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Erev Rosh Hashanah - September 2004

Do Better
By Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro

Martha Stuart didn’t apologize.  I don’t think Ken Lay of Enron apologized either.   And, I may be wrong, but I don’t believe President Bush has apologized for leading us  into war to eliminate Weapons of Mass Destruction that weren’t ever found.  Of course, on the other side of the aisle, in all those thousands of pages about his life, I’m not sure Bill Clinton apologized either for shaming the presidency through his immorality.

          It’s not easy to apologize.

          It’s not easy when you’re a public figure and the whole world is watching you.

It’s actually not easy to apologize when you’re simple people like most of us. 

You know this in your own lives.  Making a mistake and then admitting you’ve made a mistake is awkward and embarrassing.  Most of us have a lot of ego riding on being right.  In fact, if most of us have a strength, it’s probably not to be found in admitting we have been wrong. 

          I love a cartoon I once saw. It shows two people entering a room.  On the wall you can see a sign which says – Temple Board Room.  One person says to the other, “What’s on the agenda for tonight’s meeting?”  “I don’t know,” says the other.  “But, no matter what, I’m prepared to be outraged.”

          Sometimes we deal with our own issues by projecting them on others.  It’s easier to be angry at someone else than to deal with what we have done or not done, what we have said or not said.

          There is, of course, a name for what I’m describing.  When you take all these terms I’ve used and put them together, you end up with the vocabulary of Judaism’s  High Holidays.  Apologizing, making mistakes, admitting mistakes, owning up for what we have done wrong – these are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur themes.  The only ingredients missing are the classic words of the season:  sin and repentance.  Or as we say them in the siddur:  chet for sin, al chet she-chatanu for the sin we have committed, and teshuva meaning repentance.

          Now for the problem. 

          Aside from the fact that apologizing or repenting is so humanly difficult, I think the religious terms may throw us even further off track. 

          If you don’t like to admit making mistakes, my hunch is you’re even less comfortable saying you “sinned.”

          If you don’t like to say “I’m sorry,” I bet you are not much happier feeling you need to “repent.”

          It seems too dramatic or maybe overblown to describe whatever I do in my daily life as a sin in need of repentance. 

          Perhaps the terms are uncomfortable because, when we say “sin” or “repentance,” I think a lot of us can’t help but hear those words in a Christian context.  That word “sin” is especially problematic.  If you’ve ever watched one of those Sunday morning television churches, you know what I mean.   That’s where the preacher summons up his condemnation, where “sins” are attached to “sinners,” where your soul is threatened with eternal damnation, and the only way out is to be saved. 

I’m reminded now of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion.  If ever there was a movie that depicted the power of sin, evil, and suffering, this was it.  The film was riveting and bloody.  But, in the end, I didn’t walk out of the film feeling like a sinner at all.  In fact, I think I’ve rarely seen a movie where the message touched me as little as  did this one. 

Just like my experience of the Sunday morning preachers, I wasn’t moved because this was not my language.  These were not my symbols.  This wasn’t my way of understanding who I should be as a person. 

But that doesn’t mean I don’t sin, and it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t repent.

          It’s just that, as a Jew…as Jews…you and I need to find other ways into our sins.  If something is wrong with how I’ve lived this last year, it’s got to be described in a way that won’t damn me because that’s not how a Jew views the world.  Whatever gets me to repent has got to tempt me, maybe tease me, maybe even make me smile.

So, here then is such a way for talking sin and repentance but with a uniquely Jewish accent.  The text I’ve got for you was first suggested by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.  It works, as you’ll see, by drawing on the prayerbook phrase we’ve already heard tonight:   Zochrenu – Remember us, o God.  It echoes that phrase and then somewhat turns the prayer book on its head.

          Listen. 

See if the prayer speaks to you. 

          Zochrenu – says the prayer – Zochrenu – Remember us, o God…

For the mitzvah we performed this past year by not disturbing people around us with cell phones and pagers;

For the mitzvah we performed by remembering the good someone had done for us even when we were upset with him or her;

          For the mitzvah we performed by stopping our child from teasing or calling another child by a hurtful nickname;

          For the mitzvah of refusing to buy products produced by child labor;

          For the mitzvah of remembering to thank people who have helped us;

For the mitzvah of refraining from expressions of anger when we were driving our cars.  

For the mitzvah we performed when we were tempted to do something hurtful or dishonest and refrained from doing so.

          For the mitzvah we performed when we heard an ambulance siren and offered a prayer to God on behalf of the sick person inside;

          For the mitzvah of donating charity cheerfully;

          For the mitzvah we performed by apologizing to one of our children whose feelings we had unfairly hurt;

          For all these things, o God, Zochrenu - please remember us, and inspire us to do more such acts this coming year.

What do you think?

Did one of those comments even remotely resemble the life you live?  Better still, did you perform one of those mitzvot or do you think you might like to perform that mitzvah in the future:  the one about inappropriate cell phone use or the one about thanking people genuinely or maybe the one about saying a prayer when an ambulance goes by.

I’m struck by Rabbi Telushkin’s prayer because it breaks open the straitjacket of sin.  It doesn’t remind me directly of what I didn’t do; instead, it points to what I did do, what I might have done, and what I might still do.

Here’s an example.  I didn’t check everything I bought this year to see if it was produced by child labor or underpaid workers in Asia or non-unionized farm laborers in California.  And you know what?  This prayer reminds me that I really should have paid more attention.  I should have performed that mitzvah.

I do know better because a few years ago I went on a tour outside Monterey, CA where vast amounts of the country’s produce are harvested by non-unionized farm workers under terrible conditions.  I even drove right by a sign on one farm that read Driscoll.  You might recognize that name because almost every container of strawberries and blueberries we buy all year round at Big Y comes from that outfit.  I don’t know how they treat their workers, and the point is that I must have told myself 20 times I really should telephone the 800 number on their containers to find out. 

But I haven’t done what I should, or as Telushkin’s prayer puts it so wisely, I haven’t performed that mitzvah.  Which is a more polite and maybe even more effective way of leading me to the truth – I have sinned.  I could have done better; I can do better. 

Let’s try it again, then.  I’ll share a further batch of Telushkin’s mitzvot, and you listen.  They’re similar but different.  Some may touch you; some may not.  Which are relevant?  Which pass you by?

Zochrenu – says the prayer – Zochrenu – Remember us, o God…

For the mitzvah we performed by blessing our children on Shabbat and on the Jewish holidays;

          For the mitzvah we performed by helping someone find work;

For the mitzvah we performed by refusing to buy products produced under inhuman conditions.

          For the mitzvah we performed by teaching our children Torah;

          For the mitzvah we performed by ourselves studying Torah;

For the mitzvah we performed by involving ourselves in the life of the community.

For the mitzvah we performed by keeping open the doors of communication among family and friends

          For the mitzvah of supporting our synagogue as honestly and fully as we could;

For the mitzvah of staying in close communication with our elderly parents;

For the mitzvah we performed by caring about Israel;

For the mitzvah of having a Jewish home;

          For the mitzvah of not encouraging our children to date wealthy people, just because they were wealthy,

          For the mitzvah we performed by not snapping at the person who has chosen to share our life- for not snapping at our spouse;

For all these things, o God, Zochrenu - please remember us, and inspire us to do more such acts  this coming year.

This last list was different.

I’d like to think I have helped people who needed work.  I hope I’ve been involved in the community enough, but Springfield, our larger community, is so needy and the shelter situation for the homeless will probably not be any better this winter than it was last. 

I must have fallen short in this area, and I regret that I did.

But how about regret for some of the other mitzvot Telushkin mentions?  I’m thinking of the Jewish ones which he slides into the mix like blessing children or studying Torah or having a Jewish home.  If it’s wrong to snap at your spouse, is it equally as wrong not to increase your Jewish learning or not to have a mezuzah that marks your house as a Jewish home? 

I know there’s a difference between how we treat our families and whether or not we light Shabbat candles.  Telushkin doesn’t call snapping at our family a sin, but he certainly wants us to think twice about it.  By the same token, maybe Jewish involvement is an obligation.  Something’s missing; something is wrong when Jews don’t find a way to live as Jews.  And it’s not a question of guilt. What we’re talking about for Rosh Hashanah is how we can shape better lives.  Can we be better citizens?  Can we be better members of our families?  Can we be better, more fulfilled Jews, which I’ll bet could lead us to be better citizens and members of our families anyway. 

Here’s a final selection from Telushkin.  This time around let me ask you to search for one mitzvah that is really you.  You did this mitzvah or you wish you could.  Choose one that is you.

Zochrenu – says the prayer – Zochrenu – Remember us, o God…

For the mitzvah we performed by helping a developmentally disabled person;

For the mitzvah we performed by not exaggerating the bad traits of people we do not like;

          For the mitzvah we performed by trying to arrive on time so as not to keep another person waiting;

          For the mitzvah we performed by hearing negative rumors about someone and not passing them on;

          For the mitzvah we performed by not using words such as “always” (e.g., “you’re always inconsiderate”) when we are angry with someone;

          For the mitzvah we performed by arranging to donate our organs;

          For the mitzvah we performed by treating our children and spouse with the same courtesy and attitude of forgiveness we extend to guests who visit our house;

          For the mitzvah of bringing food to the Yom Kippur food van. 

          For the mitzvah of listening patiently to a friend or relative even though we have heard the same story before. 

          For the mitzvah of making an effort to be cheerful.

          For the mitzvah we performed by buying fuel-efficient cars.

          For the mitzvah we performed by voting. 

          For the mitzvah we performed by seeing and sensing God’s presence in the world;

          For the mitzvah of tipping properly in restaurants.

          For the mitzvah of treating secretaries and salespeople with respect. 

          For the mitzvah we performed by accepting responsibility for wrongs we have done and not blaming our bad behavior on someone else;

For the mitzvah we performed by forgiving those who have hurt us and who seek our forgiveness;

          For the mitzvah we performed by admitting we were wrong.

For the mitzvah we performed by apologizing.

          For all these things, o God, Zochrenu - please remember us, and inspire us to do more such acts this coming year.

And the winner is?  The mitzvah you performed or failed to perform this year is?  Well, that’s up to you. 

As Judaism affirms again and again, every one of us has free choice.  It’s not so much that we are sinners.  It’s rather the fact that we haven’t done as well as we should…yet.  And for that – we do apologize.  We do repent.

Do you know what the root meaning of the Hebrew word for sin is?  It means “missing the mark.”  Like archers, we try to hit the target.  We should hit the target.  But like all archers, we don’t always make it.  We miss the mark as Jews, as parents, as children, as citizens, as drivers, as employers, as friends. 

I like the story of a rabbi by the name of Bunam.  One day Bunam went to the open-air market in his village to purchase some vegetables.  Bunam found the vegetables he wanted and made an offer to buy them.  The farmer was dissatisfied with the price Bunam offered and said, “Do better.”

The phrase captured Bunam’s imagination, and many times afterwards he would urge his students to repent by repeating the farmer’s plea:  “Do better.”

That’s how I see this season and our challenge:  do better.

Be honest with yourself.

Apologize.

Do better.

Zochrenu – For all that we have done God, remember us.

Zochrenu – Remember us, o God,  and inspire us to do better this coming year.

 

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