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The Sin of a Confused Heart

10/04/2022 09:23:52 AM


Guest Rabbi Rebecca Joseph

The Sin of a Confused Heart – Erev Yom Kippur 5783

We confess to our confusion on Yom Kippur.
While this could apply for each of us, myself included, to any number of things, what I am referring to here is one of the many transgressions that we acknowledge in the Vidui (Confession). And for the sin, we committed before You by a confused heart.

The 18th-century prayerbook of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah Kramer (1720–1796), explains that this plea includes acts of wrongdoing connected with confusion, such as: doubting principles of Jewish faith or law or wondering about the historical existence of prophets or the reliability of our sacred texts. He also connects it to the pain or anguish we cause ourselves and others because of this doubt.

Lest anyone dismiss this view as incompatible with or even irrelevant to a modern, liberal Judaism, let me illustrate with a recent, widely circulated example:

Following his recent $10 million fine and suspension by the NBA, Robert Sarver, the NBA's Phoenix Suns and WNBA's Phoenix Mercury owner who happens to be Jewish, said in a public statement:

"As a man of faith, I believe in atonement and the path to forgiveness. I expected that the commissioner's one-year suspension would provide the time for me to focus, make amends and remove my personal controversy from the teams that I and so many fans love.

But in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that that is no longer possible — that whatever good I have done, or could still do, is outweighed by things I have said in the past. For those reasons, I am beginning the process of seeking buyers for the Suns and Mercury."

Whatever any of us thinks of the cost to Sarver relative to the severity of his misdeeds, his self- identification as "a man of faith" and reference to teshuvah invites a closer look at his statement. Where is his apology to the people he's hurt? Where does he state how he will make amends? Where does he ask all the people impacted by his misdeeds for forgiveness? We might ask, is all this necessary? Our Jewish tradition says unequivocably yes.

Maimonides's actual statement in his Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Teshuvah) that I cited earlier are:

The penitent who confesses publicly is praiseworthy, and it is commendable for them to let the public know their iniquities and to reveal the sins between the harm doer and the person [who was harmed] to others, saying: "Truly, I have sinned against that person, and I have wronged them thus and such, but, behold me this day, I repent and am remorseful." But the one who is arrogant and reveals not but covers up their sins is not a wholehearted penitent, as it says, One who covers their transgressions shall not prosper (Proverbs 28:13).

Externalizing the problem his own words and actions created, Robert Sarver blames the environment for the consequences of the confusion in his heart. He is hardly alone.

If you're a fan of the satirical news and musical program, Le Show, or like me, catch it in the car listening to your local public radio station once in a while, you've heard Harry Shearer – who also happens to be Jewish – read a curated collection of Apologies of the Week. Recent sources include Brigham Young University, the San Diego City Council, The Motion Picture Academy, football legend Tom Brady, opera singer Placido Domingo, January 6th rioter Francis Connor, and, yes, Robert Sarver, too.

In truth, we are awash in non-apologies, the questionable kind of apologies that begin: "Sorry but…", "Sorry if…", "I'm sorry you…", and the quip that leaves no doubt about the speaker's malicious intention, "Sorry, not sorry."

Not only celebrities, politicians, influencers, and institutions with paid "reputation managers" do this. Know that you are likely in proximity right now to someone who caused harm in this way in the past year. It could be me – or you!

Reflecting on redemption, Healy Shir Slakman, a musician and fifth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, says:

This season, I'm unsettled by apologies. I'm unsettled by the voids they create, the demands they make, and the power dynamics they elevate. They can be distracting, misleading, and an opportunity for deflection. By projecting and reflecting inner upset, grief, or distress externally, apologies can sometimes discombobulate situations and burden the already wronged party even more. I'm unsettled because outward expressions of remorse can often delay, distract, and even prevent someone from doing the difficult work of genuinely looking within. Formulating and offering a seemingly honest apology can interfere with the potentiallymore complex task of being honest with oneself and seeing the difficult and more base parts of ourselves. 

How do we protect ourselves from the confusion and damage that apologies born only out of a self-conscious guilt prompt?
Apologies that ultimately center our ego-experience, apologies that silence or dismiss, apologies that enable gaslighting and blame-shifting, apologies that use remorse as a method for disguising control, apologies that don't recognize the party harmed, apologies that strip victims of agency by demanding their forgiveness, apologies that allow someone to ascend a moral high ground wrongfully, apologies that sneakily perpetuate the very injustice they claim to address? How do we sort through stories we have constructed and relied on to protect our egos and avoid the difficult task of confronting our flawed, fragile, and fearful selves?

Indeed, how do we atone for the sin of having a confused heart? Dr. Erica Brown, director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, asks, "How can confusion ever be a sin? It is not intentional. Confusion is not an act; it is a condition brought about by the ambiguities of a situation." She then reminds us that we can perpetuate our heart's confusion, doubt, pain, and the subsequent harm we cause by not seeking clarity soon enough or remaining in denial. For that, we confess to the sin of a confused heart – again and again.

This Yom Kippur, when we confront our wrongdoings, including the confusion in our hearts, confessing our sins individually and collectively, let us guard against guilt and shame overwhelming and pushing us into an emotional pit where we feel like there is no way out.

We must remember that the Jewish approach to reflecting on wrongdoings, including confusion of the heart, is not to despair. Each of us can live uprightly, and to the extent of the disorder in our hearts — as bad or low as we think we are — we have the power to change. Seven times the righteous person falls and gets up (Proverbs 24:16).
A person is truly righteous when they err but continue to grow, nevertheless. This is what makes them righteous. And our triumph over our confusion, pain, doubt, and subsequent downfalls make us great. May immersing ourselves in teshuvah, tefilla, and tzedakah cut through the confusion and strengthen our hearts, resetting us on a path of righteousness throughout this Yom Kippur and the coming year.

Thu, June 1 2023 12 Sivan 5783