Commentary

Our nation is in the midst of an ethical firestorm.

Each day, we are battered by news of another scandal, lie, or crime perpetrated at the highest levels of society, even within the highest echelons of government. These revelations can seem relentless. But in the eye of this storm, there may well be a simple remedy — repentance.

In Judaism, teshuvah — repentance — is among the most significant of acts. This month, millions of Jews world-wide welcomed the Jewish new year, not with parties, but with an earnest quest for spiritual renewal and moral reorientation. During our ten Days of Awe, through prayer and reflection culminating in a 25-hour fast, we strive to cleanse our eternal souls. We revisit our past misdeeds and make amends to others in order to usher in a year of spiritual blessings and moral growth.

Contemporary society often seems disconnected from these ideals. Our leaders refuse to admit to indiscretions, or having admitted them, refuse to apologize. They regard an apology as a sign of weakness rather than a show of moral strength. This is worse than myopic; it is a dangerous indifference to what is right. The truth is that it takes courage to apologize, and accountability is not the same as capitulation.

To see this principle in action, we have only to look to Canada. A few days ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for Canada’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees during the early stages of the Holocaust. “This was an absolute moral failure on the part of the government,” Trudeau tweeted, “and though of course an apology can't bring the victims back, we're committed to doing what we can to right this wrong.”

This is a vital step toward societal growth and change.

This wasn’t the first time that Canada has been willing to own the darker parts of their own history. In 2008, after a long period of debate and frustration, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Canada’s indigenous peoples for centuries of cruelty and forced assimilation. Around the same time, Australia also apologized for its treatment of its Aboriginal people.

Another recent example of accountability was Pope Francis’ statement on the widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests. In a remarkable expression of contrition, the Pope said, “[The Church] showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” How this apology will spark change remains to be seen, but his expression of sorrow can mark the start of repentance, spiritual reckoning and moral growth.

The American reluctance to apologize hearkens back to our nation’s founding mythologies of self-reliance and stoicism. But our national lack of accountability has left our unresolved problems simmering, ever closer to the boiling point. Centuries of white supremacy, for instance, led to the enslavement and murder of millions and yet we’re still arguing over whether to raze our time-honored monuments to racism. Why did we wait so long to begin this process? Why do we still hesitate?

Baseless hatred and prejudice continue to inflict damage on countless lives. Homophobia and transphobia, racial animus and misogyny are among the biases that stifle individual potential and impede the moral growth of our communities, our nation, and our world. The reckless pursuit of production and mindless embrace of consumerism wreaks untold havoc on the natural environment and its human and animal inhabitants. While taking the first step toward repentance — teshuvah — will not cleanse us of our innumerable individual and collective sins, it is nonetheless an essential first step on the road of atonement.

Judaism teaches that an apology is not a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it is a show of strength, a strength that can only come from reflection and vulnerability. Allowing wounds to fester untended creates systemic problems that may never be solved. More than eight centuries ago, the Jewish sage Maimonides opined that the highest moral victory a person can achieve is to refrain from repeating a moral error of the past.

This year and in the years to come, let us recommit to the ideal of repentance, to the strength that comes from accepting moral responsibility for acts done by us and in our name. Only by recognizing errors of moral and historical significance can we begin the arduous, but rewarding, journey of redemption.

The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, and the author of 14 books on Jewish ethics.

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