It’s over. The Champagne bottles have been recycled, resolutions have already been broken and unwanted presents have been returned to the stores. We may now be wondering why we made such a big hoopla about another New Year Eve’s party. Many of us have made big new resolutions hoping for some real change this year but may be feeling like nothing has really been altered. Some may have been expecting a new beginning but already things feel like they always have. We may even be feeling a little let down, a bit empty. It is a new year but nothing seems to have changed.
At times like this, I wish more people who identify themselves as Christians or followers of Jesus knew more about the roots of their own tradition, Judaism. The Mother religion of our tradition has a very different kind of New Year called Rosh Hashanah. Jesus, or Yeshua, was a Galilean Jew. As should be expected, his teachings are heavily influenced by his own tradition and its teachers. For Jews, Rosh Hashanah is preceded with a long period of time for introspection. It’s time for looking back at the mistakes of the past year and thinking about those whom they may have harmed. This intentional self-inspection ends with the holiest of holidays, Yom Kippur, ten days later. The time in between is referred to as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance.
Understand that this is not a passive review. You are expected to seek out those whom you may have harmed because of your actions or lack of actions, and ask for forgiveness. When possible you are expected to try and right the wrongs you committed. It is an active, spiritual endeavor. First you must take responsibility. Second you are called to try and rectify when possible. There is also a component giving the harmed one an opportunity to offer forgiveness. This process can go on for the entire ten days.
Repentance, has become one of the most maligned and misunderstood words in the Christian tradition. When we think of the word we usually picture a TV evangelist pounding on the pulpit or shaking the Bible and yelling that if we don’t repent for our sins we are going to burn in hell. For many of us this picture conjures up bad memories and even pain. Over the centuries in the traditional church, the word repentance came to mean: “Fall on your knees and beg for forgiveness for your sins and ask Christ your Savior for forgiveness.”
In Hebrew, however, the word repent or Te-shuvah simply means to turn or change course. But the traditional implications of that instruction are far more complex. If you take it seriously, they are much more demanding. I would argue that repentance is a primary teaching of Jesus. For him it was not a one-time thing. It was something we must learn to do regularly as a way of life.
First it assumes one is willing to take the time to review one’s life over the past year and to be willing to ask, “where have I caused harm or pain? Where have I done damage to another or to another’s property?” Keep in mind, according to the Jewish tradition, not only should we take the entire ten days leading up to Yom Kippur to ponder our actions over the past year, but the tradition challenges its followers to start that process during all of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah.
I have often wondered why so many people try and maintain such busy lives with work, Facebook, emails, social clubs, and video games and then complain about their busy lives. Is it a subconscious effort to avoid reflecting on one’s life, to avoid thinking about our actions? Are we just too busy to make amends or to say I am sorry? I find it interesting that so many people who tell me they cannot sit for 20 minutes to meditate often seem like the people who could best use that time for reflection and their own happiness.
The second challenge in this process is we must assume responsibility. I did it and I have to correct it. The devil did not make me do it. My sinful nature did not make me do it. Jesus is not going to forgive me or correct it. It was me, a child of the Universe. There is no third party to take care of this suffering. And as part of the universe, if I want be at peace with that Infinite Mystery and I want to experience a sense of ultimate unity, I must make amends whenever possible.
Unfortunately Western civilization, especially in this country, has developed a culture of blame. The Republicans blame the Democrats and the Democrats blame the Republicans. Children blame their siblings and adults blame anybody they can. Employees blame their bosses and bosses blame their employees. This is one of the few places in the world where you can drink alcohol until you are staggering drunk, trip on an uneven sidewalk and then successfully sue the city. “It is not my fault” seems to be a first response syndrome that often keeps us trapped in our own unhappiness.
Finally, once we take responsibility, the ancient tradition for repentance assumes we will do something to correct the infraction. That can be scary, humbling, and possibly costly, but the process is not complete until we do that.
I once gathered a group of people who wanted to study and practice the teachings of Jesus during the Lenten season. The second session was on repentance and I was surprised by how many people thought it meant to admit they were sorry and to ask for God’s forgiveness. Most thought this could be done privately in a prayerful way. After we did a word study together they agreed it is a far more demanding idea than they originally thought. At one point everyone decided that if they wanted to truly experience the gift of the teaching, it was going to require some action on their part. We made the commitment to review our lives and pick one situation requiring our action or one place we needed to make amends. The next week, we talked about our reflections and explained a situation we each needed to address. Then we were determined to actually try and make contact with those whom we had harmed and ask for forgiveness and correct what we could.
Three out of the 12 people actually made contact. As I recall, it went very well. Most of the others were unable to go through with making the contact. Some just decided that couldn’t do it. Others…well you guessed it. They decided it wasn’t their fault after all.
Now let’s go back to our recently past New Year traditions. How different would we be feeling right now if we had spent the week before this New Year making amends with those whom we had harmed or with whom we had a conflict during the year? How different would we be feeling if we had slowed our pace enough for some serious reflection about our actions over the year and truly began to take responsibility for our sometimes unthoughtful behavior.
Jesus offered these teachings as a way to experience something he may have referred to as the Kingdom of God or the Commonwealth of God. Neil Douglas-Klotz suggests the term in Aramaic would best be translated as Queendom of God or the Reign of Unity. Whatever we call it, most scholars today are confident he was not referring to a place but rather an experience, something both internal and external. We can choose to ignore the tough and challenging teachings and party all we want on New Year’s Eve. But if we really want to experience Sacred Unity, the Oneness of all, here and now, we might decide to take these challenging teachings a little more seriously and courageously. It is not easy I might add.
But it is still a new year and there is plenty of time to start a new-old tradition. The season of Lent might be a good time to start the process based on the real and challenging lessons of our common teacher, our Rabbani.
Turn again! Return to unity with Unity,
like the sea flowing back to shore, in ebb and tide.
The empowering vision,
the “I-Can” of the cosmos,
the reign of all that vibrates,
the queendom of heaven
arrives at this moment!
It draws near, touching us,
Carrying us away,
wrenching us back into rhythm
with the vibration of One.
(An alternative reading of Matthew 3:2 and 4:17. Neil Douglas-Klotz, The Hidden Gospel, 1999)