If God was the gymnastics judge, losers could win gold. Every four years we are treated to the juxtaposition of the Summer Olympics and Season of Repentance. Both depend heavily on judgment, but very different kinds of judgment. Olympic gymnastics judgment is devoid of mercy. The athlete begins each routine with a perfect score for a flawless routine and then the judges subtract for each imperfection. The drama is the quest for perfection. Once points are lost, they can never be regained.
The judgment we are meant to experience in this season of Awesome Days is very different. The critical moment is not when our errors are revealed – as we pivot awkwardly, stumble and fall. Rather, what matters is what happens after we fall. The drama is how we continue in our lives after we have made mistakes and our imperfections are revealed and accepted.
The scoring of gymnastics is precise, logical and incremental. The calculus of repentance is ironic and generous in the extreme. In the Talmud (Brachot 34b) Rabbi Abbahu says: “In the place where the penitents stand, even the perfectly righteous do not stand.” In other words: one who sins and sincerely repents is at a higher spiritual level than one who never sinned. In our normal way of judging things, this is nonsensical. But this time of year we are invited to participate in a different kind of judgment that is filled with compassion. Compassionate judgment privileges learning from our mistakes above never making mistakes. In this system, the one who falls and gets back up with honesty and dignity is seen as being on a higher level than the one who never falls. Others may judge us on success or failure, we may be inclined to judge ourselves this way as well, but God judges us on our courage and humility when confronted with our failures.
The first question God asks the human being (and continues to ask) is: Where are you? (Genesis 3:9) Having eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the first couple’s consciousness has been transformed and they seem to have the new experiences of being embarrassed by their nakedness, ashamed of their disobedience and afraid of punishment. At that moment, the human beings hear that God is close, and so they hide to avoid being discovered and punished. God (who of course knows exactly where they are hiding) calls to them: Where are you?
This question of where we are spiritually is explicit in the greeting that begins the evening services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a quote from the Haftarah reading of Yom Kippur morning: “Shalom Shalom to those who are far and to those who are close says the LORD.” (Isaiah 57:19) The distance referred to is of course in relation to sin, righteousness and repentance. Some of us, or some parts of us, are very close and some are very far. In the synagogue when we begin with “Shalom Shalom” it sounds like a simple greeting: Shalom aleichem! “Peace be upon you!” In the context of Isaiah 57 they are words of comfort and encouragement: It will be well with you, you can become whole again whether you are near or far from sin or repentance. As I’ve described above, in the calculus of compassionate judgment, both those near and far can find forgiveness.
The point of all this of course is not speculation on some cosmic process, or the academic question of the rabbinic theology of repentance. The point is, how fully we are able to respond this year to the question: Where are you?
Rabbi Steven Lewis leads Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.