Stalking True Atonement
Pulling our misdeeds out by their roots.
It's not that I mind giving charity to all and sundry, but I do mind being rooked. That's why my "don't think you can fool me" persona went on high alert when the girl approached our table at an outdoor cafe one evening this summer.
My husband and I were having supper with another couple, distant relatives from America. The girl wore blue jeans, a halter-top, dangling pink earrings that must have been six inches long, and gobs of makeup. Her hair was streaked with purple. I guessed that she was probably 16 years old. She mumbled that she belonged to a religious youth group called B'nei Akiva and that she was collecting for disadvantaged children, and she limply displayed her receipt book.
As an American living in Israel, I often miss the cultural clues that would save me from being conned. This time, however, I was savvy. I knew plenty of B'nei Akiva girls, and they didn't dress like that. In fact, at their meetings and when on "official business," they wear a uniform of a white top, blue skirt, and blue neckerchief. Because we were speaking English, this girl must have thought that we were tourists and thus easy marks. "Where's your uniform?" I quizzed her in Hebrew.
The girl shrugged.
"What chapter of B'nei Akiva are you in?" I prodded.
"Shechuna," she answered, surly.
Shechuna? This is a low-income neighborhood in Jerusalem, a neighborhood, I had heard, rife with drug addicts.
I took the receipt book and examined it. "B'nei Akiva" and something about disadvantaged children were printed in Hebrew beside the figure "5 shekels" (about $1.25). I turned to my husband and dinner companions. "Should we believe that she's really from B'nei Akiva?" I asked in English.
I was the best Hebrew speaker in the group. "It's your call," they told me.
Torah admonishes us not to close our hand or our hearts to our needy fellow, and requires that we give a minimum amount (enough to buy some item of food) to every individual who asks us. However, if someone is collecting for an organization, we're permitted to refuse.
I surveyed the girl uncertainly, debating within myself. "So what if she pockets the money for herself? If she lives in Shechuna, she herself is a disadvantaged child. But what if she uses the money for drugs or alcohol? Then I'll be guilty of contributing to her delinquency. Or what if she passes on the money to her drug-addict boyfriend?" The thoughts raced through my mind as the girl, her expression blasé, stood beside our table.
Finally my distrust prevailed. I handed the receipt book back to her and said, "I'm sorry. I don't believe that you're from B'nei Akiva."
She shrugged and turned away. For the rest of the dinner, I was plagued by second thoughts. What if her family needed the money for food or rent?
After parting from our relatives, my husband and I decided to walk home. On the way, we encountered two girls dressed in B'nei Akiva uniforms. One of them approached us and announced that she was collecting for disadvantaged children. She showed us her receipt book -- the same book the other girl had sported.
I felt like I had knocked a fragile crystal vase off a table, and now I stood there, disconcerted, staring at the broken pieces.
I paled. So, B'nei Akiva girls really were out collecting tonight. "What chapter are you from?" I asked.
"Shechuna," they replied.
"A girl claiming to be from your chapter approached us downtown," I told them urgently, "but she wasn't wearing a uniform."
The two girls nodded their heads knowingly. "We're supposed to wear our uniforms to meetings and whenever we're doing B'nei Akiva stuff. But most of the kids don't bother to. In fact, most of the kids in our chapter don't even come from religious families. B'nei Akiva started in our neighborhood as a kind of… I guess you'd call it… rehabilitation."
My heart sank. "Oh, no!" I thought. "I really blew it. Not only was she telling the truth, but she was trying to do a good deed, and I distrusted her." I felt like I had knocked a fragile crystal vase off a table, and now I stood there, disconcerted, staring at the broken pieces.
My husband reached into his pocket and gave the girls five shekels. As soon as they moved on, I asked him plaintively, "What do I do now?"
"Teshuva," he replied.
Teshuva or "turning around" is God's great, supernatural gift to humanity. Through it God gives us, who are the proud masters of our present and future, the keys to our past. By properly enacting the steps of teshuva, human beings can actually undo the damage they have done. They can repair the crystal vase to be as good -- or better -- than its original state.
For sins between us and God, teshuva entails three steps: Admitting we did wrong, feeling regret, and resolving not to repeat the sin. For sins between us and another person, there are two additional steps: Asking forgiveness and making restitution.
Standing there on that Jerusalem street, I realized instantly that these last two steps would pose formidable difficulties. To ask the girl's forgiveness, I would have to find her -- and I didn't even know her name. And to make restitution, to correct the wrong, I would have to personally hand her the five shekels donation, which meant descending into the depths of Shechuna.
All the way home, I mulled over the mechanics of asking forgiveness and making restitution. As it turned out, the mechanics, though problematical, were the easiest part of my teshuva process.
As soon as I got home, I went to my neighbor's daughter Netta, a counselor in B'nai Akiva. She knew the counselor of the Shechuna chapter and was willing to call her and explain my predicament.
As soon as Netta described the dangling pink earrings, Miri, the Shechuna counselor, identified the girl. Her name was Daphne, and I could find her at next Tuesday night's B'nei Akiva meeting. Miri gave Netta the address where the youth group met, a bomb shelter on a street I had never heard of.
I spent all that week dreading having to roam around Shechuna in the dark searching for the bomb shelter. When I finally got there, my efforts were for naught. Daphne didn't show up for the meeting.
The next Tuesday evening, I had a wedding to attend. The following Tuesday, Miri's cell phone was disconnected.
I was getting desperate. "Restitution" required making a donation to the cause Daphne was collecting for, but the fundraising campaign would not extend indefinitely. I had to get to Daphne before it was too late.
Since teshuva was eluding me, I sat down and considered what I was doing wrong. Perhaps I was being too facile in my approach. What precisely did I have to do teshuva on? Stinginess? Distrust? Skepticism?
My sin was not my refusal to make a donation, but rather my telling the girl that I didn't believe her.
I called my teacher, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, to discuss the matter. She explained that my sin was not my refusal to make a donation, but rather my telling the girl that I didn't believe her. In so doing, I had insulted her. Restitution would require building up her self-esteem to the extent I had damaged it. We decided that I should go to her home to ask forgiveness. Such a gesture on the part of an adult would be an ego boost to a teenager.
Everyday I tried calling Miri to get Daphne's address, but Miri's cell phone was out of commission. Finally, the following Tuesday, I got through.
Miri informed me that that very day was the final day of the fundraising campaign. The kids who had collected 200 shekels would get to go to Superland, Israel's biggest amusement park. No, Daphne had not collected enough. She was 70 shekels short and she had lost her receipt book, so there was no way for her to collect more money. Strangers would not give her donations without receipts, and apparently her own family did not have 70 shekels ($16) to contribute.
I was amazed. What Providence! I could give her the 70 shekels' donation! Perhaps this whole, long, drawn-out drama was just so Daphne would not be left out of the trip to Superland. What better way to bolster her self-esteem than to give her the satisfaction of having raised her quota and of being included in the prize?
Miri gave me Daphne's cell phone number. I called Daphne right away. Yes, she remembered me, the American woman at the cafe who didn't believe she was from B'nei Akiva. I told her I wanted to come to Shechuna that very afternoon to ask her forgiveness and to make a donation of 70 shekels. There was silence on the other end of the line. Finally, she said that that would be fine.
I told her that I didn't think I could find her house. We agreed to meet instead on the main thoroughfare that borders Shechuna. I breathed a sigh of relief. My teshuva was almost complete. And Daphne had fared better than if I had given her the five shekels at the cafe. The fixed vase was better than the original. Real teshuva!
Or so I thought.
As I drove to our rendezvous, my cell phone rang. It was Daphne. She had told her mother the story, and her mother wanted to see me. Her mother wanted me to come to their home. Her mother had a thing or two to tell me. Doing teshuva on this one, I realized like a school kid about to be thrashed, would be much harder than I thought.
I picked Daphne up on the main thoroughfare, and she guided me through the narrow back streets of Shechuna to her home. Her mother was sitting on the couch watching TV when we arrived. She did not get up to greet me.
She told me that she cleans houses for a living and her husband is a porter in a produce store and that they make an honest living and that I am not one whit better than they are.
Then she gestured toward Daphne, who was sitting on the second couch. Wearing neither make-up nor jewelry, she looked her real age, which, it turns out, was 14. "My kids aren't angels," her mother lectured me, "but they don't lie."
Behind every failure of action is a failure of character.
Instead of getting defensive at Daphne's mother's rebuke, I listened, truly listened. Then I realized that my teshuva had to go much deeper than I had imagined. Behind every failure of action is a failure of character. Daphne's mother was accusing me of feeling superior. The truth, I realized, mortified, was that I did.
It was my vaunted pride that had made me judge Daphne negatively. I thought back to my own youth in the sixties in New Jersey. I was the top student in my class, and I looked down on the girls with teased, bleached blonde hair who barely got passing grades, girls who thought -- when they thought at all -- that the purpose of life was to be pretty. As I had dismissed those girls as intellectually and morally inferior, so I had dismissed Daphne.
Daphne's mother had seen right through me. When she finished admonishing me (it took 15 minutes), I admitted she was right, and apologized for my affront to her family. In the process of fixing the vase, I was being compelled to fix myself.
DOING A LIFE REVIEW
The period leading up to Yom Kippur is the time for doing teshuva. Every Jew is supposed to reflect on the past year, identify wrongs committed against God or one's fellow, and go through the steps of teshuva.
If one's teshuva process addresses only deeds but not motivations, it's like cutting grass rather than uprooting it.
Too often, however, a sincere personal accounting reveals that, despite the most ardent resolutions to change, this year's sins doggedly resemble last year's. The Slonimer Rebbe wrote that if one's teshuva process addresses only deeds but not motivations, it's like cutting grass rather than uprooting it.
While engaged in fixing the vase, I must ask myself: What character trait caused me to knock it over? Clumsiness? Boisterousness? Heedlessness of others' property? If I don't identify and fix the character trait, sooner or later other shards will be littering the floor of my life.
A LIFE REVIEW
Rebbetzin Heller, based on classical Jewish sources, recommends a method that delves to the deepest levels of character and traces wrong actions to their source. This method, which she calls "A Life Review," is the first step toward permanent change.
Divide your life into its major periods, such as "childhood," "high school," "college," etc. For each period, write answers to the following questions:
- Which events were central to this time period in my life?
- How did I respond to those events?
- From my current perspective, which choices brought me closer to where I want to be today?
- What character traits motivated me to make the good choices?
- What character traits motivated me to make the bad choices?
As you review the various periods of your life, a pattern of positive and negative traits will emerge. Because you want to work on what needs improving, when you are done, review all your answers to the final question. There will be many duplications and different aspects of the same trait. For example, you may have listed:
- A sense that I was always right and anyone not on my side was wrong
- Intellectual superiority
- Not legitimizing others' needs or point of view
Condense all such duplications into one character trait, such as "arrogance." When you are done, you will have no more than five core traits that are the culprits behind all your wrong, hurtful, and self-destructive actions. Pick one of these traits to do teshuva on before Yom Kippur.
For any method of working on yourself to be successful keep in mind:
- Make a concrete plan of action based on taking very small steps.
- Chart your progress.
- Reward yourself for progress.
- Commit yourself to working on the trait for at least a year.
According to the Vilna Goan, we have come into this world for no other purpose than to fix our character traits.
We don't do real teshuva with superglue, but with a very deep spade.
|Dedicated for the refuah shleima of Hodaya bat Batya|