September is a time of beginnings. With the end of the summer vacation season we return to our workplaces and campuses ready for new encounters. And, with the High Holy Days upon us, we return to the synagogue to confront relationships old and new.
What should be the focus of our seasonal reflections? Should we concentrate on our relationships with one another, or our relationship with God? Is there a difference?
Rabbinic commentators throughout the ages have categorized the various mitzvot, behavioral commandments, into two groupings: those among human beings (bein adam l’chaveiro) and those between an individual and God (bein adam l’makom). But in his book “A Code of Jewish Ethics,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests that this is a problematic distinction. He notes, disapprovingly, that we generally judge an individual’s level of “religiosity” in terms of lighting Shabbat candles or keeping Kosher – not acknowledging that paying workers an honest wage or returning a lost possession to its owner is also religious behavior.
The Mishna, a second-century law code teaches, “For transgressions between man and the Omnipresent – Yom Kippur effects atonement. For transgressions between man and his fellow – Yom Kippur does not effect atonement until he appeases his fellow” (Tractate Yoma 8:9).
In his book on repentance, medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides expands on this. For sins against God, repentance means “abandoning our sins, removing them from our minds, resolving that we will never commit them again, expressing regret for past conduct, and calling on God the Omniscient to serve as witness that we will never commit those sins again. We must recite our confession out loud and make these above statements signifying our solemn decision."
Regarding sins against fellow humans, Maimonides writes: “Sins such as injuring, cursing, stealing, et cetera, which are committed against one's fellow man are never atoned for until one has paid any necessary fines to the person against whom one sinned, and discussed it with him.” Maimonides urges the injured party to grant forgiveness.
On Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the Jewish calendar – we focus on our relationship with God, but this is not possible unless we heed Telushkin’s suggestion to overcome our pedestrian view of religiosity. We must reflect on our relationships with both other humans and with God. Until we are able to do this in a parallel and balanced way, Telushkin concludes, we are neither ethical humans nor ethical Jews.
To do and consider:
Do you agree with Telushkin’s premise that we are obligated to recognize the godliness in our interpersonal relationships and to behave accordingly?
What is the best way to ask forgiveness from someone else? Does it need to be directly, person to person, or can it be through a secondary source such as an e-mail or letter? Is there a qualitative difference? Does a round-robin e-mail asking all of one’s contacts for forgiveness comprise true forgiveness?
The Web site www.postsecret.com lists anonymous confessions for a variety of major and minor transgressions. Is this a form of repentance?
At this time of year, should you elicit an apology from someone who has offended you if he or she has not initiated the contact?
Even those who do not believe in God commit sins. How does one seek repentance and forgiveness in the absence of God?