On Sukkot, it’s customary to read Chapter 14 from the prophet Zechariah.
Have you read it? I mean, really read it?
If you have, you’ll know that Zechariah was an unusual thinker.
Zechariah hoped Sukkot could be an opportunity for shared healing after regional war. “The survivors of every nation,” he wrote, “will ascend to Jerusalem year after year, to worship the God beyond all armies, and to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot” (Zechariah 14:16).
Camping together, making music, cooking food, sharing customs and creating new ones at an annual week-long interfaith festival: that was Zechariah’s visionary plan for regional healing. We don’t begin with political dialogue, theological comparison, or even shared stories of hurt and joy. Instead, we simply practice together in joy, one week a year.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l picked up on Zechariah’s cue. “A dialogue of theology is mostly futile,” he said. “Theology is the afterthought of a believer. It begins with what we should finish with. How do you get to the primary stuff of belief? You show me your way that works for you, I’ll show you mine, and we can share!” (Deep Ecumenism workshop, 1998)
Of course, learning by mutual “showing” is not really that simple. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see right past what we are shown, because we wear many lenses of preconception over our mind’s eye.
We may generously see every religion as a way of approaching God—as we define God, that is.
Using our best compassionate psychology, we may imagine we know the full catalogue of existential questions that faith answers.
We may speak idealistically of “universal” human themes, while unconsciously limiting the universal by gender, age, race, or nationality.
Too often, we employ what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic [interpretive lens] of suspicion.” Because we believe we know what truly drives all religious expression, we are suspicious of superficial differences. We look at differences—and sometimes right through differences—just long enough to confirm our theories.
It is much more difficult to practice what Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic of recollection”—to immerse ourselves in a practice, side by side with believers, and get a feel for what they receive. It’s difficult to let go of preconceptions, and it’s difficult to let go of fears.
The fears are big, and they are not mere fantasies. What if I see God their way, feel called to convert, and lose my entire family? What if I am overpowered by groupthink, and join a cult doing activities I will later condemn? What if joining a new group means I am supposed to despise the one that raised me?
Perhaps the fears would be lessened if we shared our practices within a structured ritual format—like the one Zechariah envisioned for Sukkot. One week a year, we would gather in regional groups for interfaith camp—outdoors at a campsite, if weather permits. Working side by side, we would negotiate the meals; schedule ritual prayers for all open to all; share musical traditions, children’s games, and daily camp tasks. We would agree on rules against evangelizing within or after camp. We would allow each regional gathering to develop its own unique flavor, its own signature traditions for this special week.
Yes, Sukkot Camp does sound a bit like a hippie festival, and maybe Zechariah, with his dreamy visions, was the 6th Century BCE equivalent of a hippie. However, this epithet might be a plus, if you think of the successful 30-year old Burning Man festival, and the smaller spin-off gatherings created by energetic communities around the world.
Hippie or not, Zechariah’s radical visions are celebrated in our tradition. Perhaps we could try to implement just one of his visions, creating a mini-multicultural city of Sukkot with intention and good faith, as we bypass ways of thinking that constrain us, and lay seeds for cooperation and peace.
Thanks to the Intention Gathering, and to Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Image by Oseh Shalom, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
It’s the great communal experience of the Jewish people. We fill halls and sanctuaries and homes in eager anticipation. Some came simply because they are Jews or married to Jews; this is what we do on the High Holidays. Some came for the camaraderie; it feels good to be with our people. Some came to be with family, some came to be with friends and communities, a touchstone of connection whether frequent or occasional. Some came to pour out their hearts in prayer, connect with traditions and values, and with the Holy One of Blessing.
Holy Days preparations were reflected in the Jewish and secular press; a lot of expectations and wishes were shared. There were many columns on what rabbis should or should not say on the holidays. Rabbis spent many weeks developing ideas, learning together and refining their craft of High Holiday sermons and prayer. If a complete outsider looked at the Jewish world they would perceive a fairly high level of anxious anticipation. Were we happy or were we worried?
Yes. We were both. But we were also in it together. Together, we laughed and cried and reflected and prayed—using the words of the machzor (holiday prayer book) or not. And we ate some great holiday food, the holidays nourishing our bodies as well as our souls, which, of course, go together! The great gathering connected us to something larger than ourselves.
Today, some of us will build our sukkot (sukkahs) for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, five days after Yom Kippur, extending the season of joy, community and Jewish experiences. We may be exhausted, but we are riding the wave of spiritual high straight through to Simchat Torah, 12 days from now.
But most of us will settle back into our routines, perhaps relieved that it is over. The holidays were an island in our secular lives, though hopefully uplifting and meaningful. Whatever the takeaway from the High Holy Days, it gets tucked back into the box called “Jewish” or “religion” that we open only when needed.
Yet, the need for spiritual nourishment and the need to belong remain. The questions of the High Holy Days, “Who am I?, Where am I?” live in our souls all the time. How can these needs be met in meaningful, satisfying, accessible, accommodating ways?
This is a conversation worth continuing. There are lots of great answers to these questions, and now is the time to share them together. Jewish tradition is a path for meaningful spiritual living; a treasure that enriches those who hold it. If it’s out of reach, let’s get there together. This is the good stuff—the day after the holiday, when, filled with possibility, the reboot of our souls begins.
That’s not something you hear all the time, especially on the day leading into Yom Kippur, perhaps the most G*d soaked day of them all. Now there are rabbinic colleagues of mine who are humanists and live and teach Jewish values in a framework that does not necessarily affirm the existence of G*d. But the Rabbis In favor of Atheism I am referring to are not these rabbis and are not contemporary Rabbis at all. Nor are they atheists by any stretch.
A story: The Hasidic master R. Moshe Leib of Sassov taught that no attribute that was created was created in vain. His student could not resist challenging him: “so what use can denial of G*d’s existence have.” The master looked at him and answered: when some one comes to you and says they are in need you should not say “G*d will provide” but act as if in fact there is no one to act but you.
This very conversation was also attested to in the yeshivot, the study houses, of the Lithuanian Sages influenced by Mussar, a movement dedicated to spiritual refinement and relentless self-searching in lieu of purely outward signs of piety. The great architect of the Mussar school was Rabbi Yisroel Salanter whose personal acts of community service combined with pointed aphorisms to inspire a lasting heritage of life lessons.
One of his sayings that has become beloved by many is “the material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual needs…. With oneself one should privilege the soul above the body, but with others do not disregard the body…. do not rely on trust of G*d.”
Like Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, Rabbi Yisroel knew how easily one could lose sight of a key purpose of faith – not to concern oneself with other’s soul, but with their physical needs.
In fact, their insights arise from a deeper place in the tradition. The stirring chapters of Isaiah that are read on the morning of Yom Kippur. At the very time when the people are fasting, intentionally refraining from the physical presumably to elevate the place of the spiritual, we read the great prophet’s words on behalf of G*d: ” Is such the fast I desire, a day to starve their bodies?…… No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness…. to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own flesh”
On this day, so coursing with spiritual imagery, as we release ourselves from the bounds of the physical world, we must be reminded, whatever our conception of G*d or G*d’s absence, the responsibility to act on the material needs of others is not in heaven but for us.
For those fasting, fast well and may we all be inscribed for a year of fulfilled needs and fulfilling actions.
Yom Kippur conjures solemnity and foreboding for many Jews. Ritual fasting, abstinence, penitence, and rehearsing for death evolved as core Yom Kippur tradition to rivet and purify the soul. Hidden from most moderns, however, is another level of Yom Kippur that is bright and light rather than dark and heavy—a day of highest joy and even dancing.
Joy and dancing on Yom Kippur may seem like too-easy spirituality, untraditional or even heresy. But consider: liturgy for Kol Nidre evening begins with the Psalmist’s words of light and joy: “Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the light of heart” (Ps. 97:11). In ancient days, “there was in Israel no day of greater joy” than Yom Kippur, when singles donned white and danced (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8). If today this practice seems odd, to Talmud’s rabbis it was obvious! Coinciding with the day Moses received a second Tablets of the Covenant after the Golden Calf episode, Yom Kippur is our day of second chances, forgiveness and re-commitment (Ta’anit 30b)—truly a day of joy.
While the white clothes some wear on Yom Kippur rehearse our death by simulating the traditional Jewish white burial shroud, some moderns re-interpret wearing white to represent the light and joy of angelic purity. After all, light and joy are themes of Yom Kippur’s morning Haftarah. In the prophet Isaiah’s words, purification and holy living will cause our “light to break forth like dawn” (Is. 58:8), our light “will rise in the darkness” (Ps. 58:10), and we “will find our joy in God” (Is. 58:14).
Light and joy—but what of dancing? Talmud describes Israel’s ancient Yom Kippur choreography as m’kholot (circle dances). Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), the Seer of Lublin‘s disciple, observed that circle dances are most fitting on Yom Kippur because m’kholot share a root word with m’khal, to pardon. The pardon to which Yom Kippur aspires is to return full circle—body, heart, mind and soul—to a condition before impurity.
Easier said than done… and maybe it’s why the Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippur rather than Yom M’khal. During the rest of the year, two words describe daily penance and purification—s’lakh (forgive) and m’khal (pardon). Only on Yom Kippur does liturgy expand to include the third and most complete level of purification—khaper (atone). My teacher, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who died earlier this year, used to teach that these three levels of purification are like putting a computer file in the trash (forgiving), emptying the trash (pardoning), and wiping the hard drive (atoning). Yom Kippur is for wiping the hard drive: Yom Kippur is for returning full circle to purity.
Putting together these three words in the liturgy of Yom Kippur—s’lakh (forgive), m’khal (pardon) and khaper (atone)—their acronym spells samekh, the Hebrew letter that itself is a circle, the shape of Yom Kippur’s ancient circle dance. What’s more, in gematria (Jewish numerology), the value of samekh is 60, a number that in Jewish philosophy and law represents completeness. On Yom Kippur, we not only wipe our spiritual hard drives clean but also reconnect ends to beginnings, completing the spiritual circuit and becoming complete anew.
That’s why Yom Kippur—even in solemnity—also is for light, joy and circle dancing. It’s why my synagogue will observe Yom Kippur in traditional ways, and also with dancing. On this Yom Kippur, may we all join the ancient circle dance of light, joy and atonement for a truly good and sweet new year. Shanah tovah.
Dedicated to my teacher and circle dancer extraordinaire, R. Elliot Ginsburg.
“Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. “ (in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, by Dani Shapiro, p.3)
There is an old saying, from the Yiddish that asks how should we define a tzadik? Tzadik, from the same root as tzedek or tzedakah, literally means one who is righteous and just; it is usually used to describe someone who is wise and highly respected. But the old Yiddish saying defines the tzadik as “one who makes new mistakes.”
It was the great Jewish philosopher and expounder, Maimonides, in the 13th century, who taught that the final stage of teshuvah— repenting for one’s mistakes—is that, would we find ourselves in the same situation again, we would not repeat that mistake. Now, I know that a mistake is not the same as a failure.
Failure can be the lack of a desired outcome, even when we did our very best and didn’t do anything wrong. But the errors we make in life—errors of judgment, lack of effort, poorly chosen words, unethical choices … these are forms of failure. To err is human, but our ability to pull ourselves back from harmful patterns of behavior, to reflect on what has gone wrong, and to choose our response when we are aware of our failures—this is a vital part of life’s journey. And our Torah and traditions teach us that this is an important part of our spiritual journey too, as individuals and as a community of faith.
Take, for example, the story of our first great patriarch—Abraham. His journey from his homeland—the land of his father to a new place that God will show him is not just a physical journey. It represents the spiritual journey that takes him to a faith in one God, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life that is about establishing something that will go on long after his life is over.
Let’s take a look at how that story begins:
(Gen 12) God said to Abram, “Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”
Now, receiving a message like that could go to one’s head. All these promises of greatness, and bountiful blessings—you’ve got to be something a bit special to warrant God’s attention in this way. Was Abraham God’s golden boy?
What’s interesting is what happens next in the story. Abram, we are told, leaves just as God has commanded. He stops near Beth El and builds an altar. And then…
(12:10) There was a famine in the land. Abram headed south to Egypt to stay there for a while, since the famine had grown very severe in the land. As they approached Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “I realize that you are a good-looking woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will assume that you are my wife and kill me, allowing you to live. If you would, say that you are my sister. They will be good to me for your sake, and through your efforts, my life will be spared.”
Barely 4 verses earlier, God was promising Abram greatness and blessings. What must Abram be thinking at this moment… famine, entering a land with customs and practices that put his very life at risk? This is not the only time in Abram’s life that he will experience things not going as planned. The Mishnah, in Avot (5:3) tells us that Abraham experienced 10 testing times in his life. A variety of commentaries offer different lists of what the ten are—some are drawn only from the Biblical text and some also include events from Abraham’s life that we only find in rabbinic midrash.
We see in these stories that, even in the midst of the very start of the spiritual journeys that led to the creation of our people and our faith tradition, failure and struggle are integral to that story.
We may have a sense of mission, or a goal that we think we are aiming toward. We may be infused initially with great enthusiasm about heading toward our goal. But then life takes an unexpected turn. Like the famine that sent Abram to Egypt, we are starved of the means to immediately get to our perceived destination.
This can be about life in general, but much more frequently it is about the specifics of our lives. It might be about a new venture at work, or the implementation of a new strategy. We may have some clarity of vision but, just a short while into the project, we come up against challenges—personnel, resources, bureaucracy… and we have to take a detour, or reassess. Sometimes we can’t get to where we thought we were headed… at least, not at first.
What happens when we fail? What would keep us on this path of striving to live by such high ideals and ethics when we don’t always receive the reward of success and a life without challenge? Don’t we sometimes have days, or years, when we find ourselves wondering what it’s all about, when we see others around us, who don’t appear to be better than us, succeeding where we are failing? Don’t we get tempted, like the school child who isn’t willing to accept the lessons of failure, to cheat?
‘Look!’, we are told by the Rabbis of old, “at our spiritual ancestor, Abraham.” Not just one bad day, or one bad year, but 10 tests! Our spiritual life journey, even if we were the founding patriarch, does not teach us that a life of faith is a life of success. It teaches us that a life of faith is a life of resilience. A life in which we realize that we can gain wisdom from the downs as well as the ups of life.
Perhaps the key to success is failure. If by “success” we mean how much we progress up the career ladder, how much money we earn, how big a house we have, what exotic places we went on vacation, then I don’t think this is a lesson we want or need.
But if, instead, by success we mean how we respond in times of challenge and need to each other, whether we reflect on our failures or mistakes with humility and self-awareness, whether we continue to strive to be a mensch even when life is getting us down, and whether we aspire to be what some of our Yiddish-speaking ancestors defined as the tzadik—one who makes new mistakes … if that is what success in this life looks like then, yes indeed, the key may lie in our failures, and the lessons and the resilience that arises from them.
A while back I suggested a unique way of doing the chesbon nefesh (soul’s accounting) we are expected to do this time of year. The tools I suggested are useful year round, but they are timely during this season of Teshuva (repentance).
As I understand them, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) rests on two central themes: Gratitude and Forgiveness. Whatever your observance, from marathon synagogue attendance to just fasting, or even nothing at all, give yourself the opportunity to consider your personal connection to these two themes.
Gratitude: Most of us are thankful for family and friends, but what else? Consider making a list (or take turns, one at a time, with a friend) of the multitude of things and experiences you are grateful for. It tends to be the things past, say number 5 or number 10 that surprise us; a smile will appear on your face as your list gets longer and longer.
TASK: Make a Gratitude list:
A) List 100 things you are grateful for?
B) Share your list with someone.
As it turns out, sharing the sentiment of gratitude has a positive effect on both the speaker and the listener.
Forgiveness: The power of forgiveness is radical. Yes, forgiveness helps to heal relationships, but the ability to forgive, even when it is undeserved, has documented health benefits. One Harvard study back in 2004 looked at women who’s husbands had cheated on them. Those who (somehow) forgave, even though forgiveness was underserved, had better muscle tone, lower blood pressure, stronger hearts, and were healthier along other markers as well.
When we hold on to anger, we feel like we’re hurting the person that has harmed us. However valid the anger, and friends, there is much in the world to be angry about, we do quite a bit of damage to ourselves with the poison of anger.
TASK: Forgive and be Forgiven.
A) Approach someone with whom you were short-tempered, or someone who wanted more time and attention from you than you shared. Apologize and let him or her know that you’ll make a stronger effort next time.
B) When you consider “forgiveness” are you secretly hoping that someone who has hurt you will apologize to you? He or she may never do that. Try mightily to let go of the anger, even if your anger is completely justified. The truth is that the persons who have wronged us may never come around to making proper amends. For your own benefit, try to let go of the anger you have taken on because of someone else’s poor actions. To forgive might be the single most difficult thing, and simultaneously the most powerful thing, you can do for yourself.
“May you be Written in the Book of Life” is such a nice phrase to utter at this time of year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most years I don’t think much about it. It is easy to ignore the weight of the words when everyone in your life is healthy.
This year is different. A close friend is struggling with aggressive breast cancer. Instead of casually saying these words, I am fervently praying them on her behalf.
Themes of life and death wind their way through out the liturgy on the High Holidays. The Torah and Haftorah portions speak of the struggle to conceive and bring new life in to the world. The Unetanah Tokef prayer which wails, “Who will live and who will die. Who by flood. Who by fire. Who by hunger …” speaks plainly of the many ways we may die. Most years, I acknowledge these themes, yet concentrate most of my prayers on myself, praying to be a better person, mother, and teacher.
This year is different. This year I am praying for my friend. The mother of young children should not suffer from such a serious illness. It should not be this way.
The liturgy states that “repentance, prayer, and charity, will avert the severe decree.” I do not find this prescription useful in this case. She could do all of those things. I and many others could do all of those things on her behalf, and it might not make a difference because cancer is such an unpredictable disease.
So I sit in synagogue, and I contemplate life, death, and the meaning of prayer. Using the High Holiday prayers as a magical incantation will not cure her. I know this in my bones, and yet I am called to pray. The very act of reciting the words brings me comfort. I feel so helpless in the face of this situation. Yet, here is something I can do.
I can pray.
May you, my dear friend, be written in the Book of Life.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
A minor cultural kerfuffle flared up recently about airline seats and the question of whether to recline or not.
On a United Airlines flight last month between Newark and Denver, a passenger installed a device called a “Knee Defender” which prevented the woman in front of him from reclining her seat. He was asked to remove it, he refused, flight attendants got involved, tensions escalated, the woman threw water in the man’s face and the flight was diverted to Chicago and passengers removed.
Now, I think we can all agree that the water throwing and the fighting is unacceptable behavior. The more subtle question that this episode raised is whether reclining one’s seat is acceptable behavior.
The simple answer is, yes. Sure, it cuts down on the legroom of the person behind you, and makes it more difficult for that person to use the tray table and especially a laptop (the complaint of the man on the Denver flight). But reclining is permissible, it is legal. After all, the seats are designed to recline. One can say that if the airlines did not want you to recline, they would not have designed the seats like that in the first place.
But that still leaves the question: even if it is our right to recline, should we?
Me, I’m a non-recliner. I will only recline my seat if the seat behind me is empty. And I don’t recline for the simple fact that that I don’t like it if the person in front of me reclines. The reclining-seat issue is for me one that is an illustration of Rabbi Hillel’s maxim from the Talmud when he summed up the entire Torah while his student was standing on one foot: “That which is hurtful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
There is a larger value at work here in the reclining-seat debate. There are a great many things in life that are within the realm of acceptable behavior, things that are legal, things that are by right ours to do. But just because we can do something, does not mean we should do it. Yes, I can recline my seat on an airplane. It is my right. But it does not mean I need to exercise it.
There is even a Jewish legal (halachic) principle that our tradition identifies known as lifnim meshurat hadin. Literally meaning “within the line of the law,” it defines extralegal behavior one demonstrates by acting in accordance with the spirit of a law and not just the letter, or by forgoing a privilege one is due for the sake of the benefit of another. When one acts lifnim meshurat hadin, one acts with compassion and kindness towards another, taking into concern the needs and desires of the other and not just of oneself.
Reclining your seat on an airplane is an example of this. Maybe it’s a minor example, but an example nonetheless. And shouldn’t we be just as attentive to a minor case as a major one? Minor acts can beget major acts. If we are not mindful of the impact of the small things, we are sure to grow in our callousness and insensitivity. And truly it is not a small matter when we forgo what we are due for the sake of another.
Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah and the New Year. And as we mark Rosh Hashanah we also begin the period known as the “10 Days of Teshuvah” which bring us through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We examine the ways we personally have erred over the past year, and it is also a time to examine our interpersonal relationships and how we wish to be with one another.
So I offer this as a kavannah (intention) for this year. If your actions, even though socially acceptable and permissible, infringe on another even slightly, maybe make a different choice. Think through all the consequences of your actions, no matter how minor. Try to maximize the benefit of all those involved, and not just your own. Ask yourself, even though I could do this, should I?
And this year, leave your seatbacks in their full, upright position.
I wasn’t at The People’s Climate March in New York on Sunday. I wanted to be, but I was, instead, writing a sermon for the holidays about… you guessed it…. the woeful state of the environment.
And thinking… about the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve took things into their own hands— literally and figuratively. And the more I ponder it, the less I think the story has anything much to do with fruit (yes, I know it wasn’t an apple), or a serpent, or temptation, or Adam’s and Eve’s innocence of foolishness. Nor the idea that they wanted to be god-like. Quite the contrary.
I think it’s about their deciding that they were just fine without listening to or being grateful to God, thank you very much. They asserted their independence—but not because they had to evolve emotionally so we wouldn’t be stuck forever in the garden (to me, a pretty scary thought, since I tend to picture the glassy-eyed beings from H. G. Well’s The Time Machine). But because they decided that they knew better. So they were unceremoniously booted out of paradise, and ever since, we have been abusing the bounty and blessings of what once was perfectly balanced creation. So yes, perhaps the sins of the fathers are passed down to the thousandth generation.
We have gloried (in pride? or in shame?) in our efforts to make the most of the consequences of the expulsion. We thrill at the results of our labors (which were, as you will recall, punishment for the sin in the Garden).
Now, as the unhappy fruits of our self-serving labors are ripening fast, the stakes are higher than ever. And we, as a nation, like Adam and Eve, when they were found out… are hiding and making excuses. And we turn our faces away from all who suffer because of our behavior. Not just the endangered wild plants and animals—but all life all over the world—and for all who are yet to be born.
And all because we, the created, have decided that we know better than our Creator.
We’re choking on that “apple” still.
And now, on Rosh Hashanah, which our sages tell us is the day of the creation of humankind, what do we say again and again? “Hashiveinu Adonai, elecha, v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem” —“Return us to you, Adonai, and we will return, renew our days as in days of old.”
Perhaps this year—and maybe always—we can read his verse as a call to return to the essential teaching of the Garden. To remember that we need to regain humility and stand in awe of our Creator and all creation. That everything we have is a blessing and a gift and that we are obligated to care for and sustain it. In this way, as partners with our Creator, we can renew all creation as in days of old—for ourselves and all living things—l’olam va’ed—for all time.
My mother was born in Germany in 1939. She grew up there, emigrating to the United States in 1968, after she married my father. This was possible because my family of origin is not Jewish—I converted to Judaism in my late 20s. Throughout my childhood my family visited our German relatives frequently in the summer. My mother came from a large family, so there were a lot of people to see.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. By fifth or sixth grade, I was reading about it, and my parents made sure we learned about it. I was about 12 years old when, on one of our vacations in Germany, we visited the Dachau concentration camp site. I knew that my grandfather and my great-uncles were soldiers in the German army, and that one of my great-uncles was killed fighting in Russia. He was 18 years old. None of my relatives were members of the Nazi party, for which I am grateful, but none of them fought as resisters either.
As a teen and a young adult, I struggled with this legacy. In 2009, 10 years after my conversion, I wrote about my identity and what it meant to me. I met my husband in 1990. On his mother’s side, his family was also German, but they were Jewish. His maternal grandparents emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s. Not all of his family got out.
My family in Germany welcomed my husband from the moment they met him, with open arms. There was never any sense of antisemitism from any of them, and when I decided to convert to Judaism, they were equally nonchalant about it. Over the years, I have asked a couple of my great-uncles about the war, and spoken to my grandmother about it, but it was not generally a topic of conversation with my aunts, uncles and cousins.
Then, last February, my husband and I received an email from one of my uncles by marriage, Onkel G—. He said his pastor had preached a sermon that asked the question of what Germans are to do about their past: Is it enough that they are aware of their responsibility and build memorials? The sermon really moved my uncle and made him think. He concluded his message to us by writing to my husband, “I know your parents and grandparents were particularly affected by the Germans’ Jew-hatred. I apologize for the crime which our parents committed.”
This is a man who never knew his father, because his father was killed in the war. I didn’t realize until he sent this email that no one in my family had said anything like this to us before. Onkel G— was a child during the Holocaust. He didn’t have to apologize for it, and my husband didn’t need him to do it. But the fact that he wanted to, and did, was deeply moving for us.
Nothing can turn back the clock. Every one of us who has harmed another or been harmed knows that. Furthermore, our tradition tells us that no one can forgive a sin that was committed against someone else. Nor can one atone for a sin committed by someone else. Nevertheless, a sincere apology for something we didn’t control, but that continues to have impact, can be meaningful.
Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening. May we have the strength both to apologize sincerely and to forgive. May you have a good year and sweet year to come.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.