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Finding Our Lost Hearts: the practice of radical t'shuvah

A Yom Kippur Sermon

The last scene of the Disney movie Moana is one of the most powerful endings I’ve seen in a children’s movie. Moana is a teenage Polynesian girl, heir to her father’s island chiefdom. As blight begins to destroy her island, she is called across the ocean to return the stolen heart of the Goddess Te Fiti and restore life. After many adventures, Moana battles a Lava monster to get close enough to the goddess to return her heart – only to see with shock that the place for the missing heart is not on the mountain where she thought it was, but rather in the center of the Lava monster’s chest.

Moana does not shy away. She tells the ocean, “Let her come to me,” and the ocean opens a path for the monster. As this terrifying being lurches toward Moana, Moana sings to her: “I have crossed the horizon to find you. I know your name. They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this does not define you. This is not who you are – you know who you are.” The Lava monster approaches and closes her eyes as though in recognition. Moana places the bright green heart in the monster’s chest, and the movie ends with a gorgeous scene of the monster transforming back to her essence as the goddess – green, fertile, abundant, beneficent - and the whole region flourishing once more.

The scene from Moana is a vision of radical t’shuvah – a profound return to one’s core after terrible loss or distortion. Like the Goddess Te Fiti receiving her heart and remembering who she really is, t’shuvah is a process of returning to our own hearts. T’shuva comes from the Hebrew root shin, vav, vet, which means to turn or return. It is often translated as repentance, but that is too one dimensional to be the whole translation. T’shuva is a process of radical return to our root, to our Essence, to right relationship between us and our highest selves, between us and God, between us and others, between us and society. In a great English word play, we might translate t’shuvah as atonement – but then creatively reread atonement as at-one-ment. T’shuva is a reset button to whole-heartedness. It involves self-reflection, making restitution for wrongs we have caused to others, asking and granting forgiveness, and finding our true nature again.

Our liturgy teaches us that three things help mitigate the harshness of the divine decree when we are judged on Rosh Hashanah – t’shuva, t’filla, and tzedakah. T’shuva, prayer, and righteous giving all help us live well despite any hardships that might come our way.

This year, we search for insight into how radical t’shuvah can bring healing to our inner selves, to our relationships to the people closest to us, and to the imbalances, fear, hatred, inequality, and chaos we see and experience around us in our country. The mystics teach adam olam katan, olam adam gadol. A person is a microcosm of the world, and the world is a macrocosm of a person. Everything we do in our personal and inner worlds affects the broader world, and the broader world affects us. The t’shuvah we do inside ourselves helps the balance of the world, and in turn the world affects our t’shuvah. Only we know what t’shuvah we need to do in our personal lives – relationships that need tending, habits that need changing, forgiveness that needs granting. And we are all aware that there is SO much t’shuvah we need to do on a societal scale. Just last week I watched the movie 13th. The film details how the vicious racism of slavery has been reincarnated systemically throughout American history, and how its current incarnation is mass incarceration and violence against black and brown bodies. There are enormous life and death stakes of not doing communal t’shuvah for the sins of history. 

The point I want to make today is not that t’shuvah is easy, or that it is obvious, but rather that even when we or our world seem as far gone as a Lava monster, t’shuvah is possible.

Jewish texts teach some very specific practices for doing t’shuvah between us and others. The mishna teaches us that the day of Yom Kippur itself affects t’shuva for misdeeds we have done between us and God, but that anything we have done to harm another person or people needs something more. For those wrongs, it is not even enough to pay the person back if we have stolen. We must also ask for forgiveness. The interpersonal relationship is as, if not more, important than the material. If the person we wronged won’t forgive us, we are to go and ask three times. After the third time, we are off the hook. If the one we wronged dies before we can reconcile, we are to go with a minyan of ten people to their grave, pay restitution if needed to the surviving relatives, and say, “I have sinned against God and against this one, whom I have hurt.” Here we can see that asking forgiveness of another is as much, if not more, for the one who did the wrong as for the one who was wronged.

Now, what if a person or group of people wrongs us but does not ask for forgiveness? What if they do something terribly hurtful and don’t know it, or don’t acknowledge it?  To address this question we turn to another vital Jewish concept called tochecha, often translated as rebuke. Tochecha is, in some ways, a sister mitzvah to t’shuvah. It is giving constructive feedback to others about what they have done. And, like t’shuvah, there is an art to giving tochecha. We are not to give it when we are still upset, nor give it in a way that would humiliate the other.

Maimonides has a teaching that connects the practices of t’shuvah and tochecha. According to Maimonides, there are 24 kinds of sins that you cannot do t’shuvah for. Four of these are so bad that God will not forgive you… a concept I find very troubling, but for our purposes here also illustrative. Each of the four has to do in some way with allowing or encouraging another person to sin. The one that sticks out most to me is “the sin of everyone who has the possibility to protest against others, whether individuals or many, and does not protest against them but leaves them to their stumbling.” In other words, according to the Maimonides, when we see troubling behavior, or perhaps systemic oppression, and we do not give tochecha, we do not stand up, that is an unforgivable error. Because others have, as it were, done wrong on our watch we cannot fully do t’shuvah for this.

When we care about the world and want to change it, or when we care about other people and want to change them (always potentially problematic!) we have the challenge of acting from a place of deep integrity and balance so that we do not accidentally cause harm in our attempts to heal.

The Noam Elimelech, an 18th century founder of the Hasidic movement, has a remarkable teaching on this challenge. He teaches that when a tzaddik, a righteous person, wants to help another person do t’shuvah for a wrongdoing, the tzaddik must struggle with the same sin within herself and do t’shuvah for it. Only by doing her own inner work on the same sin can the tzaddik inspire others to do the same. In our own lives, this might mean that if we are struggling with a child’s temper tantrums, we spend some time feeling the places of uncontrollable rage inside us, accepting that place as part of our humanity, and noticing what can change and heal there. Or if a spouse is driving us crazy with micromanaging, we might journal or reflect on our own desires for control. If we are in close relationship with that child or that spouse, our own inner work may have a sort of sympathetic influence on our loved one. By not demonizing the parts of us that remind us of their shortcomings we have a better chance of not demonizing them. And when we don’t demonize our loved ones, there may be room for them to change and grow through t’shuvah.

The same radical principle can apply to the public sphere. Rabbi Mordechai Leibling, a colleague in the D.C. area, described what he experienced in Charlottesville:

On one side of us hundreds of white supremacists were shouting “You will not replace us” and on the other side hundreds of anti-fascists were chanting “Nazi scum.” We were about 50 clergy people, of many denominations, bearing witness and being a moral presence for love and justice. We were all crowded into the width of one street. It was frightening.

Rabbi Leibling goes on: Despite the obvious difference in their goals, the resemblance between the two groups around us was striking: largely millennials, angry looking, most wearing helmets, taunting the other side, some carrying shields and carrying signs with swastikas. The greatest visible difference was that white supremacists were 99% white male while the anti-fascists were across all gender lines and mixed race; and of course, the anti-fascist signs had negative words prefacing their swastikas. (

Rabbi Leibling’s group, which I am proud to say included many rabbis and rabbinical students, were there to stand up for love and nonviolence in a way that was both loving and nonviolent. They were calling out that the neo-Nazis were wrong and dangerous – but the call came from a place of calm and peace within the group. It took wherewithal and preparation to stay physically safe in this dangerous environment, but the group was not adding to the violence.


It is especially hard, whether facing triggering family at home or frightening groups in the public square, to hold this kind of stance. We go into fight, flight, or freeze quickly. Blood rushes to our faces. Our breathing gets shallow and our hearts race. And of course, there are some situations where it may be appropriate to act in self-defense.

Yet staying calm in the midst of the trigger is of ultimate value – for at the very least we can be sure we will not be adding to the problem, and at the most we have a chance to help de-escalate the situation and build connections.  Rabbi Leibling writes, “I bring to this the perspectives of a rabbi, the son of Holocaust survivors and the grandson of those murdered by Nazis. We are faced with a difficult challenge: we cannot tolerate white supremacy and we must listen to the fear and pain that many of its supporters carry.”

This is a similar teaching to the Noam Elimelech. How do we affect healing in someone else, over whom we fundamentally have no control? We start by not demonizing the other, by calling out their actions as wrong but seeing the potential for t’shuvah in the bleakest places. We start by identifying the parts of our own psyches that are terrified and are traumatized, that hate those who spew hate at us. When we can treat these parts of ourselves with compassion and negotiate with them, we can stand up for our values from a place of strength and love and nonviolence, and contribute to our own healing and – just perhaps – the healing of those who are perpetuating hate. This is the teaching of the discipline of nonviolence.

We come back for a moment to the image of the Lava monster, lurching toward Moana: She is truly a creature from the best of Disney’s horrors – her gangling limbs are made of lava, she is absolutely gigantic, with terrifying glowing eyes. She crawls across the movie screen straight out of a nightmare. But then there is Moana, a character whose great power turns out not to be how well she navigates the oceans but her ability to notice the gaping place in the monster’s chest where a heart should be. This is radical t’shuvah, and we can do it with ourselves, with our loved ones, and just maybe with society at large.

After Charlottesville I received an email forwarded from a friend who is involved in a national men’s group that does transformative personal work with its members. One of the men, whom I will call by the pseudonym Sean, wrote an email that really blew my mind. He describes his former life as a neo-Nazi: giving the salute, wearing a Confederate flag on his high school backpack, blaming minorities for his problems, holding the “deep rooted fear that people were taking white peoples jobs, killing our white bloodlines, flooding our streets with poison, and all the other reasons the hate exists.”

Sean’s described in his email how he was incarcerated for violence, how he was admired in jail for having committed a hate crime, and how eventually upon release he was introduced to the men’s group and began to do what we would call t’shuvah between himself and God.

I had support there from the staff men that brought me [to the men’s group]. They knew I was confused. I wasn't afraid. I wasn't angry. I was learning. I was learning about my impacts in the world I had chosen to live in for so long. 

He goes on to say:

First I had to forgive myself for not knowing a different way to live. Next I had to accept the fact that a man as powerful as I am doesn't get to blame others for my reality. I steer this ship. I make big moves. I influence people. I can be good or I can be bad. Either way... my ship, I steer it. 

In Sean’s case, his t’shuvah with other people involves encouraging the men’s group to help rehabilitate people like himself, and giving individual tochecha – rebuke -  to people in his life who are perpetuating hate.

He describes an incident in which a friend of his yelled a racial epithet: I told him the 1930's called and wants their mentality back. He asked what I was talking about. I told him he just yelled a [racial epithet]... I reminded him that kind of thinking isn't normal anymore and he needs to find better words to use. He laughed. I didn't. He asked if I was serious. I said yes. He asked if I was a hippie. I said no. He said he feels terrible. I said you should. He's still my …friend. He will think better next time.

Sean is man who lived as far from our shared values at Temple Sinai as you can get, yet found his missing heart and did the inner work of t’shuvah. The potential for t’shuvah – which doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen, but the potential for t’shuvah –is there within the monster. If a person who committed a hate crime, carried a Confederate flag on their high school backpack, and blamed minorities for all his problems could do this kind of inner transformation kal vachomer – how much more so –can we change the habits of mind and heart that are holding us back this year?

Psalm 27, a psalm for the Days of Awe, has a line that puzzles and allures me each year: L’cha amar libi bakshu phanai. Et panecha Adonai avakesh. To you my heart said, Seek my face! It is your face God that I seek. Our hearts and God are in a dance of lover and beloved, constantly seeking each other, losing sight of each other, catching a glimpse, running to each other, embracing, losing track of each other, over and over again.

T’shuvah is not a one time deal. Chinese medicine teaches that the measure of health is not whether you get sick or not – it is how easily you recover when you do. T’shuvah is like this. We will mess up. We will lose our way. We will find monsters in our own hearts and we will encounter them in the hearts of others. Our task as Jews is to remember that radical t’shuvah is always an option, and to choose that option even when it is scary, painful, and difficult. The process of returning the goddess Te Fiti’s heart was scary, painful, and difficult for Moana. But Polynesia unfolds into green and fertile abundance once it is returned.  So may it be for us, so may it be for our communities, and so may it be for our hurting nation. Gamar Chatimah tova – may we be sealed in the book of Life!



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