Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Nitzavim
We have lately become accustomed to reading accounts of clergymen, teachers, and rabbis who take advantage, in very ugly ways, of the young people who are in their charge. Whenever I read these accounts, I think back to when I was a young boy and to some of the rabbis and teachers that I experienced. Let me tell you about one of them.
He was the young rabbi of a small congregation in Brooklyn, NY, far away from the neighborhood in which I grew up. He invited a small group of high school students, some tenth-graders and some eleventh-graders, to meet with him once a month. I was one of those students. We came from what seemed to us to be a random variety of different Jewish parochial high schools. I no longer remember how we were chosen, or how we were first informed about this monthly group.
He told us that this would be a discussion group, not a class, and that we would focus on ways to become better. He told us that if we were asked what the sessions were all about we should simply say that they were about "self-improvement." I must admit that we were suspicious when he emphasized that the group was to be a "secret" one, and that everything that transpired within the group session would have to remain confidential.
The rabbi did not have much of a public reputation then, and indeed it would not be exaggerating to say that his name was obscure. Much later, he became quite well known, even famous. Today, long after his death, he has gained world-wide popularity because of his books and audio recordings.
I still treasure the notebook in which I recorded summaries of each of the sessions over the course of nearly a year and a half. The first session was held at this time of year, just at the beginning of our school term and shortly before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
The sessions were held in his synagogue study, which was illuminated only by his desk lamp, lending a mysterious aura and setting a solemn mood for what was to ensue. He opened the session by asking us to introduce ourselves, one by one. He then began his introductory remarks:
"The month of Elul is drawing to a close. We will soon experience Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the sacred days between them. We are called upon to repent, to do teshuva. Tell me, boys — what, in your opinion, is teshuva?"
I don't recall precisely what any of us said and don't even remember if I responded at all. But all who spoke up used the word "sin" in their responses. And each and every time the word "sin" was uttered, the rabbi shook his head vigorously, exclaiming, "No! No! No!"
He then asked each of us to take a chumash, or Bible, from the shelf in his study. He asked us to turn to the pages of the week's Torah portion, which was the very Torah portion we read in synagogue this week, Parshat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20). He directed us to read aloud the opening verses of chapter 30. I was assigned to read the first verse, and then my companions were each to read the subsequent verses, one at a time. And so we read about "returning to God…With all your heart and soul…" And that then "the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love." In short, we learned about the relationship between repentance and redemption.
He then explained to us, using a pedagogical approach that none of us had ever experienced before, that redemption was just another word for a new beginning, a rebirth, a new life. "Repentance, teshuva, is not really about sin at all. It is about choosing to be reborn, to begin a new life, to become a different person."
Every year, at this time of year, I think back to that dimly lit room and to that mentor of mine who helped me come to grips with the real challenge of this season in the Jewish religious calendar. Yes, we have all sinned during the past year, and we must repent for those sins. But that is not the essence of our mission as the new year approaches. Its essence, he taught us, is not about sin. It is about life, new challenges, and a time for us to redefine ourselves as extensively as we can.
As I matured, I began to come across texts in my readings, some sacred texts and some secular ones, which supported that rabbi's contention. Not more than a year or two after that experience, when I was a senior in high school, I chose to write my senior thesis on the book The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. This was my first encounter with James, whose writings are now among my lifelong favorites.
James' masterpiece is a treasure chest of wisdom. One of his wisest insights is the distinction he makes between the "once born" and the "twice born." The "once born" person takes life as it comes. He has no doubts and is not troubled by questions such as, "Is this all there is to life?" He is unconcerned about life's purpose and is basically content to, using a contemporary idiom, "take each day as it comes."
Not so the "twice born." James calls him the "sick soul," not because he is ill, but because he is constantly discontent. He cannot be satisfied with a superficial life. He constantly asks himself questions about the meaning of his life. He struggles with inner conflicts, with uncertainty and doubt, and, yes, even with episodes of depression and despair. His solution to his quandary is to periodically redefine his life in his search for answers to his existential questions.
Using different language, of course, the rabbi of my early high school years was encouraging us to consciously and conscientiously choose to number ourselves among the "twice born."
It was much later in my life when I first heard the inspirational sermons of Rabbi S. M. Schwadron, of blessed memory, who was known throughout the Jewish world as the great Maggid, or preacher, of Jerusalem. I heard him talk just prior to the Shabbat when we read this week's parsha. I still retain my notes of that sermon and, quite frankly, "borrow" from it frequently in my own sermons. He had many insightful, even prescient, comments to make. But the one comment that dominates, and quite literally haunts, my conscience at this time of year was the sentence he used to emphasize his oration:
"Teshuvah iz nisht besser tzu verren, nahr anderish tzu verren.” Teshuvah is not about becoming better. It is about becoming different.
That group of adolescents of which I was privileged to be a member certainly did not experience any abuse at the hands of our wonderful mentor. Quite the contrary, he imparted to us guidelines that were immensely helpful to us in our teenage years and became even more helpful to us as we matured.
But wait! Perhaps he did manipulate us. After all, he promised us that we would be learning about self-improvement. Did he not deceive us? His lessons were not about self-improvement. They were about self-transformation.
No, he surely did not deceive us. He merely told us, in his own words, what Maimonides wrote more than eight centuries ago: "The one who repents is advised to change his name, as if to say, 'I have a different identity. I am no longer the same person who once acted that way.' He must change his actions thoroughly for the better and walk a different and straighter path."