Delivered on Kol Nidrei 5784, September 24, 2023
I learned how to ski as an adult. Growing up in Texas, we were not the family to dash off to the mountains in the winter. But, living in the Berkshires, wanting fresh air during the long winter, I was drawn to take up the sport.
During one of my first lessons, the instructor decided to fast-track me. After teaching me to use the magic carpet, he quickly said, “So, just start turning.”
“How do I turn?” I asked him.
“You just do it,” he said.
My instructor could have been more instructive.
I spent the rest of the lesson on the bunny slope, trying to turn. I would make my way across the hill, legs uncertain. I would realize I needed to start heading the other direction, and would clumsily pick up one ski and then another, until I was either a twisted mess of legs, skis, arms, and polls, or I had turned so successfully was now facing uphill. Gravity would then take effect, and I quickly learned how to ski backwards. Learning to turn wasn’t working.
Each time I failed, the instructor would drift my way and help me up, asking what happened.
“I don’t know how to turn. I need you to show me.”
“I can’t show you,” he said, “You just do it.”
I left that lesson frustrated.
A few days later, I returned to try on my own. The more I played with it, the more I got it. Apparently, you can just turn.
Since then, I haven’t stopped trying to turn. I’ve gotten the bug. I would take more lessons and hone my technique. I am still honing my technique. In learning to turn, I moved from the bunny slopes to the greens, and now am officially a blue cruiser. I daydream about ski season. I am counting down the days.
Fast forward several years from my first experiences. Now Lior—our eldest child—is learning to ski. It’s an activity we share together, and he too has become obsessed. And he’s got skills. Last winter, Lior was learning how to ski in parallel. By the end of the season, he had figured it out.
When Lior and I would ski together, we played follow the leader. To help him control his speed and master the turn, he had to stay in my tracks all the way down a run. One day, Lior asked if he could be the leader in our game. We were skiing at Bousquet in Pittsfield. We took the chair lift to the top of Main Street, an easy blue he had already done several times. I told him to go ahead; he was the leader, and I followed him.
Lior then proceeded to give me a wicked smile. He shot straight down the mountain. I chased after him, visualizing my own spectacular crash, which luckily never came. When I caught up to him at the bottom, somewhat breathless, I told him he was forbidden from going that fast again. He needed to show me that he knew how to turn.
“But Dad,” he said, “I know how to turn. It’s just more fun to go straight down.”
I told him to prove it.
So on the next run, Lior skied painfully slow, making one beautiful, over-exaggerated turn after another, and in a perfect six-going-on-sixteen tone saying, “See! I learned how to turn.”
While not yet ski season, we are in our season of turning. From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we describe these days as Aseret Yamei HaT’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. At Rosh Hashanah, we hear the shofar, waking us from a spiritual slumber, prompting us to turn back to the path of sacred living.
Learning to turn is embedded within the Jewish tradition of repentance. T’shuvah, the Hebrew word meaning repentance, comes from the root la-shuv, literally meaning to turn. Better yet, unlike the instructor who could not show me how to turn, when it comes to t’shuvah, Jewish tradition offers a roadmap. Like skiing, you have to do the work yourself, but let me describe how repentance happens.
We all do wrong. Were that false, we would have no need for Yom Kippur. Some of the wrongs we commit are against God, while others are interpersonal. We transgress one another. The good news is that no matter our sins, the Day of Atonement is ready to do its job. For those transgressions between you and God, our tradition teaches that the Day of Atonement atones. Though, for the things you have done to harm another person, Yom Kippur does not do its job until you have sought repair from the person you wronged.
The Israeli writer Etgar Keret describes this well. Now 56 years old, Keret remembers a time when he was a preschooler. On the playground one morning, he tripped a girl with whom he often played. She cried to the teachers. The teacher asked Keret if he tripped his friend. Keret lied. The teacher believed him, scolding the other student.
Keret carried the guilt with him. The girl and he would not remain friends, though they ended up at the same high school. In the first week of school, that same girl was his biology lab partner. Rosh Hashanah had already passed, and Yom Kippur was only a few days away. After school ended, he waited to talk with her. She walked out of the building with “orange headphones on her head and a Sony Walkman in her hand.” He went up her, reintroducing himself. He told her what happened, but she did not remember it.
“But I remember,” he replied.
“’Apologize for something stupid you did when you were 4?’ she said and smiled… then added, ‘Were you this weird back in preschool, too?’… ‘Apology accepted,’ she said after a brief pause, and then put her orange headphones over her ears and left.”
For Etgar Keret, his apology—and subsequently Yom Kippur—did what it needed to. The gates were now open. I imagine we each can think of everyday apologies like this one. And, there are greater transgressions we commit, ones less easily confronted and less quickly forgiven. No matter the magnitude, the repentance process is the same:
• We take ownership of our sin.
• We confess to the person we harmed.
• We seek to repair any damage, offering reparations.
• And then, having done all of that, we have unlocked the gates of repentance.
That is how t’shuvah is supposed to operate.
But wrongdoing and forgiveness are more complex than that because we, stiff neck and complicated, make it more difficult.
Consider forgiveness. We all suffer life’s depredations. We are all wounded. And, from time to time, those wounds were inflicted by others who remain unrepentant. Forgiveness is part of what today is about. But Yom Kippur’s mandate is not to forgive, but to seek forgiveness. Jewish tradition puts the onus on the person who transgressed, not on the one who suffered because of it.
That being said, Jewish tradition also teaches that when wronged, we are not to withhold acceptance of the confessions people offer us. One who does so commits the sin of grasping onto resentment.
Sometimes, the wounds we carry go unresolved. The sinner never confesses; the apology never comes. In those circumstances, forgiveness is a door open to you. You can release the feelings of guilt and resentment, anger and frustration by turning to compassion. That sort of transformation is a spiritual good. It may allow you to turn and release what needs to be let go. Yet it is not the key issue for which Yom Kippur was created: Yom Kippur is not about getting others to turn; it’s about you learning how to turn.
On Yom Kippur, each of us is the sinner. The concern is not with others. Today, it is about me. I have done wrong. I have transgressed. To spend my one day fasting worrying about the behavior of others is a great defense mechanism, protecting me from my own shortcomings. On Yom Kippur, for this one day, we are called to put aside pride, sitting squarely in the role of the sinner.
The prophet Jonah, never understood this, but the Ninevites did.
It is in the Talmud that we are instructed to read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. Jonah’s story is associated with the afternoon of Yom Kippur, because it fortifies our resolve to turn. Our t’shuvah is strengthened in hearing the tale of how the sailors, the Ninevites, God, even the whale, navigate their own transgressions and repentance. Except, rather than be the hero of the story, Jonah is the foil.
God calls Jonah to head to Nineveh and seek that great city’s repentance. Instead of doing what God asks, Jonah runs away. God has a whale swallow Jonah. While in the belly of the whale, Jonah prays. But his prayer is not a confession of guilt. He fails to recognize that he transgressed God. When we read the Book of Jonah tomorrow afternoon, spend some time looking at the second chapter. The prayer Jonah recites there is a lament—Oh, that I’m caught in the belly of a whale!—not a confession—Oh, that I once did wrong, and now if only I had the chance to do right!
God tells the whale to spit Jonah out. Again, God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh. Three days in the belly of a whale does not prompts Jonah to complete his mission. God must tell him again. Jonah does not experience t’shuvah. He has not learned how to turn.
The Ninevites do, though. When Jonah shows up and says that their city will be destroyed in forty days, they all repent. The king hears the prophecy, declaring a fast day. Even the animals are to repent. God accepts the Ninevite’s repentance and, toward Jonah, seeks to make this a teachable moment.
Consider this: On this Yom Kippur, are you a Ninevite, or are you more like Jonah? Can you see your wrongdoing, taking action to repair that? Or is what we are doing today and tomorrow performative, saying we’ve repented when it’s really more of a lament?
Perhaps that is a way we can understand what Hillel means with his teaching, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” We usually translate this teaching as “If I am not for myself, who will be for me,” written in the future. But in the Hebrew, the question is present: If I am not for myself, then who is? Our concern is with our own actions. I take responsibility for myself. My successes are my own. And my sins, I own those too. On Yom Kippur, each of us is judged. If we cannot be honest with ourselves, who is?
The unfortunate truth is that Yom Kippur and t’shuvah are not concerned with the experience of those harmed. Since the rise of the #MeToo movement, we have realized that we—the community—empower perpetrators of violence by centering their stories over the experiences of those victimized. We have seen that when victims come forward to speak of how powerful people abused and violated them, they have little incentive to lie. They often come forward at personal cost. When the community responds with silence or doubt, we empower those who do harm.
Moreover, focusing on the narrative of the offenders sensationalizes that role. Their sins become true crime stories. I think of the Rolling Stone cover that featured a portrait of the Boston Marathon bomber, published only days after families buried their loved ones. Under a contemporary ethic, when we center the voices of those impacted by wrongdoing we tap into a deeper sense of compassion and care, helping all of us as a society more and more turn in a righteous direction.
Still, Yom Kippur’s valence is flipped, for good reason. We also need a day where we take a good look in the mirror. T’shuvah is for the wrongdoer, and for this one day, we are in that role. Learning to turn unlocks the gates.
There is a story in the Talmud (BT Mo'ed Katan 17a) about an unnamed rabbinical student who earns a hateful reputation. This rabbinical student’s sins debase his role. Rabbi Yehudah—who oversees the faculty assignments in the Beit Midrash—wonders if he needs to take this person out of the teaching rotation. We need him, he thinks, and his sins desecrate the Torah and God’s name. Rabbi Yehudah ostracizes the rabbinical student, hoping that will cause the rabbinical student to turn from his wicked ways.
The rabbinical student is enraged by his punishment, remaining unrepentant. Then, Rabbi Yehudah falls ill. According to Jewish law, the one who issues the ban on another holds the keys to releasing him from those same restrictions. The rabbinical student goes to Rabbi Yehudah on his deathbed. Release me! He begs. The rabbinical student knows he is running out of time, but has not learned how to turn. Rabbi Yehudah laughs, saying It is now clear that I made the right decision ostracizing you. The unrepentant rabbinical student storms off, Rabbi Yehudah dies, and the man is never released from his restricted status.
When we shy away from repentance, our pride keeps us locked up in a prison of our own making. T’shuvah offers us a path back to wholeness.
Here’s the thing: You’ve all shown up for ski lesson, looking to learn how to turn. So, keep that other ski instructor in mind. While I can describe what turning looks like, you have to learn to do it for yourself. Moreover, t’shuvah is not a one-and-done sort of thing. Once we figure out the basics of turning, we continue to hone our skills, year over year, refining the practical and spiritual parts of making t’shuvah. When it comes to repentance, we are lifelong learners.
Over the next day, we will recite the vidui, a confessional prayer, multiple times throughout the day. In that prayer, we fess up for all our transgressions. Famously, we say these confessions in the first person, plural—ashamnu, bagadnu, al cheit sh'chatanu, for the sins we have committed. Praying in the plural allows us to forgo communal shame. You are not asked to raise your hand and announce—Oh that one! That’s me! I’m the sinner! But internally, that is exactly what is expected of us. If we recite these confessions without reading ourselves into them, we still haven’t learned how to turn.
Between tonight and tomorrow, I want to encourage you to take out a sheet of paper, do this as a thought exercise, or have a conversation with a loved one: Which misdeeds among our public confessions are personal? From the grand sins we need to get off our chests to the everyday missteps—what needs to be said?
Speaking our confessions aloud, writing them down in a journal, or sending them in an email to the person who needs to hear them—that is the turning we need to be doing today. And no one can do it but you.
That last ski season when Lior sped down the hill, I was also proud of him. The beauty of skiing is being in the flow of the moment: The fresh air, the wind in your ears, the thrill of the speed, even as you turn and come about.
However, turning is about safety. So is t’shuvah. Imagine a world in which wrongdoing persists, but t’shuvah is absent. A society without accountability scares me. The Ninevites understood that. So we learn to turn, for ourselves and for the community, to make it down the hill safely. We want to get back to the chair lift and have another run or two before the day is done. It can be scary to turn, a little thrilling, too.
We read in the Talmud, “Great is t’shuvah as it brings healing to the world… and lengthens a person’s life.” (Yoma 85b-86a)
On this Yom Kippur, may we embrace the discomfort of our own misdeeds. May we humble ourselves before one another and God, presenting penitent hearts that release us from the transgressions we have committed. May we devote ourselves to turning, doing right by ourselves and one another. Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. May we each turn again and again, to get down the mountain safely and joyously.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.