Updated: Sep 8, 2020
As we approach the High Holidays, we start to take stock in our behavior of the last year. Many Jews feel a sense of trepidation at some of the rituals and procedures incumbent on this time. No, we’re not talking about the fasting and abstinence of pleasure; we’re referring to the process of apologizing to those we may have offended. It would tough enough if we had to ask amends once, but the rabbis have mandated that we must attempt three times. Talk about eating Humble Pie.
Among other things, Judaism is a religion of relationships. While many of our 613 mitzvot involve our relationships with Hashem and rites such as sacrifices and holidays and festivals, a great many involve our interactions with each other. Hashem knows clearly how sincere we are in our repenting and thus forgives us accordingly. The important task is to work on relationships with our fellows.
Our commitment is to work towards an ideal. This is a prominent theme during the High Holidays.
Many of our commandments are obvious. We are not to steal or cheat people in business. Hashem has seen to it that we all have our due. We are not to take or try to take anything that is not ours or we would possess as ill-gotten gains.
All this serves to establish a fair and just society. When people live in a fair and just society, they get along better and are happier, and have more trust. When people are happier and trusting, it’s a lot easier to strive and succeed. When people live in a society in which everyone is suspect, however, commerce suffers, and people have a harder time fulfilling themselves.
It is not just about general societal conditions. Torah also governs how we interact with each other, not just how we treat each other.
During the High Holiday services, we recite confessionals in a couple of different forms. Consider the “Vidui” when we recite “Ashamnu,etc.” and beat our chest after each statement of sin. The list is varied but out of the twenty-four sins, four of them involve speaking ill. Even in the prayer “Al Het”, there is a predominance of confessions again about what bad things we’ve said.
While we might think that our repentance during the High Holidays involves a new commitment to think before we speak, this is actually a year-round focus. During each and every Amidah, the sages have thought that our individual recitation should end with “Guard our tongues from speaking evil and our lips from speaking falsehoods”. G-d knows we have a hard time keeping our mouths shut.
But why the focus on gossip? Remember that words are very powerful. How did Hashem create the Material Universe? By saying, “Let there be…” etc. Those words became the actual things. Since we are created in G-d’s image, we too seem to have a power to affect our fellow humans with our words.
In fact, there are two places in Torah where we have the “Tohaha” or warning, and the second instance is in this week’s Torah portion “Ki Tavo”. This is an admonition of terrible things that will come to pass if we do not abide by Torah. Many rabbis comply with the tradition that the “Tohaha” is recited in a whisper lest our chanting of them loudly causes them to come to pass!
When we were children and other kids teased us, we would recite a rhyme that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never harm me”. That’s wrong. No one ever spent twenty years in therapy for having a stick thrown at them (medical treatment not withstanding).
With the advent of social media, more and more people are given a platform to express their views. Fringe groups, once in the shadows, now have an audience. This openness seems to have opened the door for people to not just express ideas best kept to themselves—or at least mitigated with civility—but also in very aggressive ways. Sometimes instead of interesting debates with different points of view, they often get heated arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong, with no tolerance.
For Judaism, this is not how we are to behave. We are told to love your fellow as yourself in the Torah. Hillel said, “Do not judge your fellow until you have walked from his place”. Native Americans said, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins”. Notice that neither we Jews nor the Native Americans accused the other of stealing that idea! Instead, we just acknowledge that great minds think alike.
This year, 5781, let’s all make a commitment as part of our repentance to walk from someone else’s place in their moccasins. The world will be a calmer and more understanding place.