"Cleaning Up Our Shmootz"
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chaim Progressive Synagogue
I recently went to a pre-Rosh Hashanah lunch at a retirement home and delivered a talk regarding the major themes of the Yamim Noraim – the days of Awe, or High Holy Days. I wanted to emphasise the importance of Rosh Hashanah as being more than apples and honey, round challah and a family meal. Don’t get me wrong, I like my apples and honey and round challah as much as the next person, but like all Jewish festivals, the food we eat and the symbols we associate with the festival carry with them a far greater meaning.
I was discussing the brilliance of our ancestors’ wisdom declaring the month of Elul, the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah, to be a month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days. Just like we don’t play a sport or instrument without warming up and practicing, just like we don’t give a big presentation to a client without thoughtful preparation, our ancestors advised us that we should NOT come to Rosh Hashanah unprepared.
So, what is the preparation we need to do? The way I explain it, our preparation is a good old fashioned spiritual clean out. Just as white represents “clean” and is more vulnerable to showing shmootz if we spill something on it, we wear white during the Yamim Noraim to represent the cleansing of our souls, making us more vulnerable to the shmootz that has tarnished our spirits over the year, or years.
How do we clean out this shmootz? First, we must take the time to recognise our wrongs, whether someone has pointed them out to us, or we know them already within ourselves.
Secondly, we must be bothered by it. If we merely recognise the shmootz is there, knowing that we have wronged or hurt someone, but really don’t care, we won’t bother wiping our shmootz away. If we regret it, or are bothered by what we’ve done, we are more likely to clean up our mess.
Thirdly, we must do the dirty work and clean it up. We must reconcile the wrongs that we’ve done the best way we can.
The wrongs may or may not leave a permanent stain, but if we make an effort to “clean them up,” the shmootz will fade.
And finally, we must endeavour to be more careful in the future, and refrain from making the same mistakes again.
This is the process involved in a spiritual clean out. This is the process involved in Tshuvah – Recognise, Regret, Reconcile, and Refrain. This is the Jewish way to repent and cleanse our souls.
This concept of tshuvah should be no surprise for you, as I repeat it every year. It is THAT important and we could all use a reminder. But what was most interesting for me this year was my conversation with this retirement community. Many of the residents seemed to think that the process of tshuvah didn’t apply to them, that they were done with their reconciliation.
One woman, in her mid to late 80’s raised the question: ‘what happens if the person who we wronged or who wronged us is no longer with us?’. The answer is simple – we cannot reconcile with them.
However, the process of tshuvah is both interpersonal, between people, and intrapersonal, within ourselves. If the person whom we wronged, or who wronged us, is no longer with us, and we are still feeling the pain or the guilt, we have some reconciliation to do with ourselves.
We must ask ourselves: What will it take to best reconcile and heal that wound? Why have we really let it linger this long? Are we merely trying to ignore the pain or is something else going on? Do we blame ourselves? What are we doing to impede the process of healing? What do we gain by holding on to the pain and anger? What do we lose by holding on to the pain and anger? Are we letting that historic experience define us today, holding us back from who we prefer to be?
Whatever it is, this is the time of year to confront whatever is bothering us and clean up the shmootz. The fact that its memory lingers and still weighs us down, is reason enough to act upon it. We so easily feel compassion for others who do wrong, but so often struggle to give ourselves that same level of care.
How do we do this? First, give ourselves credit for recognising it. Second, acknowledge the hurt, distress or pain. Third, the hardest, ask what it will take to truly forgive ourselves for it. We need and deserve to reconcile with ourselves, so we can remove this stain on our soul, or at least do our best to help it fade. We must liberate ourselves from the continuous feeling of being wronged or being tormented by guilt.
In this way, we can clean up our shmootz long after the damage has been done.
However, sometimes, it takes a while before we can honestly confront the shmootz. Sometimes, the pain is too great; it’s easier to ignore it. But if we let it sit there too long, we can be left with a permanent stain, or worse, the damage could eat away at our protective covering, leaving us vulnerable or hardened.
Sometimes, if we wronged a person who is no longer with us, although we cannot gain forgiveness from that person, we can learn from our mistakes and ensure we don’t wrong another in the same way. If we have left things unsaid, we can still say them now, in our hearts and minds, in a letter whose address will not reach a physical destination, but whose content and meaning may be sent in another dimension. Who knows where it will go or be received? In these ways, we can work towards tshuvah, a transformation and reconciliation within ourselves.
Sometimes, if the person who wronged us is no longer with us, we cannot forgive them, but we can work towards letting go and not continually punishing ourselves with the anger and resentment. We can act by helping others we see going through a similar situation.
We can try to prevent others from experiencing the same pain we did, or emerge from the experience with less shmootz, knowing that we’re there to help clean it up with them.
We can also rebuke a person acting in a similar way that someone acted towards us. The Torah teaches:
הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא
“You shall surely rebuke your neighbour, and not bear sin because of him or her” (Lev. 19:17). If we see a wrong being done and say nothing, it is as if we are guilty; thus we can speak up as another way of not only preventing others from being wronged, but also as a way of making intrapersonal tshuva – helping heal ourselves while helping others.
I have yet to meet a person who has not experienced tzuris or broigus of some kind or another within the family or between friends. There always seems to be someone whose feathers are ruffled, or this person who isn’t speaking to that person because of something that happened ages ago. Who knows? You may be that someone, or that person. But it doesn’t matter who is hurt or angry, or who caused the hurt or anger, because the outcome is the same – a fractured relationship where everyone loses. Our tradition teaches:
לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ
You shall not hate your brother in your heart (Lev. 19:17). Hatred and anger are like cancer that eats away at us from the inside.
One person I spoke with recently said his sisters get along, but their husbands can’t stand each other. So, the sisters catch up on their own, but the families never do anything together, and the children lose out. Another person I spoke with recently told me that she hasn’t spoken to her brother in decades. She’s tried to reach out many times over the years, but the door has always been shut in her face, so she’s given up. How many of us are in a similar situation, or know someone in a similar situation? Sadly, this is not so uncommon. How do we reconcile when the other person is unwilling?
Like the person who is no longer with us, the short answer is that we cannot reconcile with someone who is not willing or ready to reconcile with us. What we can do is reconcile with ourselves, so it does not continue to eat away at us. Whereas, it is normal and natural to be angry and hurt after an altercation however big or small; it is NOT healthy to carry it with us. When we drop some shmootz on our clothes initially, the stain will be dark and noticeable, but should fade or disappear over time. If our shmootz is as dark and noticeable long after the mess occurred, something is very wrong. So, what’s the best stain remover in this situation?
If only there was a ‘one-product-fixes-all’, or one solution that mends all our fractured relationships. But life is not so simple.
Our rabbis teach that if a person has wronged another, that person is required to make tshuvah, to apologise and ask for forgiveness, to reconcile the wrong that they have done. It may be, that the person who has been wronged is not ready to forgive at first. That’s ok. That’s also natural. So, again, the wisdom of our ancient rabbis allowed for the person to come back three times to seek forgiveness and reconcile the relationship. If, after 3 sincere and considerate attempts to make tshuvah, the apology is not accepted, the chet, the sin, the wrong, is transferred to the person who was originally wronged, for now, holding a grudge becomes the sin.
Chaim Yonkel loved his brother more than anything. They were raised in a big family that had very little money, but lots of heart and love. All the children grew up; some got married, but Chaim Yonkel, as the youngest, was left to look after his parents. One day, their mother became seriously ill and was taken to hospital.
Chaim Yonkel received a message that his brother Shlomi gave a directive to the doctors. Something went seriously wrong, and their mother died. Blaming his brother, Chaim Yonkel marched straight over to Shlomi’s house and began screaming at him in front of his wife and children, accusing him of only thinking about himself, of never caring about his parents, his wife, his children or anyone in his family. He went on berating him, telling him he was selfish his whole life and that he was responsible for their mother’s death. As you can imagine, the tension was palpable. Then, Chaim Yonkel stormed out.
Weeks later, Chaim Yonkel found out that it was not Shlomi who went to speak to the doctor, but rather a different brother. And, it was discovered that their mother died of an aneurism, totally random, not at all connected to the directive given by the other brother. Chaim felt terrible. He replayed all the horrible words he said to his brother, Shlomi…and in front of his wife and children! Oy! How was he going to make this right?
He wrote a beautiful heartfelt letter apologising for his false accusations, rude manner and hurtful words. Shlomi did not respond. Chaim waited a few months and gave his brother a call which was not returned. Months passed. Chaim felt miserable.
He reached out to his brother again. This time, his brother answered the phone and told him that his wife left him, his children won’t talk to him, and he would never ever forgive him for what he’d done. He said there was no way to undo what had been done.
Years went by. Chaim Yonkel heard that his brother remarried and was doing well. He sent a mazel tov card to his brother and heard nothing. Another few years passed, and Chaim went to his brother’s home on his mother’s yartzeit and tried to make peace. Again, his brother refused to hear him or even look at him. His new wife and child didn’t even know that he had a brother named Chaim Yonkel.
Chaim went to his rabbi to ask what he should do. His rabbi told him that he has done all he could. As he had sincerely attempted to reconcile with his brother more than three times, the sin now fell upon his brother. The sin of carrying a grudge. For one cannot reconcile with a person who does not want to reconcile.
Chaim smiled meekly, but did not feel any better. The rabbi then wisely said, you must now work on forgiving yourself. You recognise what you did was wrong, and you regret it terribly. You recognise that you were acting out of grief and anger.
You’ve worked hard to not make judgements before hearing all the facts. You’ve worked hard on controlling your temper. You’ve tried numerous times to reconcile with your brother whom you love. It’s time to forgive yourself.
You’re also carrying around the guilt of embarrassing him in front of his children and contributing to the demise of his marriage. You cannot be responsible for how people respond, only for what you do, thus act carefully.
You feel guilty for letting your parents down, for not being able to mend the break in your brother’s relationship, which would tear your parents’ hearts out if they were alive. Again, you cannot be responsible for all people and how they feel.
Your parents would be proud that you recognised what you did wrong and tried to reconcile and change your behaviour. You’re a good person who did something wrong, really wrong. We all make mistakes, which is why G-d gave us the process of tshuvah, to find our way back to doing the right thing. It’s time to forgive yourself. Your brother may or may not be ready to let go of his anger. You can only make sure that if, or when he is, you will be ready to embrace him with a whole heart. Now, it’s time to embrace yourself with a whole heart.
הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם
Turn us to You, O G-d, and we shall be turned;
renew our days as of old.
Let us transform and reconcile with ourselves and renew our spirits to their cleansed state.
Choir sings “Hashivenu”
Aleinu p. 43