Was I good? Was I kind? Was I patient?” And our souls answer us: “Sometimes. But not always.”
Is it enough to know this? No. We must also repent. How?
If the sin is one we committed against God, then it’s a simple matter— we ask God for forgiveness, and commit ourselves to betterment.
What if it’s against another person?
If our sin is against another person, we must, as Jews are wont to do, converse. The Jewish model of forgiveness has many layers, but its highest form is built upon the true recognition, by both parties, of the wrong that was done. That is the starting point for achieving the truest and highest repentance and forgiveness: t’shuvah, turning.
These two processes, one for sins against God and one for sins against other people, make up our typical model of Jewish repentance towards which we strive on the High Holidays. But there is another side to this journey, much present in our tradition but often neglected, I find, in our practices and dialogue, and it is this: repentance for the sin of joy forgone.
My father taught me this Chassidic teaching: at the gates of heaven, we are held accountable not only for the wrong we have done others, but for the joys available to us in life which we denied ourselves. Any joy or happiness that can be had, which causes no harm to oneself or others, should be seized with both hands. Whether the thing that prevents us is ego, a false understanding of ourselves, a warped sense of piety, an inability to change our thinking, or the idolatry of fixation on our problems, when we deny ourselves an opportunity to experience joy we sin against ourselves. In so doing, incidentally, we also sin against God—but let’s return to the sin against ourselves.
Let us not forget: to achieve true t’shuva, we must be forgiven, and can ONLY receive forgiveness from the person wronged. When we ignore, forget or lose the lantern of our joy that God gave us to guide us through this broken world, we wrong ourselves. Who do we need to forgive? Of course: we must forgive, forgive, forgive, and forgive ourselves. But how often do we offer ourselves forgiveness? How often do we remember to ask it of ourselves? Too rarely. And for this, too, we must forgive.
May we be blessed this year with a fine memory. May we remember to feed our souls with the nourishment available to us from every treetop, from our families, our community, our culture and our time alone. May we remember to ask ourselves: what would I most enjoy at this moment?, and, as often as we can, do that very thing (unless it is to skip services). May we remember that we are all human and that, at the end of the day, each of us has honored and failed our highest selves on countless occasions. May we squeeze very drop out of life and share our joy freely with those around us. May we go from joy to joy, to find joy, make joy, and spread joy. May we serve our joy, and in so doing, serve our community and our God. For as the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Master of the Holy Name teaches us: When the psalms command us to serve God with happiness, the happiness itself is the service to God.
May you and your loved ones each have a sweet, a precious and a joyful New Year.