Teshuvah / Repentance
“What you can change is looking at and approaching the things in your life differently.”
“This Elul, I have had an opportunity to examine and reexamine my life so I might do things differently.”
“All the teshuvah work we do is inner work; the system does not care about the work we have done.”
“I want to be a better person.”
—Remarks made to me by Jewish inmates during the month of Elul
“God created teshuvah (repentance) before creating the physical world” (BT Pesahim 54a). Embedded within the Jewish ideal of teshuvah is the understanding, perhaps even the promise, that with appropriate action, forgiveness is possible. Turning one’s life around, finding one’s way back to a life of ethical conduct, is necessary. Finding our way back to the sacred source of all life, the divine thread that weaves this world together—God, from whence we all come and where we are all heading—is the heart of the Jewish journey for many.
As the rabbi in New York State’s only maximum security prison for women, I have struggled year after year to impress upon the incarcerated people I serve how important the path of teshuvah is to their spiritual and religious wellbeing. While authentic teshuvah is not easy for those of us on the outside, it is made more difficult by the “unforgiving” reality of our system of incarceration in this country. Take for example the case of John Mackenzie, a 70-year-old felon serving a 25-to-life sentence for the shooting of police officer Matthew Giglio. John served almost 41 years, took full responsibility for his crime, had a spotless disciplinary record and impressive accomplishments, and was denied parole 10 times because of the nature of his crime. John committed suicide in his cell on August 4, 2016, after his last parole denial.
I work with women who have served years behind bars, for committing terrible crimes. I am convinced, through my work with this population, that the God of the Jewish people is a forgiving God. I wonder what it takes for each of us to forgive those who have harmed us?