Teshuvah Take Two

At the conclusion of the book of Genesis (Parashat Vayechi), there is a great turning of generations. Jacob gives his final blessings to his children and grandchildren, and then he dies. Joseph’s brothers recognize that the death of their father may have shifted the family dynamics to their detriment.  Maybe Joseph was just keeping the peace to please Jacob.  Maybe, now that he was dead, Joseph would finally take his revenge for all of the horrible crimes they committed against him! 

They make a pre-emptive move, and send a message to Joseph, saying that before Jacob died, he commanded Joseph to forgive his brothers.  Joseph weeps as he hears this, saying, “Even though you thought to do evil against me, God meant it for the good, in order to bring about this day, giving life to many people,” (Gen. 50:20).  He promises to take care of them and their families, and comforts them, “speaking to their hearts” (Gen. 50:21).  

Now, if you have been reading Genesis closely, this vignette might sound familiar to you.  It was just in chapter 45 that Joseph said something very similar when he first revealed his identity to his brothers as they came begging for food amidst the famine. 

So why would the Torah repeat itself, and what might we learn from this repetition?

One lesson I see here is that teshuvah (repentance) and forgiveness are not a one shot deal. Particularly for really big harms, the process of repair takes time and unfold in multiple layers.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with the clumsy quasi-apology of Joseph’s brothers.  They are most likely lying when they claim that Jacob directed Joseph to forgive them.  They are motivated by self interest and fear, not remorse or concern for the one they harmed.  They do not actually apologize at all when they ask for forgiveness.  They do not ask what they might do to repair the harm. 

So what, if anything, did they do right? Well for the first time in all of these years, they name their sins out loud to Joseph.  They confess.

According to Maimonides, this is the first step in the process of teshuvah, and is necessary though not sufficient, to achieve atonement.  It may have taken decades, and it may be messy and selfish and incomplete, but this moment represents a significant step on the path of teshuvah for Joseph’s brothers.

I can see the thought bubbles — “Wait a minute Rabbi, didn’t we already talk about this stuff?  It’s the middle of January, not Yom Kippur.  Why are we still talking about repentance?”

Our Torah portion is a case in point.

Teshuvah is not a singular, momentary exchange.  It’s a process.  And just as it took years and the death of a patriarch for Joseph’s brothers to reach a new level of accountability, so it takes more than just one day a year to do the profound work of transformation we call for on Yom Kippur. 

We humans have a way of being stubbornly human.  Causing harm.  Making mistakes.  Ongoingly.  One day of fasting and reflection may be a start, but after a few months it’s probably time for a tune up.  And for the big mistakes, the collective structures of sin, the ingrained bad habits, we shouldn’t imagine that one day a year is gonna do it.  I hate to say it, but …

Repentance is always relevant.

Lately I’ve been reading On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg.  I highly recommend it.  In this book, she applies the Maimonidean steps of teshuvah to situations of harm and healing from the interpersonal to the international.

She writes, “remembering that teshuvah is a process is important.  People do not change easily.  Sometimes when we’re actively trying to change – quickly, dramatically – shifts don’t happen at the cellular level the way that they need to.  Instant change is usually not true change…healing takes time for both perpetrator and victim…” (On Repentance…, p. 64-65).

So when the Torah seems to repeat itself, one takeaway for me is that I should expect my own teshuvah to take time and many steps.  The inadequate apology of Joseph’s brothers reminds me that it might take multiple conversations, multiple attempts, to acknowledge, repair and heal profound harms.    

As I imagine the brothers’ relief when Joseph again forgives them, I wonder what conversations may have been possible after that one.  Did Yehudah return a week later on his own to express actual remorse?  Did Reuben offer to spend time teaching Joseph’s grandchildren about the traditions of their family?  I would like to think that once the brothers knew they were safe, they could feel freer to face their mistakes and make further steps towards a more complete teshuvah.

The great Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman teaches that teshuvah is a never ending process.  As we rise in our spiritual capacity, we become aware of new levels and realize that our previous teshuvah was incomplete.

Here’s a piece from Likutei Moharan I 6

Repentance never comes to an end: it must be continuous…

Even when a person knows that he has repented completely, he must still make amends for his earlier repentance. For what he achieved then was good only in proportion to his perception of Godliness at the time. Now, after his repentance, his perception has undoubtedly been heightened. Compared with his present perception, his earlier perception turns out to have been grossly materialistic. He must therefore repent for his earlier levels … Happy is the man who achieves true Teshuvah.

Oy Rebbe Nachman – it’s a high bar!  Infinitely high!  But it rings true.  One day maybe Joseph’s brothers would come to apologize for their inadequate apology.  One day, we can hope they would reach true remorse and center Joseph, rather than themselves, in their teshuvah.  But it had to start somewhere.  And that somewhere is important.  As the book of Genesis ends, we don’t have the satisfaction of witnessing a full transformation, but we do get to see that first step of acknowledging harm.  And we can hope the first step will lead to others.

When it comes to great collective crimes such as American slavery or the land theft and genocide carried out against Native Americans, the task of teshuvah can seem impossible because the wrong is so massive, and the structures of ongoing harm are so complex and pervasive. Yet as Rabbi Ruttenberg argues, the same principles can be applied to teshuvah on a collective scale.

In moments when I’m tempted to despair or remain paralyzed about the state of racial injustice in America, I find it helpful to remember that teshuvah can be a process of many steps over time. The crimes are so enormous and profound that we should expect a multi-generational, multi-layered process of transformation and healing.  With every step forward, as we understand more about the depth of harm and suffering, we will see how much further there is to go.  And yet, if we don’t try to think of it as an all or nothing instantaneous fix, there are steps we know we can take.

I’m happy to report that in December, the Reconstructing Judaism movement took one such step as the congregational plenum voted for a resolution in support of reparations.  The movement is expected to formally adopt the resolution later this month. I want to share a few highlights with you:

13. Resolved, that in our commitment to work for a national reckoning in the United States through reparations, we collectively acknowledge the harm that has been done to BIPOC communities and the ways that current American prosperity is largely the result of a system built on oppression and white supremacy;

14. Resolved, that we strive to join with BIPOC-led efforts in the United States and to pursue policies and decisions that seek to have our country confront its history squarely and honestly, and to redress the many harms, particularly the persistent racial wealth gap, caused by disparate access to opportunities and resources;

15. Resolved, that we are committed to supporting and advocating for institutional, local, and federal legislation and policies that specifically address the need for reparations, including but not limited to H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, first introduced by the late U.S. Representative John Conyers in 1989;

16. Resolved, that we encourage all Reconstructionist movement congregations and affiliated groups to engage in ongoing learning about systems of oppression and structural racism, and about how these systems have caused, and continue to cause, harm in our communities;

17. Resolved, that informed by and working in solidarity with impacted communities, we call for all Reconstructionist movement congregations and affiliated groups to engage in deep reflection on the ways in which we have participated in or benefitted from racial injustices in our communities and to answer the call of Torah to pursue justice and practice teshuvah by taking concrete steps to repair the harm; and

18. Resolved, that this document should not be, and shall not be, the last communal self-assessment, reflection, or call to pursue reparations for the injustices and structural inequities resulting from European colonialism and white supremacy…

I am so proud of our movement for taking this step! I’m also excited to be joining the movement-wide racial justice pilgrimage to the South in March. These steps may be just a small part of a healing and transformation process that will take generations, but it’s encouraging to see us move forward. In the words of the great rabbinic text, Pirke Avot, “it is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” (Pirke Avot 2:16). May all of us be strengthened in our efforts to enact teshuvah on every scale where it is needed in our lives, and may we find encouragement in knowing that even our small steps forward are worthwhile.

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