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Ritual: A Tool for T'shuva

My childhood synagogue was just down the street from the shore of Lake Michigan. Like we do here in Petoskey, everyone would head to the beach just after services on Rosh Hashanah morning. Feet in the sand, connected to the earth, I would listen... my rabbi would say a few words, and then quiet... leaving us to our private reflections. I always took this part of Tashlich very seriously. I tried to be honest with myself, which was especially difficult as a teenage girl. I would think about my year, consider those who I had harmed knowingly and by accident. Then toss my crumbs into the water and watch as they floated away or were eaten by seagulls... but I knew that this ritual was just that, a ritual; it did not have any real bearing on whether or not I would be absolved.

While the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offers us prescriptive prayers for repentance, the Tashlich ritual provides a set time to reflect on our specific transgressions. But we are not finished once we have tossed the crumbs. There is still work to do…

Mishnah teaches that Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and God, but for a transgression against one's neighbor, Yom Kippur cannot atone until that person appeases their neighbor.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yossi the Priest offered a parable, saying, “I know of a person who lent his friend one hundred dinars and agreed upon a time for repayment. He took an oath by the life of the king that he would repay the money on time, but when the time arrived he did not repay the loan. The delinquent borrower went to appease the king for not fulfilling the oath, and the king replied: For my insult I forgive you, but you must still repay the loan to your friend.

Rabbi Yossi points out that in the Mishnah the same is true. The verse which states: “Adonai shall show favor to you,” is referring to sins committed between a person and God, which God will forgive. However, where it states: “God favors no one,” it is referring to sins committed between one person and another, which God will not forgive until the offender appeases the one they hurt.

True t’shuva requires action; ritual is just a tool to help us get there.

Asking forgiveness is difficult because we don’t know if it will be granted… that part is not up to us. According to Maimonides: “If the person you have harmed refuses to forgive you then you must bring a group of three witnesses and go to them to ask for forgiveness. If you are still not forgiven, you must go to them a second and third time with witnesses. If the person you have harmed still refuses to forgive you, you are no longer obligated.” From this we learn that the onus is on us. Only we can control our own actions, and therefore we must put forth effort even if the person we have harmed seems unwilling to forgive us.

Just as we have caused harm in the past year, so too have we been harmed by others. It is likely that we may be approached by someone seeking forgiveness. Jewish tradition teaches us that there is more than one type of forgiveness.

The most basic kind of forgiveness, mechila, is “forgoing the other’s indebtedness” after the offender has done teshuvah. This is not a reconciliation of heart. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.

The second kind of forgiveness, selicha, is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selicha, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of grace.

The third kind of forgiveness is atonement, or kappara. This is a total erasing of all sinfulness. An existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is only granted by God…

According to Martin Buber, we should not retaliate when someone has treated us badly. He teaches that God fashioned human beings as part of a single body, b'tzelem Elohim, in God’s own image. Therefore to deliberately harm another person for hurting you is to harm yourself a second time. To explain this, he offers a hasidic parable: Imagine yourself peeling an apple. You are holding the apple in your left hand and the knife in your right. The knife slips and cuts into your left hand. It is painful and bleeding. What do you do? Does the left hand grab the knife and stab the right hand to get even? Of course not! Both hands are part of the same person. You would only be hurting yourself a second time.

This afternoon, as we stand at the edge of the water, I urge you to take this opportunity seriously. Consider how you will apologize, and prepare yourself to be forgiving and to let go of painful grudges. Give yourself time and space to reflect on how you want to move forward in the coming year.

Shana Tovah


Delivered on Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780

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