The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow human, thus breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the person they have wronged” (Numbers 5:5-7).
We receive these instructions for t’shuvah in this week’s parashah – as if a Power Greater than Ourselves personally knew that this week, in particular, we need to hear them.
As we, and our righteous sisters and brothers across the world, continue to peacefully protest the murder of George Floyd and all the Black lives lost to acts of racist violence by American police and civilians, we must acknowledge the urgent need for t’shuvah in our cities and in our nation. We understand that racism is a far-reaching system that does not depend on the good or bad intentions of individuals. Yet we must finally accept that we as individuals must change our actions, and must change our mindset, in order to break this system.
In the process of t’shuvah described in this week’s parashah, the first stage is realizing guilt. We cannot make a change until we realize the need for change; we will not know what we need to do to fix things until we understand what exactly is wrong.
The second stage is confession: acknowledging the wrong that has been done. Rabbi Moses Maimonides, in his teaching on t’shuvah, emphasizes the need for speaking the confession out loud; it is not enough to think it to yourself. As we change our society it is essential to acknowledge our collective wrongdoing openly and specifically. We learn from recovery that admitting the exact nature of our wrongs prepares us to look deeply at our character defects, and begin to be transformed.
And the final stage is restitution. Loss of life is permanent; it can never be repaid. But we must acknowledge that racism is about lost opportunity as well, that the societal disadvantages racism creates have real and measurable financial consequences. We cannot fully do t’shuvah without acknowledging the financial damages we have wrought. At times there is no way we can repay the money we’ve stolen, but that doesn’t exempt us from doing what is possible.
As I confront myself as a part of the racist system in our society, I find myself at the first stage of this t’shuvah process. It is obvious to me that change is long overdue, and of course I want to take action. Yet first I must become willing to recognize my own ignorance and fully look at my part, acknowledging how I contribute to the problem. Then without delay I must begin – and continue – to learn.
We read in the Mishnah, “the study of Torah is equal to all of the other mitzvot” (Peah 1:1). Of course, learning is not the same thing as doing: studying the laws of kosher food is not the same as choosing to eat only kosher food, and reading the Big Book is not the same as living a life of recovery. Yet it is true that learning is essential. We cannot act righteously if we don’t know how.
As adults we have the right and the responsibility to become informed, to become knowledgeable, to grow beyond the limitations of our childhood education and learn all that we must in order to live well. This week I began reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and next week I will begin reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist. This learning is basic; this learning is a beginning. It is only the first stage of the three-part process our parashah describes. Still, it is essential. I must begin with these basic individual acts in order to become part of the national t’shuvah that we so desperately need.
As we move together towards Shabbat, may we be blessed with the courage we need to take action – some of us as we have for years, and some of us for the first time. May we be blessed with endurance, as we acknowledge all that it will take to bring about lasting change. And may we be blessed with community – with loved ones to turn to for words of prayer, encouragement, and comfort – as we persist in our fight for change.