Friday, August 19, 2016

Nachamu and Apology / Parshat V'etchanan, Shabbat Nachamu 2016-5776

At this time of year, with Tisha B’Av barely in the rear-view mirror, and Rosh Chodesh Elul slightly more than two weeks away, the High Holy Day season begins in earnest.  This shabbat, the first following Tisha B’Av, we read the Haftarah Nachamu (Isaiah, chapter 40) which speaks of God’s healing and comforting presence in our lives. The prophet Isaiah was talking about the reconciliation of God and Israel following the devastation of destruction and exile. He was talking about teshuvah (repentance), kapparah (atonement), and mechilah (forgiveness)—a process that begins with apology and subsumes us at this time of year. With the new moon of Elul, we blow the shofar daily, a call to teshuvah (repentance), a plea that our hearts and minds turn to God and return to what is best in us.

At this time of year, my ears are primed for stories of apology. The print, internet, and televised media were awash this morning with declarations of an altogether new and unexpected case of apology. Or so many of them claimed. With a new team at the helm of his campaign, Donald Trump attempted to hit the reset button on Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina with a speech delivered by teleprompter. The news media raced to label Mr. Trump’s scripted speech an “apology,” an “astonishing act of contrition,”[1] and a “rare expression of remorse.”[2] It was anything but an “apology,” “act of contrition,” or “expression of remorse”—at least by Jewish standards. One could be excused for thinking otherwise because most news reports supplied their readers and listeners with no more than a brief quote or sound bite.

Let’s take a look at what Mr. Trump actually said. He began by telling his listeners that he rejects political correctness, thereby suggesting that the offensive, insulting, and hurtful things he has said are not morally problematic, just politically “incorrect.”

“I’ve never wanted to learn the language of the insiders and I’ve never been politically correct… It takes far too much time and can often make it more difficult to achieve totally victory.”

Apparently the quest for “total victory” trumps morality, decency, and even honesty: Mr. Trump believes he should be excused for whatever he says that others find offensive and objectionable because his political victory is far more important. This presumably includes the many insults to women, disabled people, Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, the gold star Khan family, as well as the numerous and outrageous lies he has told, not least of which is the preposterous claim that President Obama and Hillary Clinton “founded ISIS” and the less-than-subtle incitement to assassinate Clinton. For Mr. Trump, these were all in the service of his “total victory,” which he believes justifies pretty much anything he wants.

Mr. Trump quickly moved to the sentences oft-repeated in print and on television:

“Sometimes, in the heat of debate, and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that and believe it or not I regret it. And I do regret it particularly where it may have caused personal pain.”

This is the part that many in the media termed an “apology” or evidence of “remorse.” But we know from the Talmud that teshuvah is not delivered into a microphone, but directly to the offended party:

…For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur makes atonement, but for transgressions between two people, Yom Kippur does not atone until the one [who offended] has pacified the one [who was offended]… (Mishnah Yoma 8:9)

Rambam (Moses Maimonides) spelled it out in detail in the Mishneh Torah. Teshuvah requires four steps, the first of which is verbal confession of one’s mistake (i.e., the precise deed) to the person offended and asking for forgiveness.[3] Mr. Trump has done nothing like that.

The second step, Rambam tells us, is expressing sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same mistake again.[4] Did Mr. Trump fulfill this requirement? Consider what his very next words were:

“Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues, but one thing I can promise you is this: I will always tell you the truth.”

A simple translation: First, I cannot be bothered with worrying about who I hurt, insult, and offend because winning this election is more important than anything else. Second, I don’t really regret what I said because it’s the truth. Reinforcing the second point, he continued later in the same speech:

“…I will never lie to you. I will never tell you something I do not believe…”

Those who are remorseful, by definition, truly regret what they have done, and wish they had not done it. Not only was there no apology offered, but no sign of sincere remorse.

Rambam teaches us that the third step in the process of teshuvah is to do everything in one’s power to rectify the wrong and appease the person hurt.[5] No one is even suggesting that Mr. Trump has made the effort, let alone succeeded, in rectifying the pain he has caused because, in truth, he hasn’t taken the first step of truly apologizing or the second step of feeling genuine remorse.

Finally, to complete teshuvah, one must act differently if the same situation arises. In other words, it will be easy to measure Mr. Trump’s sincerity: If he stops insulting, demeaning, offending, and hurting people, we will know that he has repented. I would love to believe that Mr. Trump’s string of verbal insults and assaults has ended, but I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I want to recommend an anthem for his campaign, a piece composed by Tom Chapin and found on his album Zig Zag. You can listen to it here: Please be sure to listen to the song in its entirety.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[3] Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah 1:1.
[4] Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah 2:2.
[5] Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah 2:9.

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