imaginary family values presents

yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


Penitence 101

28 March 2004

This is quite a week for teshuvah. On Wednesday, Richard Clarke, the National Security Council’s former counterterrorism coordinator, shocked the audience at the 9/11 commission hearings by, of all things, apologizing:

[Y]our government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn’t matter because we failed.

And for that failure, I would ask — once all the facts are out — for your understanding and for your forgiveness.

In today’s parsha, we read the laws (Leviticus 4–5) for the various kinds of offerings that people bring for expiation of various kinds of sin. Isaiah, in this week’s haftorah, continues on this theme: “I have erased your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like a mist; return to Me, because I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22).

And finally, on Wednesday night, it will be the 10th day of Nissan — that is, exactly six months between the last Yom Kippur and the next.

In the rules for sin-offerings, a pattern stands out. For almost every one of these offerings, the text explicitly says that the sacrifice is brought when the sinner finds out about the sin. Knowledge of what you did wrong, not merely a vague suspicion that you are falling short of the mark, is an essential part of the process for teshuvah.

This rule contrasts with Job’s practice of bringing sacrifices on his sons’ behalf, saying “perhaps they have sinned, and cursed God in their thoughts” (Job 1:5). There’s no indication there that his sons believed themselves to be sinning, or that Job did anything to encourage them to be more careful. He acts like a parent making the minimum monthly payment on a son’s credit card without ever looking at the bill. Repentance, however, is not a bill that we owe God; it’s a process of self-improvement that we owe to ourselves. Job’s attitude is not far removed from Paul of Tarsus, one of the founders of Christian doctrine, who claimed that it’s impossible to fulfill halakha, and therefore we need the alleged sacrifice of Jesus to substitute for even attempting to observe the law. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

In modern times, we see a new way to evade the obligation to know our own sins: the political non-apology of “I’m sorry if I have offended anybody.” When a politician says this, it’s easy to translate: “I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, or at least I’m not going to admit any guilt in a way that would make my lawyer’s job harder, but I regret that certain hypersensitive people have made a big deal about my behavior.” But some Jews make a similar error when they approach their neighbors in the days leading to Yom Kippur and say, “Please forgive me for anything I may have done to you last year.” OK, if you want to give blanket forgiveness to everyone around you, good for you. But asking forgiveness in this way puts the person you ask in a difficult position. If you’ve done this in the past, you have six months to come up with a better strategy.