The Sabbath of Return: Repentance, Conscience and Karma

Wed, 10/02/2019 - 9:38am -- Clergy

The Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is called “the Sabbath of Return” (Shabbat Shuvah) or “Repentance.” Technically, its name is derived from the Haftarah for this Shabbat, Hosea 14:2-10, which begins with the plea, “Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity!” More broadly, it refers to one the principle themes of the High Holy Days, especially, Yom Kippur, the religious idea of “repentance.”

For many modern people, the idea of repentance is alien. Traditionally, the idea of repentance is bound up with the idea of “sin,” an all-powerful God who constantly stands in judgment of our behavior and the threat of divine punishment. If you take “God” out of the picture and redefine the universe as a moral, cosmic GPS, you approach the South Indian idea (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc) of karma. I actually find people are more comfortable today talking about Karma than “Providence” in Judaism. “That’s good karma,” I hear people say or, it is opposite, “that’s bad karma” and there is little to no intellectual tension. However, when you through in words like “sin” and “repent,” there is cultural resistance. It seems that for the most part we (modern people) believe that there is some kind of connection between destiny and morality; we just do not like the idea of somebody actually keeping score!

The theme of repentance, especially the flight from repentance, is brilliantly illustrated by the Book of Jonah, which we read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Jonah was a prophet commissioned by God to preach to the people of Nineveh in Mesopotamia, the modern day, Mosul, Iraq. Jonah resisted and attempted to flee. He found himself in the belly of a whale, unable to escape from complying to God’s command. At the end of the story, Jonah reluctantly delivers the message of repentance to the people of Nineveh who listen and repent. Ultimately, Jonah’s own resistance to repentance is broken down and he comes to understand the need for people to both repent and be forgiven.

Tradition tells us that the story of Jonah illustrates the idea that you cannot flee from the presence of God and that wherever you go, so does God holding your moral ledger before you. For many of us, the idea of “the presence of God” works with respect to spirituality and inspiration. Wherever we go, God goes too, providing us with divine back up in life. But, when we think of God as Judge, then we have to put our theological foot down and say, “no!” We do not want to be judged, let alone punished for “our sins.”

Nevertheless, there is another path in addition to the traditional ways of repentance and the Indian concepts of Karma. We call it conscience. Except for a hopefully tiny percentage of the population, which may be deemed psychotic, we each have, I believe, a conscience, a deep moral well that informs our endless ethical choices in life. For most of us, like Jonah, we cannot flee from our conscience. We can go into denial, we can block, we can push back, but ultimately some deep sense of right and wrong prevails.

So maybe instead of repentance we should talk about conscience and a Sabbath of Conscience in which we are called upon to explore our moral core, to return to the ethical foundation of our existence as individuals and a community.

We are living at a time in which our collective sense of right and wrong is being publically challenged by competitive ideas of power including political power, bullying of all sorts and the threat of amoral litigation. There is no right and wrong it seems, just the power to persuade or overwhelm.

We need a Sabbath of Return more than ever, a return to our basic values of right and wrong and a way to find the courage to live accordingly. We need to repent. We need good karma. We need to allow our consciences to speak and bring us home.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.