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This past Saturday night was Selichot. Traditionally an evening of piyyutim (sacred poems) and prayers that usher in the upcoming High Holy Days. In recent years, many congregations have thought about creative ways to make Selichot into something that really engages people in the kind of thoughtful reflection and self-assessment that this holy season invites us to do.
This year, our community engaged in some powerful psycho-drama, inspired by a workshop that I had attended at the Aleph Kallah earlier this summer, led by Dr. Andrew Gaines, who had previously led similar programs at Romemu in New York City. We began with some music and liturgy, and several get-up-and-move kinds of ice-breakers that gave people the opportunity to share significantly about their backgrounds and previous Jewish and High Holy Day experiences, followed by some text study that used contemporary poetry juxtaposed with Torah. The text study got us thinking about and sharing about those times when we might have said something that we’d later regretted. Perhaps relationships that had been damaged by over-sharing or demanding too much of someone. It also got us thinking about the times when we might have needed to express to someone else what they had said or done that caused us upset.
Teshuvah. Often translated as repentance, it also means a response or an answer. When a halachic question is asked of a Rabbi, what they write as the answer is called a ‘Teshuvah’ or, in English, a ‘Responsa.’ When it comes to doing teshuvah at this season, Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, reminds us that, while our prayers on Yom Kippur can help us atone for sins against God, when it comes to things we’ve done to other people we have to be willing to address them directly. Most of the time this is good advice. Whenever possible, attempting to repair a breach directly with someone where there is distance or hurt is the right thing to do. But often, when it comes to hurts we feel, it is actually more complicated than that. Rarely is it a matter of ‘When you said that’ or ‘When you did this.’ Rather, we have complicated relationships with our relatives, a neighbor, or an old friend, where the breach is caused by something multi-layered that evolved over a period of months or even years. What exactly do we need to say? What do we need to hear?
At our Selichot program, we provided people with an opportunity to bring someone to mind and to then approach an empty chair, and say some of what they needed to say. For some, it might be an apology that they wanted to try and make. For others, to express a hurt they felt from this person. It was a powerful evening in which several people took the opportunity while we sat around as loving witnesses. For each of us, what we heard resonated with some part of our own life experience. For many, what needed to be said was to someone no longer alive, providing an opportunity for a release of old hurts, and perhaps the beginnings of forgiveness.
What was remarkable was that, in the midst of sadness expressed and hurts voiced, many of those who shared found themselves imagining why they had found themselves in this place. They voiced recognition of some part of the other’s experience that might have led to an overreaction, a lack of understanding, or an absence when their presence was needed. They voiced hope and desire to be able to find a way back into relationship but not with a demand that the other person change (recognizing that we don’t have the ability to change others) but rather that they themselves release some of the past and the hurt so that they were better able to accept the other as they are. There was some openness to the possibility that the other was doing the best they can, and didn’t intend to cause the hurt that was felt.
This is another face of Teshuvah. We were able to hear a response without the other person actually being present in the room and speaking. There was the possibility of release, of forgiveness, of moving forward. Perhaps even the possibility of renewing a conversation in person, but with a softened heart and an openness to a different way of responding.
I offer the invitation that many of us might try some version of this exercise. Bring someone with whom you have unfinished business to mind. Visualize them being in front of you. What would you want to say to them? What do you need to say to them? Sometimes the conversation we most need to have, in the process of doing Teshuvah, is with ourselves.