Thursday, November 12, 2020

Shuvah and Tshuvah-You can always make a U Turn


Shuvah and Tshuvah-You can always make a U Turn


Kol Nidre

            I never was enthralled at the idea of having a bumper sticker on my car. Afterall, why would I want to mess up the clean look of the bumper, especially if I just got my car through the car wash? I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, so why would I put my thoughts out there for the whole world. But it’s a free country, which is great, people can say what they like, as long as they don’t incite to hatred and violence.

            But when we are stuck in traffic, we can’t help but read what’s on other people’s minds. Politics, today for sure, some, just vote for types, but some, aggressive, with images of weapons. Then, it seems, the most popular for sale are those that are basically, dirty jokes, but there are a few that a useable for a Kol Nidre, like:

Fueled by Recycled Dinosaurs

If I passed you on the right, you’re in the wrong lane.

I used to be cool      

I’m retired-go around me!

One bumper sticker did catch my attention, as a Rabbi, because we are always looking for good material:

            “If you are heading in the wrong direction, God allows you to make a U-turn."

            I couldn't have thought of a better slogan for this season, because if I take the word" Teshuvah", the slogan word of this season, the word U-turn is probably the best translation for it.

            Can we really make a u-turn in life? If I do it on the street, I may get a ticket? Can I make a u-turn if life, and not only not get a ticket, but be praised for it?

            There is an old quip, recorded by one of Rashi’s grandsons in the tosafot--There is a statement in the Talmud" Everything is in the hands of heaven--hakol biyday shamayim- hutz meyirat shamayim-except for the fear of heaven" The commentator adds--Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for hot and cold.

            The commentary then continues—you can open the window if it’s hot, you can light a fire if it’s cold.

            What great philosophy is this?

            That whatever happens to us, fortune, wealth, health, success--all that may be in the hands of heaven, all that may be beyond us, yet there is one thing we can do--If it is too hot, we can open a window, and if it is too cold, we can light a fire.

            It is profound. We go through life complaining about everything, and none of it, we claim, none of it is our doing.  

            Oh No! The sage tried to tell us—it’s not just the simple task of opening a window or lighting a fire, changing the thermostat. It is a metaphor for all of life itself. You can open a window in life, you can light a fire in your hearts, and you can make a U-turn in life.

            Life is hard, and we are sometime tempted to throw up our hands and say, in the Yiddish, es ist bashert--it is fated- it had to be- and thereby, we give up. The word Mazel is a reference to that--what happens to us is the result of mazel, --we translate as luck, but it means a constellation of stars, simply a term borrowed from astrology. It goes back to the belief that all that befalls us has been dictated by the stars long before we were born.

            Even the Talmud says" Hakol taluy bemazal- afilu sefer torah baheichal--All depends on the stars, on fortune, even the Torah scroll in the ark.! How can that be? When you have a well-established synagogue, there are many scrolls, and some scrolls just have all the luck------they get read while others are ignored.

            This is a great idea--I never have to take the blame for anything. It's all my mazel.

            Modern intellectual theory, what we have all learned in high school and college, has thrown out the word “mazal”, or “fate”. It has replaced it with the word “determinism”. Words of four or more syllables always sound more sophisticated.


            Hakol taluy baDNA--Everything depends on our DNA. This is the newest fashion--our behavior is determined by our genetic composition--patient or irritable, quick or slow, honest or dishonest, it is all a matter of genetic makeup. It's not my fault. I was born that way.

             Then, we have the excuse of hakol taluy bakalkalah-- everything is in the hands of socio- economics. It is not my fault.

            I was born into the wrong ethnic group—I was born black, I was born white, I was born brown—or the economic grouping—I was born in the 99%, or the newest one, I was born in the 1% and so never learned life.

            We say, Hakol taluy ba psychologiah-- everything depends on psychology, on environment and upbringing.

            The newest thing today is to blame your family. My family was dysfunctional, it’s not my fault. My mother didn't understand me as an infant, my father made me dependent, they both gave me the wrong genes. They were too protective; they didn’t protect me enough. They were too coddling; they were too strict. Too warm, so they choked, or too cold, so they froze. All that we are, all that we have been, we throw off on our past, on everything around us--just not on ourselves.

            What is the Jewish answer?

            At this season, we have the famous prayer unetaneh tokef

-- It too begins with that theme, a sad one, that we await our fate passively--mi yihyeh umi uyamut. It is very painful and poignant, Life, death, health, illness, wealth, poverty--all of these are none of our doing. It is biydey shamayim-up to heaven.

            Then we drop to the conclusion: utshuvah utefilah utsedakah maavirin et roah hagezerah

            “Repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness avert the evil decree. “

            We can't change the laws of physics or medicine, but we can change the world around us, we can change ourselves, we can make our choices. Whatever may happen, come what may, we can change its impact, it import, its lasting effects on us.

            Ultimately, our Rabbis narrowed down the list of what is predetermined: Hakol –everything-- taluy bashamayim,- hutz me yirat shamayim--everything, in deed may be determined outside of us, but one thing, the most crucial,--only we determine--yirat shamayim--our moral and ethical, as well as spiritual values, that which ultimately define us a human beings, upon which we shape our actions- only we can control that.

            On this one fundamental question of human existence—God the Almighty- is powerless.

            An acquaintance of mine just sent me a list of sayings from the Chasidic master, Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker. He was known as a defender of the truth even if it challenged his faith.

Here is one that goes directly to my point.

“The essence of sin is not the sin itself. It is that a person believes that it is not in his or her power to change-that is greatest sin of all.”

            To refuse that power to change-that is the root of all sin.          

When we recognize that we shape the events around us more than the events shapes us, for good or for bad, we are the freest of the free--that choice is ours, and ours alone to make. Not our astrological signs, not our genes, nor our social class, nor our childhood can force us to make our ultimate choices. In that we find our freedom.

Now, we go one step further, and ask, to what purpose is that freedom, the freedom to choose good or evil, life or death.

Some 85 years ago, my father, Rabbi Dr William Weinberg, then still a student in rabbinical school, sat in a Nazi prison in Berlin on trumped up charges. Upon his release, he wrote a series of essays, in a Swiss Jewish newspaper placing Judaism in opposition to the intellectual trends of his day. The grounds of this essay still hold for us today. So here are some selections from his essay, The Courage of the Spirit.”.

“By all trends within our cultural system it has been an accepted thesis for decades  that all events occur independently of human will.  Little and rarely does anything result from conscious thought.  Like the apparition that vanishes at the toll of the bell to call in a new day, so all the values and ideals of mankind melt away, overpowered with unpitying might by the merciless hand of economic, biological, and historical Ananke, fate.

This was his response to that challenge:

Judaism's theory of history is activist, the Jewish ethos is a willful ethos, the Jewish religion is outspokenly a religion of will.


        More so, it is the spirit, the ideal, which drives history in its development, despite recurring setbacks, to even higher forms: to an ethical humane elevating of human society.  We do not deny the law of reality, which researchers have made clear, but over and above this, there is a law of the ideal; over and above the factual, there is the truth.

No, humanity is not the disturbed dream of some sleeping deity and no mad chaos wildly swirled about by a happenstance. God created the world according to plan.

He ends the essay with this quote from an ancient Jewish philosophy of history,

 "Man is called upon to be God's co-worker in the act of creation. (Mechilta, Ex. 18:13). “

            When we recognize that we have the power of the U-Turn, the power to grasp the reins of our lives, when we recognize that we are not victims of everyone and everything else, we find our freedom. When we use that freedom in shaping a better world around us, we then have found our destiny and purpose.

            May we feel that inner freedom to overcome the burden of events that we feel weigh on us so that this Yom , this Day, truly becomes on of “ Kippur”, of atonement, of “ at-one-ment”,  of cleansing, and of new ness.


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