Can we do Teshuvah for acts committed under compulsion? Should we be denied the healing power of Teshuvah, just because we aren’t actually guilty? Even in the absence of responsibility, the need for atonement can be met. We feel contaminated by being brought to the point of ultimate helplessness, but healing comes from our learning to take responsibility for our own lives from this point on. We feel guilty for living through our own deaths, but healing comes from the ability to partake of life and give life as much and as selflessly as possible.
Teshuvah is, among other things, a process of reaching closure and healing. In wronging another, we dealt a blow to our relationships—our connection to ourselves, to our community or society, and to our relationship with God. Reaching closure means healing these wounds. But what if we can’t ask for forgiveness because those we wronged are no longer alive?
Returning explores the boundaries between right and wrong, choice and choicelessness—and what happens when we cross those boundaries. It challenges notions of black and white, and calls into question the sovereignty of death itself.
Elul is called “the season of reconciliation.” It is a time of quiet, when our crops have been planted and are nearing harvest. We are reminded that the deeds and thoughts that we have sown among each other are also coming to fruition.
When does survival become a crime? When does choice become treason? And what choice do we have when all choices are wrong? These are the questions faced by the Sonderkommando—the Jews who were forced to burn the bodies of the dead.
The deception of his brother and his father has weighed heavily on him. For nearly two decades, he has lived away from home; ample time for the event to magnify itself in his mind and become a fixation. He knows that he did wrong. He also knows that it was necessary. Now, he’s about to face his ultimate challenge…himself!
When Avraham is told to leave his country, he’s being told to leave behind more than a mere place. The midrash sees God’s command to Avraham as a lesson in self-transformation. Avram and Sarai cannot give birth to children; Avraham and Sarah will give birth to a nation!
Teshuvah means it is never too late! We always have the option of stepping outside of time, of finding the one thread that needs to be pulled to change our course. We have an innate ability to bend time to our will. If ever there was a season to prove it, it is now!
Civilizations tend to peak and then die out without a trace. In fact, often enough the success of a nation is a sign of its imminent demise. And yet, we’re still here. The Jewish people was a “nation” long before the invention of the modern nation. It reached its peak of power and, by all the rules governing the evolution of civilizations, should have peaked and collapsed. And yet, that isn’t the way the story ended. Could it be that the dire prophecies at the end of our Torah were a blessing in disguise?
Free download: Discussion topics on T’shuvah as healing. Returning: Reflections & Resources on Teshuvah explores some of the difficulties and dilemmas facing those who seek to heal the wounds of their own souls—especially self-inflicted wounds. These topics are explored through a series of dialogues between a former member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando and a rabbi.