Shabbat Shuva (d'var torah)

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of returning, and it's customary for the d'var torah or sermon to focus on the themes of the season. This is the d'var torah I gave in our minyan yesterday.


Early in the pandemic, when grocery-store shelves were sometimes empty, I started growing a few things to see if I could produce at least a little of my own food. I've always had kind of a brown thumb, but I'd managed to not kill a basil plant that had come in a farm-share box the previous year, so I was game to try.

I didn't grow a lot – more herbs than vegetables – but the cherry tomatoes I planted were extremely bountiful. Encouraged by that success, I planted more. Last year I found myself fighting unknown critters -- I got a few of the tomatoes but I found more that were half-eaten on the ground. Netting didn't help. Tabasco sauce didn't help. So this year I tried a different variety and a different location.

I got to keep three tomatoes. On the day I was going to harvest six more -- they'd been almost ready the previous day -- I found that something had eaten all the tomatoes and most of the leaves besides. The plant looked dead. I left the dejected remains in the pot for the end-of-season cleanup and stopped watering it.

A couple weeks ago I was pruning some other plants and cut away all the dead stems on that plant while I was at it. Then an amazing thing happened: it put out new shoots, then new leaves, and this week, three small tomatoes. That plant stood up to attack followed by neglect and came back strong despite it all.


During the high holy days we focus a lot on our own actions and the things we have done wrong. We focus on making amends for our mistakes, on doing teshuva and turning in a better direction for the coming year. We try to make things right with the people we've hurt. These are all critical things to focus on, and I don't have much to add that hasn't been said hundreds of times before.

Instead, today I want to talk about being on the other side -- about being the one who has been hurt. We know what to do when those who hurt us do teshuva, but what about when they don't? Teshuva is hard, and we know it won't always come.

A few weeks ago we read in the torah portion about Amalek -- how they attacked us terribly, and how we are to never forget. During our discussion someone talked about forgiving but not forgetting. That's the opposite of my own reaction when people intentionally hurt me. I am not inclined to forgive someone who has done real harm -- I'm not talking about the passing slights and blunders we all make and receive but real, serious harms -- I'm not inclined to forgive if that person has not made any attempt at teshuva. In fact, you know that passage we say before Kol Nidrei about forgiving everyone who's hurt us and "let no one be punished on my account"? Maybe this makes me a bad Jew, but when I say it I add a small clause: "except for...". You don't get to do evil and then avoid consequences through a blanket get-out-of-jail-free card. That sounds more like a different religion to me.

So yeah, proactive forgiveness for serious wrongs has never sat right with me.

But that doesn't mean I need to let an evildoer live rent-free in my brain. It's taken time, but I've learned that I don't need to hold onto it, to carry a grudge, or to obsess over it. Eventually, I can almost forget. I can remember the debt owed while trying to set aside the details of the pain and hurt. That "except for" clause before Kol Nidrei has names on it, but only a few.


Four years ago -- during the high holy days, in fact -- I was baselessly attacked in public by leaders of an online organization I had spent years volunteering for. They got their facts wrong, accused me of something I did not do, and when I and many others in the community tried to privately and gently correct them, instead of making amends they doubled down. It was hateful and evil, and a lot of their most dedicated volunteers and community members quit as a result.

The problems seemed to come mainly from people who did not know me, but I was hurt that some people on staff who did know me, and knew the accusations were false, stood by silently. One of them even supported the lies and ignored my attempts to discuss it with him. I understand staying quiet out of fear, but I didn't understand actively, knowingly collaborating with evildoers.

That person went onto the Kol Nidrei list.

A few weeks after that happened, I learned that some of the people who had left were hard at work building an alternative place, and I joined them. We all brought years of experience on the community side. Some were good at building software, some at organizing projects, and some at infrastructure and finance. From our experiences in the previous place we all learned a few things to do and a lot of things not to do. We're a scrappy little team, but together we're building something better, taking the two-pronged approach of making a great platform and treating people right.

Growth is slow and hard, but steady. It's going to be a while before we top the Google results, but we'll keep forging ahead. Already we've taken paying business away from those other guys, which feels remarkably refreshing. More importantly, we're attracting new people – we're not just the "not those guys" place but our own, new thing. We're innovating and learning and growing, working together and giving the results away for free.

Living well really is the best revenge.

This is not about silver linings. Good outcomes never justify harm. The harm those people did didn't go away, and it's neither forgiven nor forgotten, but it's also not front of mind for me any more like it used to be. Like my poor, mistreated tomato plant, I was eventually, with heavenly help, able to produce new growth, thrive, and do some good in the world despite the damage.

Last year during Elul, three years after he supported his boss's lies and ignored my requests to talk, that now-ex staff member contacted me out of the blue. He regretted that he'd done what he did, out of fear of losing his job at a time when he really needed health insurance, and he publicly apologized to me and to other staff members he'd hurt. I removed a name from the Kol Nidrei list. I don't expect any of the others to step up, but perhaps someday I will be pleasantly surprised again. Or not -- who knows? That's up to them. Regardless, I'm busy doing something constructive.

As someone who has wronged others, I try (imperfectly, I know!) to make amends and mitigate the harm. As someone who has been wronged, I know that won't always happen, or won't happen until years later. We can only control ourselves, not others, and I pray that we can all have the resilience of my tomato plant to live through and past the harms and injustices that come our way.