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.
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The rabbis of the Talmud have taught that the shofar must be blown with a particular intention: to sound like the wailing cry of the mother whose son we have killed in battle. In other words, the shofar is not the sound of our own pain, but the anguished sound of the grief we have caused another, even a distant, anonymous “other.” And if we engage in the mechanism our tradition offers for moving toward repentance as the New Year approaches, we submit to hearing the blast of the shofar every day of this month, confronted every morning by a single shriek, as if the universe is leaking visceral expression of the pain we have caused.
I wonder whether there isn’t a degree of gratification in being reminded that we cause pain, the pain we cause evidence of our agency in what might seem like a fate-driven life. We want to know that we have an impact on the world, that our misdeeds have consequences. The great late 18th century Chassidic master Reb Nachman of Bratslav taught: If you believe that you have the power to destroy, you must also believe you have the power to restore.
If our misdeeds can tear the world open and expose that raw cry, maybe our repentance also matters. I think that’s why we Jews flock to the synagogue during the Days of Awe and beat our breasts, bringing that reminder of our power to both harm and heal closer to our hearts.
In beating our breasts we externalize our very heartbeats, the pulse within us that my dearly departed teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi quoted the Song of Songs in calling kol dodi dofek, the sound of our [Divine] Beloved knocking [from within]. If we put our finger on the pulse of another we feel that same knocking, the same Divine Beloved pulsing within all of us simultaneously, and we do appreciate that we are all connected as a single god-breath.
We understand that the reason we must love our neighbors as ourselves is because, bottom line, there is no such thing as a neighbor, near or far, to whom we are not connected as limbs of the same organismic whole. And this brings me ‘round to the blast of the shofar expressing, after all, not just the pain we’ve caused to others but also the pain we cause ourselves in harming others.
Surely world events bear out this truth. Wherever we stand on Israeli politics, don’t we feel the pain of the mother whose son we have killed in battle? Isn’t the retaliation against our own sons a reverberation of her pain? And don’t we feel her pain simply because we are human with human hearts? Don’t we experience the blast of the shofar as our own anguished cry?
Jolted to awareness of something greater than ourselves, raised up in awe as we confront our mortality and the underlying miracle of our lives, we might catch a glimpse of the interconnected web of humanity. In the elevated state of consciousness the rituals of the High Holidays invite, we just might momentarily achieve a birds’ eye view of all that is contained in Echad, in God’s Name as “One.” That’s the moment in which the sob of the mother of our enemy becomes our own cry. It’s a moment to pursue and savor.
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on shofar, Paul Horn on flute, voices of participants at a Transpersonal Psychology conference in Mumbai, 1980’s.
One of the images found in the High Holiday liturgy is ‘The Book of Life’. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we’ve enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holidays may be falling on resistant ears.
A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn’t correlate with an ‘idea’ of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too ‘other’ to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.
And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the ‘Book of Life’ and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.
This is real and you are completely unprepared!
This is probably the best title of a book ever. Written by Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared takes the reader through a journey of personal transformation which begins with the holiday of Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem and concludes with the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah where we celebrate finishing the year Torah reading cycle. He argues that Tisha B’Av which we just observed yesterday, Sunday, July 29th, marks the start of the Jewish high holiday season. The high point of which is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Lew asserts that in order for someone to be properly prepared to do teshuva, repentance, and start over with a new slate in the New Year, we need to start a period of self reflection now. Today!
You have seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks to reflect on the past year. Think about those things you did well, and those not so well. Identify those people you need to ask forgiveness of and begin the process of asking. This is real. The time starts now. Do not wait until Rosh Hashanah to start this spiritual process.
May your time of reflection uncover new realizations. May you be strengthened by your process. And may you be written in the Book of Life.