Setting things right Atonement: Current events make relevant the meaning of the Jewish Yom Kippur: the need to confess sin and be reconciled.

September 29, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As Jews gather for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that begins at sundown today, their focus will fall accordingly on sin and the need to set things right with God and neighbor.

With the Clinton scandal dominating the national news, the notions of sin and reconciliation are very much at the forefront of public -- and Jewish -- consciousness.

Current events have made the ancient Jewish obligation of atonement, called teshuva, more relevant than ever during this year's High Holy Days, the 10 days of reflection and renewal that started with Rosh Hashana and conclude with Yom Kippur.

Literally Hebrew for "return," teshuva is a sort of road map for reconciliation.

"Generally, teshuva is the realization of your sin and the consequences it has," said Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville. "It's not the act alone. It is the consequences that come from sin: What it does to you. What it does to society. What it does to the family. And what it does to the world."

It was of teshuva that President Clinton spoke when he read a text from the Yom Kippur liturgy during his tearful prayer breakfast confession this month before a group of religious leaders in Washington.

"It takes an act of will for us to make a turn," Clinton said. "It means breaking old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy. It means losing face. It means starting all over again. And this is always painful. It means saying I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do."

To fulfill the demands of teshuva, saying "sorry" is not enough. According to Jewish sages, teshuva is a process with distinct stages: The sinner must recognize and feel remorse for the wrongdoing; renounce the sin; confess and plead for forgiveness to the person who has been wronged; and resolve not to repeat the deed.

If teshuva is sincerely offered, the sages say, the offender must be forgiven.

Jewish law says that at the Yom Kippur service, only sins between God and humans are forgiven. Sins that one person has committed against another must be reconciled through teshuva before the Yom Kippur service.

Rabbi Seymour Essrog, who leads a Carroll County synagogue and is president of the organization representing the world's Conservative rabbis, said he has a tradition of doing teshuva with his congregation at the start of the Yom Kippur service. "I tell them the story of how I come from a very small synagogue, and the tradition was everyone walked around and shook everyone's hand," he said. He then asks the congregation to pardon any offense he may have committed. "In our work, we can sometimes annoy people" without realizing it, he explained.

The nation's Reform rabbis have offered the tradition of teshuva to the wider society as they issued a Call for National Atonement during the period of the Jewish High Holy Days.

"It seemed to us that to just focus on the president was for most Americans counterproductive, whereas if they focused on themselves and focused on a period of self-examination, that would be healthy for everyone," said Rabbi Paul J. Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The benefits of teshuva are psychological as well as spiritual, Jewish religious leaders say, because reconciliation is liberating. Teshuva starts with guilt, the feeling that one has behaved badly, but guilt is not necessarily bad. "The feeling of guilt is the first step toward reconciliation," said Neuberger. "And unfortunately, that's not part of our culture."

Psychologist Ed Susskind, who before moving to Pittsburgh was president of the Maryland Psychological Association, said teshuva is a key concept he uses in therapy. The trick, he said, is separating good guilt from bad guilt.

"Teshuva doesn't necessarily mean atonement in the sense of ** 'I've done something bad,' " Susskind said. "Literally it means 'return.' What it means in traditional Judaism is the return of the soul to its purest state: 'I want to do the right thing, I want to return to the Garden of Eden before the apple.'

"So as a therapist, I try to help people separate destructive guilt from inspiration -- positive, uplifting teshuva," he said.

The obligation of teshuva, and the focus on it during the High Holy Days, can be intimidating, said Baltimore Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, author of "Rosh Hashanah -- Yom Kippur Survival Kit."

"A mistake I think people often make, and I make it also, is biting off more than you can chew and seeing it as an all-or-nothing proposition: 'I must change everything or must take on a big issue in my life and change it immediately,' as opposed to doing that which you can do and building confidence from there," he said.

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