We have seen many examples this year of confession, vows and promises made in public. Sports figures, politicians, entertainers. Anthony Weiner, Bob Filner, Paula Deen and Ryan Braun — just a few among the many who come to mind for their acknowledgments of wrongdoing this past year. The majority fall short from the perspective of true contrition, because most have two features in common.
First is the desire to do some “damage control,” to protect their public image, not to mention their corporate sponsors, donors or shareholders.
The other element often seen is a feeling of anger at having been caught and at being held accountable for actions that might have been going on for quite some time but are only now revealed under the intense spotlight of media attention and scandal.
Maybe I’m taking a cynical view of these public confessions. Admittedly, it cannot be pleasant for the celebrities who are forced to make them. But it usually seems they’re simultaneously apologizing for past transgressions and planning their glorious comeback, with little commitment to change.
From a Jewish standpoint, words truly matter. Think of all the words of the machzor that have crossed our lips this High Holy Days season, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. “Ashamnu” (we have sinned …). Al chet (for our wrongdoing …). Shlach lanu (forgive and pardon us …).
But it is not only the words that count. Words can be convenient. Emotions and feelings are easily faked. It is the deeds that demonstrate true contrition.
There is a hint to this process of teshuvah (true repentance) in the Torah portion read in Reform practice on the morning of Yom Kippur. Deuteronomy 29 to 30 speaks of the Torah that is “not too hard for you, nor too remote. It is not in Heaven that you should say, ‘who will go up for us to Heaven to bring it down. …’”
Then comes a critical statement: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it (la’asoto).” Literally, what we need to do is close to us. It’s in our mouths, the words that we say in our worship and beyond. It’s in our hearts, the thoughts that we have, which maybe go even deeper than the words that we bring to our lips.
The big question is whether we will be able to complete the statement. La’asoto, “that you may do it.” Yom Kippur is a day of many pledges, of myriad promises. It is crucial that words lead to action. The Kotzker Rebbe put it this way: “You do not fulfill your obligation by that which is in your mouth and in your heart. That which is in your mouth and your heart is for you to do.”
The Prophet Isaiah urges us in the Yom Kippur haftarah to move from words and rituals to action: “Is not this the fast I look for? To unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Md.