures. This pair has been making headlines all summer. “The bad boys,” as they are being referred to, are seeking the public’s forgiveness as they bid for office again, employing that age-old narrative of downfall followed by redemption, sinners tapping into our willingness to forgive.
Weiner, of his own admission, had inappropriate relationships with women via text messages and emails, and last week divulged that this so-called sexting continued beyond his tenure. Meanwhile, Spitzer, has been praying his way through New York City churches, expressing remorse for soliciting a prostitute while in office.
We, the public are left with many questions. Can we offer forgiveness to those who admit wrongdoing? Does forgiveness include granting access to the halls of power? Can a person live a future that is different to their past?
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we should be asking, “Is teshuvah (repentance) possible in real life when trust has been broken and relationships damaged?”
Aviva Zornberg, Jewish scholar and author, once said, “The truest teshuvah is not toward the answers, but rather, toward an openness to the questions themselves. It is not simply toward knowing, but toward knowing that we don't know.” What don’t we know? We don’t know how painful our mistakes might be to others, we don’t know whether in a moment of anger and disappointment the fabric of a relationship will be unwound, or if a single act of betrayal or a single word of insensitivity will cause permanent damage. We don’t know if we can change, or if others can. We don’t know if our attempts of reconciliation will be met with compassion or anger. Zornberg suggests these unknowns are all essentials of a true teshuvah.
But simply questioning is not enough. The primary principle of teshuvah is the ability to live our lives as if our future is not determined by the past. Fundamentally, teshuvah demands that human beings have the capacity to change.
As Rosh Hashanah nears, we are reminded that egregious acts by politicians are much easier and simpler to manage than our own broken relationships. Our daily hurts - like pain from trust broken by people we love and trusted - are much more complex to navigate.
Often translated as "repentance," teshuvah can be more closely defined as "return," for it shares a Hebrew root with shuv, return. In the words of Rabbi David Wolpe, “teshuvah is as simple as owning one’s mistakes,” but this definition is much easier to accept on paper than implement in our lives. During this season, however, we are asked to delve deeply into all of teshuva’s messy implications, like falling short of our own expectations, of other’s hopes for us, and of disappointment and failure. The act of returning requires turning directions and changing one’s path, so as to complete this process of change not only with words, but with deeds, too.
As Zornberg points out, teshuvah must begin by asking deep and searing questions about our behavior: why did we act in the way we did, how do we move forward toward repair, toward wholeness, and what can we do in order to pave a different future? Our turning toward a new path must cause us to return to the best version of ourselves, and ultimately return to the fundamentally Jewish idea of a renewing our world through our individual teshuavh, because in our own turning and returning we are reminded, and remind others, that our futures are not predetermined by our past.
Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com
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