Maimonides teaches in Laws of Repentance 7:8 that it is prohibited to remind repentant sinners of their past deeds, or to mention those deeds in their presence to embarrass them.
Nearly four years ago, certain aspects of my past were published and broadly publicized in our community and on the internet, stigmatizing me ever since. During this period of the High Holy Days, I want to share my painful experience, to describe how I strive to rise above those stigmas and to be re-integrated into the community, and how various segments of the community have responded.
Having been ostracized temporarily by the community, I engaged in a great deal of thought, self-reflection, and soul-searching. Not a day has gone by that I have not thought of my actions of 23 years ago and the impact they had on my victims.
I hope that I have become a more empathetic and caring person because of my past. That is why I have always strived to help and assist those in society who need second chances. In accordance with repentance rituals within the Jewish tradition I first confessed to myself and to God that my actions were sinful and inappropriate. I regretted them, sought help, and took measures to insure that they would not recur in the future. Recognizing my flaws, I committed myself to working on continual improvement. Teshuvah — repentance — is a lifelong process. As with the aftermath of a heart attack, time may pass and a person’s behaviors might change, but the small yet indelible scar of his iniquity still remains.
God is able to regard a sin as if it never occurred, and sutures a wound in a way that does not leave scars, but it is not so easy for human beings to do the same. Reviewing past actions and assessing how one might act differently is the process that each and every Jew needs to undertake during the month of Elul and during the time of heightened focus on repentance in the Days of Penitence between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur.
Despite the challenges resulting from negative Google searches based on my past actions and the resulting stigma, I have been able to begin to re-invent myself in various ways. Every week I meticulously check the wires and lechis (poles) that comprise the Englewood and Tenafly eruvs. I lead services and read from the Torah regularly at various area synagogues. I have successfully translated articles, essays, and book chapters from Hebrew to English for various rabbis and Israeli academics. I have worked with several adults in the community to further hone their skills in Jewish textual study and liturgical endeavors.
During the last two years, I also undertook a personal project, writing divrei Torah (words of Torah) on each parashah and for each holiday, which I have sent to a group of friends near and far. It not only has served to allow me to look at text with new eyes, but has been therapeutic as well. These pieces delved into the Torah text, but also offered unique and novel interpretations based on life experiences. I hope that those who read my pieces also benefit from my personal perspective on Torah and holidays.
Though I have worked to redefine myself as a person and to be re-integrated into the community, I never could have accomplished positive results without the concern and support of a close group of devoted friends and professionals during this ordeal. These selfless souls were my community during my nearly ten weeks of suspension from the local synagogues four years ago. These people have helped me to understand myself better and to reflect upon how I am perceived by others. I have become very cognizant of perceptions and have worked assiduously since then to make the community comfortable with me.
Nevertheless, while I have enjoyed widespread communal reintegration, I have faced some resistance due to lingering perceptions in the community and beyond, which have hindered my ability to secure regular employment and have hampered my full social inclusion.
In this time of the year we focus on forgiveness and moving on from the past. We need to acknowledge that we are all sinners, and take ownership of our repentance. In the words of Solomon at the dedication of the Temple (I Kings 8:46): “There is no person who does not sin.” Let us embrace the Divine dictum of “your hand is outstretched to receive repentants,” and make it our communal credo. If God can forgive those who transgress and re-accept them, should this not hold true for mortals?
In these Days of Awe, may we find it in our hearts to forgive those who have caused hurt and pain, and may we merit to be inscribed in the Book of Life and allow the sweetness of the honey to enhance our lives, the lives of those in our families and our communities, and indeed all of the People of Israel.
Akiva D. Roth is a writer, Hebrew translator, and editor who reflects a pluralistic yet halachic approach to communal Jewish life. His avocation from a very early age has been American political affairs.