These ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are widely known as the Ten Days of Repentance, and so they are (or should be): the ten days of the year during which we finally find the courage to look into our own hearts without flinching, to resolve to repair what we find there broken, and to return to the Torah-based values that, when asked, we insist we hold dear…but which most of us are more than capable of ignoring entirely for most of the rest of the year. The rest of the season—the huge meals, the company of family and friends, the warm communal feeling that draws us to worship—is entirely pleasant and, for many, the part of the holiday season that is the most gratifying. But this other part—the part about there only being three tools in our hands, and t’shuvah foremost among them, that could conceivably avert a severe degree that might otherwise be levied against us in the heavenly tribunal and that it is never too late, nor is any sin or crime or indiscretion to major, to be atoned for through the medium of t’shuvah—that is the part that seems hard even to believe, let alone fully to accept. And yet we repeat words to that effect over and over in our prayers as though these were commonplace ideas that we are expected to find almost self-evident.
On the one hand, tradition insists that the gates of t’shuvah, of repentance, are always open. I always think in this regard of the lesson of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani, who compared the possibility of prayer to the feasibility of repentance by observing that “prayer is like a mikveh, but repentance is like the sea: just as a mikveh is sometimes open and sometimes locked, so are the gates of prayer are sometimes locked and sometimes opened; but just as the sea is always open so too are always open the gates of repentance.” I’ve always liked that teaching, preserved. (For one thing, it makes me feel slightly better about occasionally finding the gates of prayer locked.) But, like it though I may, I also find myself wondering what it really means. Are the gates of repentance really always open? Does that not imply that, no matter how grievously we sin, no matter how horrific our behavior, we retain the capacity always to do t’shuvah, to return to God, to re-invent ourselves as people who do not sin or behave in that specific way? It sounds like it does!
I was thinking about these issues anyway in the course of this week—what rabbi wasn’t?—but they came to a head the other day when I read Ronell Wilson’s story in the paper earlier this week. Probably you saw it too—Wilson now has the distinction of being the first New Yorker to be sent to federal death row in more than sixty years, which distinction he richly earned by murdering two undercover New York City police detectives in cold blood. Even more remarkably, this was actually Wilson’s second experience being sentenced to death: although the verdict was eventually overturned due to some (in my opinion minor) prosecutorial violation of the defendant’s civil rights, Wilson was originally sentenced to death in 2007. Clemency was rejected by the jurors partially because of the terribleness of the crime and partially because of his conduct in prison since his arrest, during which time he behaved violently, refused to cooperate with the correctional officers assigned to him, intimidated other inmates and, remarkably, managed to father a child with a female prison guard. (The child, a boy, was born last June.)
I recall one of my teachers in rabbinical school constantly reminding us that philosophical ideas can be promoted in the academy but only tested in the crucible of real life. In other words, no one can answer any of the Big Questions that attend our existence in God’s world merely by thinking about them or by reading other people’s books on the topic. Instead, they need to be tested in the great laboratory that is the world in which we live: to know how you feel about a specific issue requires encountering that issue in the context of the real lives of real people…and then seeing how useful or ridiculous the idea under consideration sounds when spoken aloud to people in need of solace, not a lecture on Jewish philosophy. I’m not sure that I fully understood what a profound lesson that was back then. (What did I know? I wasn’t much more than a teenager myself when I began at JTS and what I knew of the real world was, to say the very least, limited.) Later on, however, I did understand.
And so I began to wonder about this specific case. A terrible crime. A violent, horrible offense against several of society’s most foundational ideas at once: the sanctity of all life, the need to construct a just justice system that includes peace officers being able to do their jobs without risking their lives, and the importance of society itself appearing unwilling to sanction mayhem in the streets of its cities and towns. Are the gates of t’shuvah open for Ronell Wilson? Maimonides would have thought so. Indeed, he wrote almost unambiguously that t’shuvah “atones for all sins so that even people who were wicked in the course of entire lifetimes yet who repent in their final moments will not [presumably in the next life] be reminded of any aspect of their wickedness as the prophet said, "the wickedness of the evil one will not cause him to stumble on the day he repents his wickedness" (Ezekiel 33:12). And for those who repent, Yom Kippur effects atonement, as it is written, “This day shall atone for you” (Leviticus 16:20). That much seems clear, yet Rambam then goes on to complicate the situation by noting that if the sin is grave enough, then t’shuvah and Yom Kippur only pave the way to forgiveness…but that society still has an obligation to punish the wrongdoer, even possibly to execute such a person. In other words, t’shuvah can make a person right with God. But it cannot stave of punishment by the earthly tribunal, nor should it.
What that should mean to us as we approach Yom Kippur is that t’shuvah is the first, not the last step, towards grappling with sin. Identifying our errors of judgment, our poor decisions, all the instances in which we failed to live up to the ideals we spent the rest of the year professing to hold dear—of that should be viewed as preparatory work that leads up to the inner resolve to sin no more. That is what t’shuvah is…but the process of atonement begins, not ends, there…and Yom Kippur and the verdict of the earthly court are part of the process as well that leads to absolution, to catharsis, to peace.
I’ve been thinking a lot about capital punishment lately. I read, for example, Elizabeth Silver’s very compelling novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, which is about a young woman on death row, her appeals (by her own decision) exhausted, her execution date looming. Then I read Life after Death by Damien Echols, an innocent man who spent eighteen years on death row in Arkansas. Written by a man without any literary training or university education, the book reads simply and forcefully as an individual’s plainly-put testimony regarding what happened to him when everything that could possibly go wrong in a death penalty case went wrong…with the result of him being not only convicted of a crime he didn’t commit—which has now been proven conclusively—but actually sentenced to death. And then, to complete the series (I tend to read books on the same topic in threes for some reason), I reread a book I hadn’t picked up since college, Victor Hugo’s remarkable 1829 novel, The Last Day in the Life of a Condemned Man, which I found just as compelling as I did all those years ago. It would make a good literary diptych with Echols book, the latter being about whether the death penalty can be administered fairly and the former being about whether it should be in use at all in civilized countries that truly value the worth of human life.
All this thinking about life and death seems to me to be precisely the right way to enter into Yom Kippur. Tradition teaches us, after all, that our lives too are on the line during these days of awe and judgment. To accuse the divine court of impropriety or misconduct makes no sense when the Judge is all-knowing and serves as the heavenly ground of earthly morality. To wonder if it is reasonable that any of us could be falsely convicted of sins we haven’t committed or written up harshly in the great Book of Life by error seems ridiculous. And so we are left to contemplate the simple idea that churns and roils at the heart of Yom Kippur: that if we are successful in identifying our errors of judgment and our missteps and we resolve to abandon them and to live finer lives…then Yom Kippur will put us in God’s good graces. The piper may still have to be paid. But the very fact that the piper may be paid is God’s gift to all humankind and, as Yom Kippur looms, particularly to the House of Israel.
I wish you all an easy and successful fast and a g’mar hatimah tovah.