Thirteen years ago, I was in prison. I was not an inmate. I was working for an organization called Tova: Artistic Projects for Social Change, and I was assisting Tova’s founder, Teya Sepinuck, who was creating a theatre project with prison inmates. The piece was called Living with Life. In it, eight men serving life sentences in Chester Prison in Pennsylvania tell their stories and talk about what repentance, responsibility, and reconciliation mean to them. As the play unfolded in the auditorium of the prison, with an audience of victims of crimes, youth at risk, and people who work in the criminal justice system, these concepts were far from abstract. After ten, fifteen, twenty years in prison, these men spoke honestly and directly about the crimes they had committed. They reflected on who they were back then – many had been addicted to drugs and had been part of gangs, many of them grew up in poverty and had no models of a different life. And they talked about who they have become over the course of their incarceration. I remember vividly one man saying (I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like this), “I wish I could take back what I did. Every day I think of the guy whose life I took. I wish I could bring him back but I can’t. Now I want to do something good with my life. I want to help people.”
My experience working on this play and witnessing the lives of these men, changed the way I understand teshuvah – repentance, turning, returning to our best and essential selves. What a difficult and brave process it is to face one’s responsibility and to admit guilt and destructiveness in the presence of others. What a deep, clear awareness it takes to face the fact that we cannot undo the damage we have done, and what honesty it takes to wake up to the weight of our actions. And rather than trying to defend or justify harmful actions, how much humility, and also tremendous compassion toward oneself, it takes to recognize the person we were and to consciously work to become a different person, holding strongly to the belief that human beings can change and grow and engender healing. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great 19th century Hasidic master, said, “If you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair.” What courage it takes to believe and take ownership of both of these truths.
In the Jewish calendar, we are embarking on an intensive process of teshuvah. With the news and personal stories surfacing about the Sixties Scoop, stirred by the class action lawsuit against the Government of Canada, we as a country are embarking on an intensive process of teshuvah. What can it look like for the Canadian Jewish community to listen to the stories of Aboriginal adults who were among the 16,000 Aboriginal children taken from their homes and placed with non-Native families as foster children, or put up for adoption, between 1965-1984? How can this be part of a larger relationship with Aboriginal communities and with the legacy of Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples, an active engagement with the Truth and Reconciliation process? How can we draw upon the Jewish teachings and practices of teshuvah to support this nation-wide process of soul-searching, truth-telling, and repair? With the sensitivity, insights, and imperatives of our own history as victims of persecution, our understanding of intergenerational trauma, as well as our responsibility in the face of on-going racism, how shall we do this work together as a community?
The Hebrew month of Elul begins on the night of September 2nd. This month, leading up to Rosh Hashana, is a period of preparation for the Days of Awe, the days of soul-searching, truth-telling, and reconciliation, personally and collectively. We blow the shofar every morning, un-numbing, dis-armouring, waking up. We read Psalm 27 every day, connecting to the call to chazak ve’ya’ametz libe’cha/strengthen your heart and make it brave. What an important and beautiful opportunity to make our hearts stronger and more brave, to look honestly at what has been destroyed, and to work bravely toward repair.
It is important to keep in mind that teshuva is not a once-a-year activity. The immersive engagement with this process at this time of year sets us up for the year ahead, clarifying the focus, renewed energy, and specific goals that will guide us to live out teshuvah in fresh and concrete ways, to live into becoming the people and the nation we aim to be each day of the coming year.
Join me for a community program — Seeking Understanding: Jewish and Aboriginal Communities in Canada — at Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue, 470 Glencairn Avenue, on Tuesday, September 6th, at 7:30 pm. For more information and to register, please contact the synagogue.