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September 7, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Second Chances: Teshuvah and Amendment 4

By RABBI MICHAEL TOROP Temple Beth-El, St Petersburg

We are in the season of second chances. After all, that is what teshuvah, returning to the path, is all about. Consider what is, perhaps, the Israelites’ greatest sin, creating the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai. Afterwards, Moses goes up the mountain to receive the second set of tablets. When Moses asks to see God’s face, what happens? He stands in the cleft of the rock, and God’s glory passes before him, and he proclaims, “Adonai! Adonai! el rachum v’chanun … (Exodus 34:6), “Adonai, Adonai, you are merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, true and loving…” God is forever ready to forgive our failures, always eager to meet our sincere attempts at teshuvah (repentance and return) with an unconditional pardon. In Judaism, God is the supreme giver of second (and, sometimes, third and fourth) chances. Judaism says we are accepted for who we are, given credit for our efforts, and forgiven out of love, not entitlement.

We don’t like to see who we are in the eyes of others. In fact, we often don’t like what we see when we look honestly at ourselves. No matter how hard we have tried, our deeds are insufficient to truly and completely live up to the person that God created us to be. We have no reason to think that we warrant the forgiveness that we seek.

It is not that we cannot make a sincere effort to change and to grow – of course we can. But in the end, we cannot rely on ourselves alone. In spite of our failings, Judaism teaches us that God does not want to exact a penalty for our misdeeds. Rather, on Yom Kippur, we are comforted by the affirmation that, out of a sense of chesed (kindness), God will forgive us because God loves us, unconditionally. If we accept that God’s grace is bestowed upon us in this way, if we affirm that God is gracious and merciful and loving and true, how will that impact our lives? The logical consequence of experiencing God’s love, of knowing God’s grace, is to then act graciously toward others.

Speaking to a group of ex-convicts in recovery who were coming into an Israeli rehabilitation program, the counselor began to speak of self-esteem. Avi interrupted saying, “How can you talk to us of this? I’ve been in and out of jail for half of my 34 years. I’ve been a thief since I was 8. When I’m out of prison I can’t find work and my family doesn’t want to see me.” The group leader responded: “Consider the diamonds in the window of a jewelry store. When they come out of the mine, as lumps of dirty ore, it takes a person who understands the diamond to take the shapeless mound and bring out its intrinsic beauty. That’s what we do here, we look for the diamond in everyone; we help the soul’s beauty come to the surface, we polish it until it gleams.”

Two years passed. Avi graduated from the treatment center, and was integrated into the community, working in construction. One day the manager of the treatment center called Avi and asked him to pick up a piece of furniture being donated from an estate. When he went to pick it up, he saw that it wasn’t worth saving, but not wanting to insult the family, he hauled it anyway. While Avi was laboring to carry the shabby sofa up the stairs to the halfway house, an envelope fell from the cushions, in which he found five thousand shekels (about $1,700). Avi called the manager and told her about the envelope, who said it must be reported to the family.

The family was so gratified by their honesty that they told them to keep the money for the halfway house. As a result, the halfway house was able to buy one more bed and provide room for one more guest, creating another opportunity for recovery. And Avi wasn’t a thief anymore. At the halfway house a sign hangs above the entry. It reads: “Diamonds Polished Here.”

In the coming months each of us has a chance to polish diamonds. Each of us has an opportunity to be “God-like” in our attitudes and actions toward those who deserve a second chance. Florida remains one of only four states in the country where felons who have served their time in prison, been released on parole and probation, have been rehabilitated in the eyes of the state, but can never reclaim their citizenship right to vote in any election. Having done the equivalent of teshuvah, our state does not give them a second chance. As Jews who are right now getting a second chance through the rituals and prayers of the High Holy Days, we cannot ethically or morally deny that same second chance to others.

On the ballot in November is Amendment 4 for Restoration of Voting Rights. With the exception of those who committed murder or sexual offenses, this Amendment (if passed) would restore the right of other ex-felons to once again vote. 1.4 million citizens would get back this essential democratic right. It would be the fourth largest voter enfranchisement in the history of the United States, after the Reconstruction Amendments that established equal voting rights to freed (male) slaves after the Civil War; Women’s Suffrage of 1920; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We have the historic opportunity to restore civil rights to Florida’s disenfranchised voters – the largest such group in the entire country.

Synagogues across Florida are working in coalition with the Jewish community and other community partners to bring Amendment 4 to the attention of the electorate. Please research the issue and consider if you will be one who is willing to be like God, and with kindness and compassion and a sense of justice, give a second chance to those who need it.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned on a rotating basis by the board. The views expressed in the column are those of the rabbi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jewish Press or the Board of Rabbis.

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