During this season of self-reflection and spiritual preparation for Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, we are invited to contemplate our behaviors and ways we can heal by asking for forgiveness. Our traditional prayers are explicit about what constitutes sin. Those of us who attend High Holiday services will stand in communal confession of wrongdoing, gently thumping our heart as if to soften or break down its defenses.
The rabbis traditionally use the holiday pulpit to address communal sins that plague our society: indifference to suffering, violence, injustice and inequity. What if we did not personally murder, lie or steal? One might say, “I am no Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein; I have nothing to do with the wars of our time.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In a free society some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Bringing our attention to the big fissures and afflictions caused by the very worst of humanity is one way to awaken us to the responsibility we have to create change in our society. Yet, another approach, perhaps one that is even more difficult because of its personal nature, is the practice of emet, or truthful contemplation of our own habitual behaviors that cause disconnection in our family life.
Of course, it’s never our intent to cause harm; nevertheless most of us can come up with a list of situations within the sanctuaries of our homes that could have been handled differently. Much of what we might find are the garden-variety constrictions of the heart: grudges that kept us from reaching out, judgments that made us feel just slightly superior, fleeting jealousies with their delicate stings, or numbing out when we should have tuned in. These do not cause giant fissures, but small, imperceptible cracks that weaken the very foundation that we rely on for support.
One of the most famous sentences about family life is the opening to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I take great pleasure in re-reading an essay by Ursula Le Guin, in which she protests the idea that happy families are all alike. “The enormous cost and complexity of that ‘happiness,’ its dependence upon a whole substructure of sacrifices … balancing of greater and lesser evils—the tears, the fears, the migraines, the injustices, the censorships, the quarrels, the lies, the angers, the cruelties it involved—is all that to be swept away, brushed under the carpet by the brisk broom of a silly phrase, ‘a happy family’?”
I love this description of Le Guin’s happy family life, because it gives a gritty, truthful account. Family life takes tremendous work. The only thing that is constant is uncertainty and change. Le Guin’s description of what family life, even happy family life, is truly like brings spaciousness into the work of personal teschuvah. It allows for self-forgiveness and chesed, or compassion.
What if our spiritual work is about small forgiveness-es, more often? What if we approach forgiveness as a daily practice? What if we began with ourselves? Each day would be a new day; a new opportunity to let go, and to try again.