Emet v’Teshuvah: Truth and Reconciliation

In 1940, at the age of eight, a young boy named Russell Moses was forcibly removed from his home. Ripped away from all that he knew, he was relocated by the government to one of many re-education schools. The government stripped him of his identity and gave him a number that was sewn onto his clothes.

Robbed of his name, forbidden to speak his native language, subject to harsh physical punishment, and deprived of love, Russel suffered enormously.

Born in 1932, Russell Moses was a member of the Delaware band of the Six Nations of the Grand River, an indigenous Canadian territory in what is now the province of Ontario. The story of his life – like many of the indigenous peoples of this continent – is one that includes discrimination, poverty, and tragedy.[1]

Russell’s story is just one of hundreds of thousands. Each similarly unconscionable, each more tragic than the last. They are uncomfortable truths that many would rather ignore than dredge up. We tell ourselves that we have evolved, that we are better, that these injustices are a thing of the past. Such attitudes ensured that until recently, most of these stories had never seen the light of day.

But these truths are emerging as part of a massive healing process. In an attempt to overcome the atrocities of the past, Canada – my home country – recently concluded an extensive project known as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Other countries, like South Africa, Germany, and Rwanda have conducted similar processes to heal from national traumas.

The Commission provided a platform for individuals to tell their stories of discrimination, bringing to life thousands of little-known truths. The purpose is to establish an official record of who was responsible for these injustices, and who should be held accountable.

Facing this truth, steps toward reconciliation can be taken. Many synagogues in my home community of Toronto now publicly acknowledge at every service the traditional indigenous lands upon which they sit, and recognize the enduring presence of Aboriginal peoples on the land. The same measure is taken each morning by every public school in the city.

The purpose is not to punish or condemn us today for the sins of the past. Rather, much like the famous Rabbi Hillel of our own tradition teaches, the idea is to grow from our “typical tendency to see things only from our own singular perspective, [and] stretch ourselves to see things through the eyes of other people.[2]

Painful though it may be, this truth-telling set the stage for what will, God-willing, be a more peaceful and equitable future, based on acceptance, reconciliation, and change.

Were it not for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I never would have known Russel’s story. I never would have known his name, or his experiences. And not knowing his truth, I never would have had to confront my own truths: My family’s roots in Canada reach back more than 400 years. Were they culpable? Am in the inheritor of their misdeeds? What reconciling do I have to do?

***

The twin ideas of truth and reconciliation have much to teach us at this season. These two principles resonate loudly with our focus during the Yamim Noraim:

Truth – emet – our tradition teaches, is one of the three pillars that sustains creation.[3] On Rosh Hashanah, we pray: “Purify our hearts to serve you in truth; for you, O God, are truth, and your word is truth…”

וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת. כי אתה אלהים אמת ודברך אמת…

Reconciliation – teshuvah – our tradition teaches, is “fundamental to creation itself. It [is] viewed as inherently part of the divine plan… Even when facing seemingly irreconcilable transgressions, teshuvah is always available.”[4]

When we remove the Torah from the ark tomorrow, we will utter sacred words describing thirteen attributes of God:

יְהוָה יְהוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת

God, mighty in compassion, merciful and gracious; Slow to anger, and great in kindness and truth…

Truth is not just a good idea, or a moral virtue, but is part of the very nature of our God. It’s almost as if there is a truth-gene encoded in God’s divine DNA.

The attributes of God continue:

נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה

God forgives iniquity, transgression, sin, and pardons.

We are meant to emulate God’s attributes to the best of our abilities. Just as God is true, we are meant to embody truth. Just as God makes room for reconciliation, we are meant to engage in that work.

But boy, is it hard. “I’m supposed to be as true as God is? I’m supposed to forgive like the great, powerful, and awesome God?!”

It’s not that we have the exact same capacity for truth and then forgiving that God does. We don’t. But absent God’s moral grandeur, we’ve been able to convince ourselves that we don’t even need to try.

So often we stumble away from truth. Out of fear of judgment. Out of shame. Out of the psychological weight of seeing things as they are, rather than as we wish them to be.

Confronted with a painful truth, we tell ourselves: “it didn’t happen like that.” When others bring difficult truths to us, we say: “no, it wasn’t me.” To face difficult truths head on can be exhausting.And we “have a tendency to look for the truth in the places where it is easiest to search, rather than the places where it’s likely to be.”[5]

***

This is not my attempt to moralize on the boy who cried wolf. You don’t need me to tell you that truth – most of the time – is a worthy ideal. We don’t have to turn far these days to see unwillingness to find the truth, or see seemingly irreconcilable communities.

Rather, I offer a thought for this season of introspection and healing:

As we do our cheshbon hanefesh – our personal accounting – we may feel overwhelmed by fear, shame, or the weightiness of the task at hand.

But if we really, truly see these holy days as an opportunity to do teshuvah – to reconcile – with ourselves, with the people we may have hurt, and with God – then we have to look our truths right in the face. There can be no reconciliation if we hide.

We need truth, and yet… when it comes to ourselves, “mostly we dislike getting it. We need it because we are all masters of self-deception, and so only feedback from others gives us a more accurate reading of the state of our [ethical traits] as others experience them. And we hate getting it because we are not humble. When someone tells us about a shortcoming or a way in which we have missed the mark, the ego springs to the defense. That is no strategy for growth.”[6]

We spend much of the year hiding from truth and ourselves. We humans are complicated, complex, broken at times, yet ever-striving beings. We fail a lot.

Yes, we are masters of self-deception. But. We are also beings created in the image of God, so we, too, have some of God’s truth in our genetic makeup.

“We’re hard-wired for honesty. We have a natural instinct to search for answers and make sense of things. Have you ever seen a bad actor on screen? You didn’t need to be an actor yourself to recognize the lack of truthfulness in the performance. Why? It’s because we’re all viscerally connected to truth on a fundamental, physical and spiritual level. It’s part of who we are and like a virus, we instinctively reject dishonesty.”[7]

The trick, then, is to work with that spiritual strength, not against it. Our human hearts, teaches Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, come ready-equipped for the task.[8]

Out of truth grows reconciliation, grows teshuvah. When we are troubled knowing where to start, truth is where we may begin. Can we cultivate the curiosity and the empathy to face those truths – even though they may be difficult – without fear of judgement?

I would not have known about the injustices faced by Russell Moses and hundreds of thousands of other indigenous peoples were it not for the opportunity afforded to him to share his truths. And now, I can ask myself: knowing that truth, what is my responsibility to bring about a more just and peaceful world?

From injustices on a national scale, to the smallest offences to our loved ones, to moments of silent personal confession, if we want to make teshuvah – to bridge the gaps between us – we must begin with truth.

Can we open ourselves to hearing the truth about how others perceive us? Can we share our own truths with love, to help others become their best selves? To chart a path forward of peace and teshuvah, we must open our hearts and hear the stories of others – hear the stories that God wants us to hear.

***

All through the month of Elul, every day until Simchat Torah, we recite Psalm 27, whose beautiful poetry reaches up to the heavens, pleading:

One thing I ask of Adonai, this I seek: to dwell in the house of God all the days of my life, to behold God’s beauty and visit in God’s sanctuary.[9]

אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אוֹתָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ

שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֽוֹ׃

How can we dwell in God’s house? How can we enter into God’s holy presence? The Psalmist himself asks, and gives us an answer:

Adonai, who may reside in your tent, who may dwell on Your holy mountain? The one who in her heart acknowledges the truth.[10]

יְ֭הֹוָה מִי־יָג֣וּר בְּאָהֳלֶ֑ךָ מִֽי־יִ֝שְׁכֹּ֗ן בְּהַ֣ר קָדְשֶֽׁךָ׃ …דֹבֵ֥ר אֱ֝מֶ֗ת בִּלְבָבֽוֹ׃

We are blessed with “a discerning heart, though its voice may be quiet, or even muffled, or drowned out by other inner voices.”[11]

Rosh Hashanah and the next ten days offer moments of quietness, an opportunity to listen to ourselves.

To begin the work of reconciling with our truths, and to rededicate ourselves to lives of wholeness. We can return to truth.


[1] Based on narrative of Russell Moses’ life by Bernie Farber: To know the horror behind Truth and Reconciliation, read this letter
[2] Morinis, Alan. Everyday Holiness, 169
[3] Mishnah Avot 1:18
[4] Lewis, Sheldon. Torah of Reconciliation, 23
[5] Perel, Esther. Why Happy People Cheat
[6] Morinis, Alan With Heart in Mind
[7] Sadeghi. Dr. Habib. The Truth—And Why It’s So Difficult To Tell It
[8] Dessler, Eliyahu. Strive for Truth! Vol. 1, 180
[9] Psalm 27:4
[10] Psalm 15:1-2
[11] Morinis, Alan. Everyday Holiness, 171

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