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Rabbi Wittenberg's Weekly Message

Erev Shabbat Shuvah, 7 Tishrei 5770
Friday 25 September, 2009

Dear Community,

‘Great is repentance, for it brings healing to the world’, declares the third century rabbi Reish Lakish in the Talmud (Yoma 86a). How we wish we could bring healing to our own lives, to one another, and to the world.

The gates of return, the pathways to closeness to God, are in truth open all the time because God has no doors to block access to the spirit. The barriers which make our journey difficult are in our own heart, where life’s complexity, uncertainty, distractions, anguish and pain often set them. But because daily tasks in all their practical details draw as after their many concerns (‘I’m late and I can’t find my oyster card’; ‘how should I know why you’ve only got one sock; now hurry or you’ll miss the school bus’) Judaism has set aside these ten days from Rosh Hashanah until the close of Yom Kippur for us to focus on repentance and return. The collective concentration on the most serious questions of life’s meaning, the setting aside of time for heartfelt reflection, the power of the music of the traditional prayers, these things also make the journey easier for the individual. There are three domains which call for our reflection. 

Firstly, there is the intimacy of our own heart. The daily Amidah is preceded by the request, ‘Open my lips’ and followed by the prayer ‘Open my heart’, because the latter is so much more difficult. What does it feel like inside my heart? Does life sing there? Does it hurt too much for the consciousness to visit there, lest if be engulfed in anguish? Yet pain may, sometimes must, be part of the heart’s reality, creating a haunted music we should not choose but hear. Or is it almost impossible for us to find our way to our heart, because we are frightened of what it has to tell us? So our conscious thoughts and our heart’s feelings hide from each other, while somewhere within ourselves we know that this stand-off, this numbness within, cannot be right. Therefore let us resolve to seek what might bring healing to the heart: quiet, the beauty of nature, friendship, caring for others, music, prayer, truth, the presence of God.

Secondly, there are those together with whom we spend our lives in concentric circles of closeness. Jewish law requires us to set aside the day before Yom Kippur (at the very latest) for offering, and accepting, apologies and for making peace. Even as we love each other more, so we often hurt each other more. But there is no magic equation, such as ‘Sorry = forgiven + forgotten’. Apology, and its acceptance, are not some magic unravelling of the emotional history of our relationships, as if the harsh words were never said and all painful memories were suddenly obliterated. Rather, they are a declaration that friendship and love are stronger than hurts and recriminations, and that we acknowledge with genuine regret that such negative feelings have also been part of our relationship. However, more important to us than dwelling in the past is healing for the sake of the closeness we share now and want to share in the future. 

Apology and regret are also important ways of trying to close still weeping wounds, given or received months or even many years before, with people towards whom we may no longer have any serious connection now. Often we can’t tell the person concerned and have no other recourse than to speak to our own conscience and to God, in the trust that honesty will itself help to bring healing. This applies all the more if the people we really long, and need, to talk to are no longer among the living.

But we shouldn’t limit our attention to what has gone wrong. It is at least as important to express our appreciation towards those who bring blessings to our lives. Yom Kippur should be preceded by saying to our closest friends and loved ones especially, ‘Thank you; you bring me great happiness. I appreciate you. I love you.’

Thirdly, we do not exist alone but as part of community, society and nationhood. Invariably there are many and different groups and identities to which we contribute and in which we are actors,- as members of a particular congregation, as Jews, as people committed to Israel, as Londoners, as British, to name but a few. In all these spheres we share corporate responsibility; that is why we confess almost all our sins in the plural. We have at least some measure of responsibility for what is done in our name. This applies when the action is undertaken with our consent and when we benefit from it, and when it is done to what we believe to be the detriment of our people, or the world, and we have failed properly to declare our dissent. We are never morally disengaged. Therefore violence, injustice and the reckless destruction of the earth are always our concern and we are required to consider what we ourselves will do, and what we will agitate for our society to do, to show remorse for injuries given, to change our moral direction and to bring justice, compassion and peace to our cities, countries and the world.

These Days of Penitence are therefore profoundly important. Please stand with us in the community; help us to use the day of Yom Kippur well. Do feel free to take appropriate books and poetry to the synagogue; bring your silence and your inner concentration; be there in our prayers and strengthen us to perform our inner work together. For the value of these days lies not in the number of prayers spoken, important as they indeed are, but in the difference the process of contemplation and repentance makes to our lives and to the lives of those around us, near and far.

Shabbat Shalom, Shanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah,

Jonathan Wittenberg