Dvar for Yom Kippur 5783: Renewing Balance After Injustice (R. David)

Summary: “Justice, justice you will pursue” – but what about renewing balance despite the worst kinds of injustices we can imagine?

Gut yontif on this Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, or “At-One-Ment,” when we say that our souls and lives hang in the balance.  

For centuries, our ancestors harnessed Yom Kippur’s power to inspire life-changing, soul-healing leaps of faith.  If ever we needed leaps of faith, it’s now.  All of us alive today feel how imbalanced our world is now – ecologically, economically, politically and spiritually.  

Often my Yom Kippur message before Yizkor is something about death – memory, ancestry, near-death experiences, ultimate meaning.  But after these years infused with death, near-death and collective fear of death, this year I feel moved to speak instead about life – and our Yom Kippur calling to repair, rebalance and forgive.

Recently a rabbi friend shared that they felt stuck on forgiveness.  They didn’t know how to forgive the unrepentant – conspiracists, hate mongers, sowers of corruption.  They felt torn.  After all, forgiveness without repentance and repair is a misnomer: real teshuvah asks best effort to take responsibility and make repair – far more than apologize. Yet the soul’s drive to forgive is powerful because teshuvah is about our yearning to “return” to our best selves, each other and God.  We yearn to unfreight and realign, but hurt and pain can get in the way.

So, my friend asked, what about our hurt from the unrepentant and toxic?  How do we re-balance without their validation and repair?

My heart sank – for my friend, for all of us, and also for myself.  Amidst so much unrepentant hurt and toxicity swirling around, I knew that I’d stand before you on Yom Kippur, my friend’s question on my heart, knowing that it also might be yours, knowing that this question touches Yom Kippur’s core and this year’s theme – balance, Tiferet.

Anger that powers change can be productive and healthy to draw boundaries, stop wrongful conduct and propel us forward. On the other hand, centuries of spiritual wisdom teach us to release unproductive anger – the stagnant corrosive kind – because ultimately it poisons us.  It’s easier said than done – and even harder if we feel that releasing anger would be tantamount to accepting the unacceptable, or forgiving before we are ready, or before real teshuvah happens.

Today I’d like to introduce three people who suffered profound injustice and wrestled about releasing anger – even with no apology.  What they taught offers a path to renew balance in our troubled times. 

Meet Fred Terna.  I met Fred at an event this summer.  Today he’s 99 years old; back in the 1930s, he was a teen in Prague.  Nazis enslaved Fred in concentration camps at Lipa, Terezin, Auschwitz and Dachau.  At liberation in 1945, Fred was 22 and weighed 78 pounds.  

After the war, Fred looked for his family, but they were gone.  He studied art, then immigrated to New York.  His art engaged with the trauma of humanity’s inhumanity:

While Fred painted memories that no words could describe, he “quickly realized,” he said years later, that:

Part of me was still in the camps, [so] I changed to painting landscapes. Later, I noticed that there were walls and fences in many of them.  It taught me that the memory of the Holocaust was a part of me, and that it would not go away, and that I would have to live with it.

How he learned to “live with it” became his life story.  He went on to become a Holocaust educator and internationally acclaimed artist.  Fred still climbs up to his fifth-floor art studio in his Brooklyn brownstone, bringing canvas to life.

I had the honor to sit with Fred this summer, his Auschwitz tattoo on his bare forearm.  Fred beamed with life – all joy, no evidence of anger.  I asked him how he did it – how he lived so creatively and joyfully after more memory and pain than I ever could imagine.

Fred took my hand.  In his piercing eyes I felt like I was looking back in time to his ancestors, yours and mine.  After a time, he said:

It’s always with me: it’s never not with me.  But you decide that what happened is actually not unusual: it’s all part of life, and you’re alive!  To live as a victim is to live dead.  So yes, inside me is a crazed double bass playing a haunting tune.  I decided to play a fiddle above it so there should be some harmony to my life.  I live with memory by adding to memory, by living into one ‘and’ after another: Auschwitz and art, and love, and passion, and service.   That way, there is life.

[This sense of and – the role of and in helping restore balance in our lives – was our subject on Erev Rosh Hashanah.]

After speaking, Fred went silent – the kind of silence that incubates more.  He looked away for a moment, as if looking back 80 years, then said:

And by adding, we become our own teshuvah, even without an apology.  We become our own repair.

Fred found balance not from someone else’s teshuvah, but from his own.  He found balance not by subtracting memory, but by adding. And he found balance without any help from the guilty.  The Nazis didn’t apologize.  Hitler didn’t apologize: he was dead.  And besides, what repair could restore Fred and his family to how they were before?  There was no going back.

So Fred went forward.  He harnessed the power of evil for good.  And at age 65, like a modern Abraham and Sarah, Fred and his wife had a son.  And they named him Daniel, in Hebrew “God is my judge.”  

Why?  Fred said, “It’s more important to become a tradition than to have a tradition: of all people, it’s on us to break the cycle of anger.”

Fred Terna, 99, prophet of DIY teshuvah and renewing the balance we call Tiferet.

Next, please meet Michelle Douglas, whom I met during my recent service trip to Canada’s capital.  Here is Michelle’s story:

Yes, Michelle sued Canada for discrimination against LGBTQ+ (or, in Canada, LGBTQ2S) persons in the military.  She sued all the way back in 1990 – four years before Pres. Clinton enacted the U.S. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in 1994, 15 years before Canada enacted marriage equality in 2005, and 25 years before the U.S. Supreme Court followed in 2015 – so Michelle was a trailblazer for North America.  That the government of Canada settled surprised even Michelle.

It was teshuvah of sorts – validation, some repair – but her story wasn’t done.  When I sat with Michelle in Ottawa, I asked how she felt at that time.  A “larger than life” national hero teared up, then said:

I was angry – for what happened to me, and to others I’ll never know.  Some died before justice came.  Others suffered silently.  I didn’t know what to do with my anger: after all, I got justice.  I felt drawn to Jews and others marginalized in society, to bear witness and common cause in honoring the dignity of all – and with them, the dignity of Canada.

With allies, Michelle realized that full teshuvah was unfinished until Canada paid reparations to unknown victims and apologized as publicly as the harm.  Money came: Michelle now runs a reparations fund – on a per capita scale, our U.S. equivalent of $162 million – to invest in repairs to dignity on behalf of unknown victims.  Every time she disbursed money, Michelle said, her anger transformed into hope.

A public apology would take 27 years.  In 2017, Michelle came to Canada’s Parliament for a 30-minute speech by the Prime Minister apologizing for what Canada had done.  Here is its final moments:

A nation’s dignity came by repairing its wrongs, then apologizing.  But by the time a public apology came, Michelle’s anger was gone, long ago transformed by her own repair.

Our third guest is Jeffrey Deskovic.  He’s my age and from my home county in New York.  At age 17, Jeff was tried and convicted for raping and murdering a high school classmate.  He spent the next 16 years in prison, insisting all the while that he was innocent.  

After spending half his life in prison, Jeff was exonerated in 2006 when evidence at the scene matched the DNA of someone else. 

Imagine if you were imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit.  How would you feel?  What apology ever could make you whole?

Jeff never got an apology. 

He sued for wrongful conviction and won a $10 million award.  Jeff used the proceeds for college and then law school.  He invested the rest in a foundation to reform criminal justice and help convicts believed to be actually innocent.

Years later, Jeff described what it was like to be a teenager in prison for a crime he knew he didn’t commit:

I was angry for the first week, and then I felt like this anger was destroying me: y’know, I’ve got to let this go.  I lost so much and I don’t want to, in effect, lose the rest of my life.  [So] I take that energy and channel it, and it fuels the advocacy work that I do.

Three different injustices, three different people, one common message.  To carry ourselves as victims of injustice is to live as if dead – and we’re alive!  Injustice is not so rare, and we can choose how to be.  Anger is normal and sometimes healthy – rocket fuel to propel us forward – but unproductive anger is poison and keeps us stuck, off balance, not truly living.  Important as repairs and apologies are both practically and spiritually – and it’s on us to do all we can to name and heal what we’ve helped to break – healing after an injustice is not mainly about someone else’s teshuvah.  Healing after an injustice we perceive was done to us is about our own teshuvah – releasing unproductive anger while transforming wrongs into right by whatever means we can.

We don’t need to be international painters, or national heroes, or nonprofit leaders.  Fred, Michelle and Jeff were not born privileged, or made of anything much different than you and me.  The School of Hard Knocks taught them, refined them, galvanized them and deployed them into a new kind of living. 

So too for us. We’ve all experienced injustice, wrongs, slights – and we’ve all perpetrated them.  Repairs and apologies for what we did can go a long way toward helping the people we wronged – and we must.  That’s Canada’s story.  If we carry around hurt and anger from injustices we believe were done to us, it’s still on us to make repairs and seek balance anew in what ways we can – even without validation or reparation: that’s Fred.  By lifting up the dignity of others: that’s Michelle.  By using our hurt to invest in ourselves and then others: that’s Jeff.  

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, teacher of my teachers, said this:

“Don’t be so parochial as to think that you need to die physically to have your next incarnation.  The planet needs us to do five or six lifetimes in one body.”

The injustices and wrongs of our times are profound, and dangerous.  We don’t yet know what the future will bring.  What we can know, what we can choose, is an orientation in life that makes of us new incarnations no matter what, to seek the rebalancing we call Tiferet.  That’s teshuvah, our return, whether we were wronged or did wrong.  

So claim that new life.  Don’t wait: claim your next incarnation now.  Take the leap of faith.  Start somewhere, however small, to harness wrong for right and hurt for healing.  As Pirkei Avot teaches, לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא עתה בן חורין להתבטל ממנה / “It’s not on us to finish the work, but we can’t refrain from it.”  The world needs our next incarnation now.  Or as Fred taught us, “It’s more important to become a tradition than to have a tradition: of all people, it’s on us to break the cycle of anger.”

May this Yom Kippur launch our new cycle of repair, return and rebalance – our Tiferet, and true teshuvah for ourselves, our loved ones and our world just waiting for us to turn..

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