Rosh HaShanah 5781
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, September 19th, 2020
"I Didn't Know" Is Not Enough
“When I made that comment earlier, I had no idea it would hurt your feelings.” How many wrongdoings have each of us personally committed in the past year that ended with, “I didn’t know. If I had known, I never would have...”? How about those wrongdoings we have committed, just by being part of this society? “I can’t believe our country has treated its inhabitants this way for so long. If I had only known sooner, I would have…”
Al heit she-hatanu l’fanekha b’ones u-v’ratzon. For the wrongdoing we have committed unwillingly and willingly. Al heit she-hatanu l’fanekha bivli da’at. For the wrongdoing we have committed without understanding. B’zadon uvishgaga - intentionally and unintentionally. B’timhon levav - with confusion. B’yod’im uv’lo yod’im - knowingly and unknowingly.
On Yom Kippur and throughout Jewish text and tradition, we acknowledge that “I just didn’t know,” is not enough of an excuse for missing the mark. Although the consequences may be different, wrongdoings that were performed with real malintent and with no intent whatsoever are both acts that require atonement. That atonement is achieved not just by beating our chests once a year, but also, by fixing the broken relationships caused by that interruption in the good, and by continuing to learn enough to avoid future misdeed.
Rabbinic tradition uses the terms shogeg and mezid to describe unintentional and intentional wrongdoing, respectively. Rav Adin Steinsalz, Z”L, defines the Biblical and Talmudic notion of shogeg as “one who commits a transgression without criminal intent, due to lack of information. An unwitting sinner,” he writes, “does not incur the same punishments as one who intentionally commits a transgression, but he does bear a certain responsibility for what he has done, and he must atone for his transgression by bringing an offering or by another means of atonement” (Reference Guide to the Talmud 397). Back in the days of the Tabernacle and Temple, the mishkan or mikdash, Rav Steinsalz teaches, if a person committed a shogeg act, a transgression that was unintentional the entire time she committed it, she would need to bring a hatat offering, often translated as a sin-offering, although she would not have to undergo the severe punishment of an intentional wrongdoing. At the same time, we learn in Mishnah Bava Kamma that any human being who does damage to another person, animal, or object, is required to pay for that damage, regardless of intent. No one who has committed a misdeed gets off scot free, even if she didn’t know any better.
The Biblical ritual behind Yom Kippur, involving the sacrificial goat, the scapegoat, the High Priest, and the Holy of Holies brings the idea of atoning for shogeg from the personal into the communal. This week and next, our High Holy Day liturgy will speak in the first person plural, in the we. We are responsible not only for our own personal misdeeds, but also, for those of the community within which we reside. And as we have learned in a Mishnah that I may quote too often, Yom Kippur itself only atones for our personal and communal misdeeds against God; for those misdeeds against other people, Yom Kippur merely acts as a reminder of those many doors for forgiveness we have left open.
The vast majority of transgressions we have stumbled into in the past year have not been intentional. In fact, we each probably took on a whole lot of transgressions we still don’t know to this day were wrong. Many of us use bath and beauty products tested on animals in ways we don’t even want to fathom, but we keep using them because we would rather not know. We frequent businesses with unfair hiring practices, because if they don’t post their policies on the front door, how are we to know? And we assume beliefs, opinions, and emotional states when we speak to friends and neighbors, not thinking about our language, because they aren’t the type of people to care.
Now what do we do when we’re stuck with this pile of misdeeds, and the gates of heaven are just about to close? The first step, of course, is to apologize if an interpersonal relationship was wounded; “I didn’t know” does not mean I wasn’t wrong. But then we need to go farther; as Jews, we are committed to education; through the 204 Jewish Nobel Peace Prize winners throughout history, we have shown that we are pretty good at research. We have the tools to go online and find information about the big box stores from which we tend to buy and the products we tend to purchase. When we accidentally say something that we didn’t know was demeaning to women, to the LGBTQ community, or to someone from a different background than us, we call that one friend who is an expert, or we google the history and etymology of that phrase we incorrectly assumed had come out of thin air.
Most importantly, we don’t stop reading and asking and learning. When we see an article about what not to say to someone in mourning, we don’t push it to the side for fear that we have been saying the wrong thing all along. We soak up the information for the next time we are called to support someone in need. We’ll talk about this a whole lot more tomorrow, but when we hear a radio program that clarifies the other side of an issue about which we have held a strong stance for years, we look more into that other side to make sure we have been voting and speaking and arguing for the right values.
Today, we live in a world in which we have inherited the transgressions of our ancestors. We have inherited the legacy of slavery that still plays out in our systems of criminal justice, education, and healthcare, as well as the everyday ways in which we treat our neighbors. And we have inherited millennia of sexism, with the modern symptoms ranging from unequal pay for women, to a culture focused on objectification, to suspicion of anyone who claims abuse, especially from home. Whether or not we read depressing articles in the news, whether or not we listen to the person on the other side of the aisle, as long as our world continues its imperfection, we are responsible for our communal transgressions.
And still, on each and every one of these issues and more, think about all of the progress this society, even just this city, has made just since you were a child! We are here because those who came before us chose to learn more. At first they didn’t know any better, but as soon as they learned the error of their ways, they created their own, modern sin-offerings and payment for damages, through protest and policy, striving and campaigning. For all of those deeds that we still don’t know we are committing each and every day, even those deeds that our parents and grandparents committed, whose remnants we still carry, we are responsible for a sin-offering (or in the modern world, prayer on Yom Kippur), as well as damages. And for those deeds we inherited, those that embarrass us but that we still practice today, no holiday can atone until we find forward-thinking solutions. Thankfully, just as we know how to do the research to find out what we’ve done wrong, we can do the research to find out how we can make it right. From reading to changing the way we use our words, from long conversations to long lines at the voting booths, and from compassionate study to updating the way we use our words, we start to build a world for those who come after us, in which they will no longer have to ask God for forgiveness for confusion. We learn now to build that base of knowledge and righteousness for our children and their children after them.
In just a few minutes, we will hear the story of Hagar, who is cast out of Abraham and Sarah’s household, along with her son Ishmael. After she and the boy run out of water, she places Ishmael under a bush and cries from a distance; she does not want to see her son die and believes that his death is the only possible future. God enters, and after a pep talk, opens up her eyes - there, a well of water appears as if out of nowhere. But perhaps, commentators across the ages have surmised, the well was there the whole time. For so many of us, our misdeeds occur because our eyes are not open enough - we believe that we do not and cannot know any differently. We miss the truth that lies right in front of our eyes. It’s time to open our eyes, to search for knowledge for the sake of performing the good, of getting closer to a world in which our al chets are no longer necessary. L’Shanah tovah.