In a world where idols fall faster than we can blink an eye, it is hard to explain how yesterday’s leaders become today’s objects of disdain. Our vast cultural reckoning continues as we witness more public figures dismantled by the revelation of ugly episodes from their past.
Included in this ignominious list: abhorrent acts of racist behavior, the spewing of racial epithets, the unrepentant identification with white supremacy, unabashed sexism, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and so much more. Amid all of this ugliness, we parents must distill these events and their aftermath for our (older) children.
First and foremost, for every story of racial insensitivity we read, every instance of hatred we encounter, and every moment of prejudice we witness, we must begin with the uncompromising Jewish response found in Exodus: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
To this day, many of us in the Jewish community still are considered strangers, including and especially Jews of Color, LGBTQ Jews, and Jews with disabilities. Therefore, those of us with the power to do so must respond to the pain of marginalization and the sting of degradation so pervasive in our society today. We must remind our children that there is no “safe space” for racially charged humor and no “protected zone” for prejudicial commentary or bigoted observations. Such behavior betrays not only our Judaism but our humanity as well.
Still, we who have lived a few lives know that no one, adult or child, is beyond reproach; that no one will go through life without making mistakes. All of us have uttered words that hurt other people. All of us are guilty of playing the fool or using poor judgment. Thus, even as we reprimand those in high offices who have erred in the most despicable ways, we humbly recognize and remind our children of the human capacity to falter. As Jews, we strive for righteousness and compassion, but we admit there are times when we will miss the mark. Such is the reason we all stand for the confession on Yom Kippur; all of us have the capacity to do wrong, to break the rules, to go astray.
Yet in Judaism, we also recognize there is a pathway back, a marked road toward return, called t’shuvah, or repentance. T’shuvah, which comes from the root meaning “to turn,” suggests that turning away from wrongdoing and turning toward righteousness can lead to atonement. The hard work of t’shuvah includes acknowledging our wrongdoings, apologizing to those we have wronged, and committing to doing things differently the next time. T’shuvah is about making amends and demonstrating those amends through sincere language and sincere action. T’shuvah does not guarantee forgiveness, but it almost always is a step in the right direction.
Learning about t’shuvah is critical for our children, both as actors in and spectators of this world in which we live. They see so much misconduct and wrongdoing; they witness the very worst elements of corruption on an almost daily basis. Understanding the journey of t’shuvah provides a Jewish lens through which to examine our world and evaluate what they observe.
If children can understand the process of t’shuvah, they can apply its principles to the world at large and ask questions like: How does a public figure begin the process of t’shuvah? How do we measure one’s sincerity as it relates to t’shuvah? Are there actions so vile, so cruel, so appalling that they disqualify t’shuvah altogether? What are the limits and possibilities of t’shuvah in our world today?
It’s incredibly challenging for children and adults alike to watch figures they respected come undone with mistakes from their past. Though the courts of law and public opinion will ultimately decide their futures, the whole of Jewish tradition gives us a framework in which to understand these stories and the license to grapple with their meaning in our lives.
As we stand on the front lines of history, witnessing the newest and oldest forms of hatred resurging, we pray that the pain of our particular history never allows us to become complacent in these fights. All the while, we cling to the Jewish value of t’shuvah, to help us see in our broken world the potential for renewed relationships, restored dialogues, and the possibility for change.