A Guide to Teshuvah: With God

Jewish ritual By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 03rd Oct 2022

Teshuvah with God – beyn adam laMakom

From the Mishnah onwards Jewish sources differentiate ‘matters between person and person’ from ‘matters between a person and God.’ Yom Kippur atones for the latter, as the Torah says, ‘On this day shall atonement be made for you before God.’ But it does not atone for wrongs we have done to one another unless we first acknowledge them, apologise and make reparation. We are not allowed to go directly to God as a way to short-circuit being honest with one another.

I struggle with this distinction. I understand that there are issues which may simply be between us and God. If I were to eat a fish with no scales (which I’ve no intention of doing) this would be considered a sin before God and it’s hard to see how it could harm another human.

However, if I upset or injure another person, I also wrong the presence of God in that person. Since every human being is created in God’s image, all offences against each other also hurt God. Since, further, melo chol ha’arets kevodo, all the earth is full of God’s glory, if I wantonly or carelessly kill or damage any living being I injure the presence of God in that creature. Maybe that’s why the rabbis had a further name for God, Hamakom, ‘the place’, the One whose place is everywhere. In damaging God’s world, we also, at least in this earthly dimension, damage God.

‘Sometimes we ache when we see God betrayed and abandoned,’ wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel. Perhaps we should ache more, and more often, since God is betrayed in so many ways in our cruel world. ‘I believe God was there,’ testified Rabbi Hugo Gryn describing his experience of Yom Kippur in Auschwitz in 1944, but ‘violated and blasphemed.’  

Thus our journey towards God on Yom Kippur is twofold. We travel inwards with the High Priest, repeating the words with which he made confession for himself and his people in the holy of holies, alone before the presence of God. There is nothing more intimate than this encounter, a metaphorical journey to the centre of the heart where we call upon, and may sometimes be privileged to encounter, God’s presence.

But at the same time we must travel out into the world goaded by the prophets Isaiah and Jonah: ‘Feed the hungry, bring home the oppressed poor, clothe the naked;’ ‘Change your ways as a nation.’ Little could be more collective or public. For God is out there in the world, suffering where there is misery and need, waiting for us, for humanity, for each of us to show our particular humanity.

We find the presence of God not just by seeking God in our heart, but by going out to serve God through serving creation. Shuvu eilai ve’ashuvah aleichem, ‘Return to me and I’ll return to you:’ may we return to God and God return to us.

Read the rest of the series:

  1. Language
  2. Injustice
  3. Environment
  4. With Ourselves
  5. With Each Other

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