Ki Tetze: Confessions of an Unrepentant Sinner

The “Ten Days of Repentance” ("High Holy Days") are rapidly approaching, but I already know that they offer me less than complete repentance for my sins.

I know this because I am, and will remain for the rest of my life, an unrepentant sinner.

I know THIS because complete repentance for my sins, despite my remorse, is impossible.

The following isn’t, unfortunately, the only example I could give, but it will serve to explain.

At some point in my young adulthood, I wished to learn guitar and I borrowed one. I used it for a while, after which it sat in a succession of my garages for several decades gathering dust and moisture. Its owner never asked for it back, and I soon forgot who he or she was.

It’s very unlikely that the owner intended to abandon it, because it was a “Martin,” a high-quality guitar. In fact, I was able to sell it to a guitar shop a few years ago even though it was long neglected and in poor condition. More likely, the owner forgot that I had it or, in those pre-internet days, couldn’t find me because I had moved.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitze, states:

"If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with … anything that your fellow loses and you find; you must not remain indifferent.” Deut. 22:1; see also, Ex. 23:4.

In his "Book of Jewish Values," Rabbi Joseph Telushkin comments about these verses:

“Jewish ethics regards keeping a lost but potentially identifiable object as a particularly serious sin, for this is not only a form of thievery but A SIN FOR WHICH ONE CAN NEVER FULLY REPENT. Even if one subsequently regrets one’s dishonest behavior, it is VERY UNLIKELY THAT HE WILL BE ABLE TO FIND THE PERSON TO WHOM THE ITEM BELONGS; THEREFORE THE FINDER WILL HAVE NO WAY OF UNDOING THE EVIL HE HAS COMMITTED." (citing Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Repentance, “4:3). (MY EMPHASIS).

Every sin that we commit, whether of commission or omission, is a sin against G-d because it violates G-d’s commandment (mitzvah). According to Judaism, G-d can and does forgive sins committed against G-d alone (if sincerely repented), but repentance for sins against people requires forgiveness both by G-d and by the victim of our sin. As noted above, if we wait too long, or the sin is truly unforgivable, repentance becomes impossible. Nor can we reasonably ask G-d to forgive us when we haven’t even done everything that IS possible on our own to obtain repentance.

So, if there are things in your garage, bookshelf, closet, etc. that belong to others and you haven’t yet returned them – here’s a “push” to do so during the next two weeks! Of course, it’s far more important to seek forgiveness if we’ve hurt, offended, neglected, or otherwise mistreated others, but returning “borrowed property” is a start.

Returning a borrowed item may even provide us an “excuse” to say … "I haven’t returned this before now because I didn’t have the courage to also ask your forgiveness for ….." Perhaps that acknowledgement will prompt him or her to likewise seek forgiveness, whether from us or from someone else. That’s an example of the teaching that fulfilling one mitzvah leads to another, whereas committing one sin also leads to another. (Pirkei Avot 4:2). Our simple act of returning one borrowed item may begin a chain of forgiveness that could lead former friends to find each other and/or estranged relatives to reconcile.

The High Holidays are about “Teshuvah.” That word is variously translated as “repentance,” “turning,” and “returning.” Why not start now by “returning” to others what is theirs, and perhaps in the process giving them and others the opportunity to forgive? If so, you'll have more to say to G-d on Rosh Hashanah than "Please forgive me."

Shabbat shalom.

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3