Sunday, 2 September 2007

Teshuvah - Positive or Negative

Originally published 9/2/07, 5:20 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
Reprinted with permission of the author -
Johnny Solomon -

The high Holy Days are, by their nature, misunderstood. They are high – unreachable to all but a few, and supposedly holy – although no student or teacher or philosopher has ever been able to define this word meaningfully to me. This confusion regarding the nature of these days means that the youth we encounter in our synagogues, as well as pretty much everyone else in shul, come with baggage, and generally the wrong type of baggage.

Our generation are not the first to misunderstand the nature of Rosh Hashana. We find in Sefer Nechemiah (8:10) that on Rosh Hashana, Ezra read the Torah to the people, who responded by mourning and weeping. His response, with Nechemiah and the Leviim, was "Go your way, eat fat foods, and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to them for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." Some Mefarshim say that the reason they cried was because the curses from the Torah were being read, and this made the people realise how much they had sinned. However, according to the Malbim, the regular Rosh Hashana Torah reading was read. Only when hearing this did the people even realise that it was Rosh Hashana! Like many of the youth we encounter in shul, it did not hit the people that Rosh Hashana was coming until that very day. The people immediately reacted – they started to cry. They wanted to fast. They realised that this was a once a year opportunity that was soon going to pass. However, Ezra and Nechemiah responded by stating “Go your way, eat fat foods, and drink sweet beverages etc.” What the Malbim implies is that when you have the ‘infrequent fliers’ – those Jews who only realise the enormity of Rosh Hashana on Rosh Hashana (which I think describes the majority of the kind of kids we encounter), don’t let them mess about with the heavy stuff that takes serious preparation. Such a Jew does not have the stamina to revisit their wrongdoings. Instead, all that kind of Jew has is their faith and their desire to do something positive. In my opinion, we have a responsibility to actualise this desire. Such a Jew can achieve more by doing acts of chessed such as sending “portions to them for whom nothing is prepared” than dwelling on their past misdeeds.

This idea reminds me of one of the most famous Talmudic debates (Eruvin 13b) between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai…"For two and a half years were Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel in dispute, the former asserting that it was better for man not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created. They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds (y'fasfes) or, as others say, let him examine his future actions (y'mashmesh).

What’s the difference between the two final opinions? Somebody with time to reflect, who makes time to reflect, who prepares for days such as Rosh Hashana should rather investigate their past misdeeds as that Rambam demands of us. However, like the people listening to Ezra, and like our kids, their limited time deliberating spiritual ideas should focus more on their future actions. That is, not what they have done, but what they can be. What we have just done, whether or not you realise it, is define our goal and the goal of our kids during these busy and complex days.

So, how can we make our activities productive in formulating and planning the future spiritual activities of our students post Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? There is an important idea in teaching. Something you might all know but you might not have considered far enough. This is that theory of multiple intelligences. That is, we all learn differently; our brains are more effective with more individualized teaching to our learning style. Rav Kook, reflecting on this idea, noted in his Orot HaTorah (9:6) "There were those that went off the path of the Torah because they rebelled against a method of learning which ran counter to their unique individual nature". That is, unless we recognise the individual needs of the youth we encounter, we can actually have a negative effect on their Jewish education.

1 comment:

Moshe Kline said...

Thank you for linking to my article.
Moshe Kline