Class of 2015 student– Asher Mayerson’s D’var Torah on Rwanda:
L’shana tovah. “For a good year” – a shortening of l’shana tovah tikatevu v’tihatemu, which means: “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” This phrase is a reference to being inscribed in the Book of Life, which destines an individual for heaven. On Rosh Hashanah, God opens up the Book of Life and the Book of the Dead for a ten-day period, closing it at the end of Yom Kippur. During these ten days, called the Ten Days of Repentance (aseret y’mei t’shuvah), each one of us has our last chances to make good impressions on God.
Throughout our prayers during these ten days, we often repeat that t’shuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah (repentance, prayer, and charity) will rid ourselves of evil and replace it with good.
Now, there are two types of sins that need to be atoned for:
* Bein adam l’makom (between a person and God)
* Bein adam l’chaveroh (between a person and another person…literally, between a person and his friend)
It is in synagogue, through repentance and prayer to God, that we all seek forgiveness for our sins between adam l’makom, between person and God. However, the much more difficult task is to seek forgiveness from our friends and neighbors, as it is a much more active process…instead of just repentance, we must actually make amends. And for intentional crimes – both against man and against God – repentance during the rest of the year only buys us time until Yom Kippur, at which point we must atone fully for our sins and seek forgiveness from God and from our peers.
We, the Jewish people, know first-hand the difficulty of forgiveness as we have been the target of genocide. During the Holocaust, about two out of every three European Jews were killed. Look at the three people to the right of you or to the left of you. If we were living in Europe in the 1940s, chances are that only one out of these three people would have survived. How is it possible to forgive such an immense crime? Indeed, is it possible for those who have suffered at the hands of the perpetrators to actually forgive the perpetrators?
To help address these questions, I want to share with you all some of my experiences this past summer that have helped me to better understand the importance and the universality of the questions prompted by Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Ten Days of Repentance.
I spent this past summer in Rwanda. I was in Rwanda to electrify rural villages with a group called Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering; and, while I was there, I also had the opportunity to see several genocide memorials and to talk to many Rwandans about their personal experiences in the genocide. Those experiences shed some light on the themes of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation that are so paramount to the Ten Days of Repentance.
Many in Rwanda talk as though their lives ended in 1994, the year of the genocide. Close to a million people were slaughtered by their neighbors in about 3 months…that’s about 10,000 individuals each day in a country smaller than the state of Maryland. Some Rwandans feel more connected to the dead than the living, as all of their family members were killed but they somehow survived. Many of the genocidaires – those who participated actively in the genocide –- are in their own way victims as well, consumed by the guilt of their killings that resulted from a combination of government orders, peer pressure, and ethnic tensions. And, of course, their households lose their primary provider when they are taken to jail, so the families of the genocidaires are also victims. Many Rwandans mark 1994 – the year of the genocide – as the end of their lives.
Some, however, have been freed of the burden that the genocide carried on their backs. It’s pretty incredible to go to Rwanda now and to see Hutus and Tutsis – the two primary ethnic groups – living side-by-side, working together towards the betterment of the country. Many Rwandans talk about how before 1994, there were three groups in Rwanda: Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa (a third ethnic group). Now, they say that they are all one group: banyarwandans (the Kinyarwanda word for the people of Rwanda).
And, although not all Rwandans are healed, some are – and many more are in the healing process. The society as a whole has come from ethnic-based genocide to a place of peace and unity. What puzzled me during my first few weeks in Rwanda was how a society could heal from such a brutal genocide that occurred just 18 years ago. How could individuals return to their homes to live next to the people who slaughtered their families? Friends killed friends, neighbors killed neighbors, and sometimes relatives even killed relatives. How could a society heal from something like that?
Now, however, I can say that I get it; I really understand how Rwandan society has made such great leaps in so little time.
Visiting the genocide museum in the Rwandan capital of Kigali shed some light on how the country has healed so tremendously in so few years. For me, what stood out was the universality of genocide that the museum emphasized; there were rooms and rooms filled with information about other genocides, and most prominent among them was the Holocaust. Quotes were displayed throughout the museum coming not only from Rwandans but also from important historical figures and sources, including our own Talmud; in an area of the museum dedicate to those who risked their lives to save others during the Rwandan genocide, I was surprised to see what is, in my mind, one of the Talmud’s most profound quotes: “To save one life is to save the world.”
This immense focus on universality makes Rwandans believe that genocide is not just a Rwandan problem – it’s a human problem. Showing that there are other genocides does not mean that all genocides are the same; indeed, each one is unique. However, there is something in human nature that permits the horrible crimes of genocide. Indeed, this exploration of what is human nature – how we can bring out the best in it and how we can fight the worst – is fundamental to the high holidays. And it is through self-criticism that we, as individuals and as a community, move forward from the previous year to the next year – looking back on our sins and learning from those sins to guide future actions.
In the post-genocide recovery in Rwanda, the focus on admittance of sins and on repentance is of great significance. The post-genocide judicial system, called the gacaca court system, was the primary way that individuals were put on trial for crimes of genocide. The highly localized courts were designed to implement community-based justice, based on the gacaca that traditionally served to resolve small disputes in villages across Rwanda. According to the Rwandan Government, the court system has three main objectives:
* The speeding up of the legal proceedings
* The reconstruction of what happened during the genocide
* The reconciliation of all Rwandans and building their unity
For Rwandans, the reconstruction of what happened during the genocide is vital to finally getting a sense of closure from the genocide. For example, during many of these gacaca court hearings, genocidaires admitted where they had hid bodies, which finally enabled victims to bury their family members and to put an end to their long search for the bodies of their loved ones.
In Rwanda, reconstruction led to reconciliation. Knowledge of the past enabled Rwandans to move forward. That’s the reason that there have always been significant reductions in sentences for genocidaires who confess their crimes and help convict others who participated in the genocide. Individuals admit their sins, ask forgiveness for their crimes, and help convict others who participated in the genocide – helping to heal society even further by bringing others to justice.
Prayers during the Ten Days of Repentance earn forgiveness from God for crimes against God; everyone here today is atoning for those sins. Yet, we all have a much more demanding job – not only asking forgiveness for the wrongs we have done to friends, neighbors, relatives, and roommates, but also making amends. The process of asking forgiveness and making amends is paramount during the Ten Days of Repentance, particularly for the crimes from person to person (bein adam l’chaveroh). And it is that process that leads to reconciliation between individuals within our community, just as it has led to reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda.
The concept of being written into the Book of Life is also similar to the way in which Rwandans described their process of reconciliation with their neighbors. Rwandans often say that they were dead until they reconciled with what happened to them through forgiving their killers, releasing the burden of hatred and bitterness from their shoulders. Forgiveness and reconciliation enabled them to live again. Likewise, being sealed into the Book of Life destines one for Heaven, enabling an individual to live again – when the Messiah returns.
Atoning for our sins to others over the past year through a process of asking forgiveness and of making amends will enable all of us to reach a state of reconciliation with those around us. And, for those of us who have been wronged, we have a role to play in the process as well. According to the Gemara (the commentary on the Mishnah), we are in a sense obligated to forgive those around us, particularly when they make amends; if God is able to forgive us for crimes against God on the basis of t’shuvah (repentance), who are we to withhold forgiveness from our friends?
Through the process of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, we as a community can grow stronger. During the high holidays, we often talk in terms of collective sins and collective guilt, particularly when we say the Vidui and list all of the sins that we, as a community, have committed. Ashamnu, we have trespassed. Bagadnu, we have dealt treacherously. Gazalnu, we have robbed.
The Book of Life may be more of a way of life than of an actual book used to gain entrance into the world to come. Maybe that’s the purpose of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Ten Days of Repentance – to come together as a community and to learn from our past wrongs to build a better, more just future. Atoning for our wrongs over the past year – and reaching a state of reconciliation with those around us – will free ourselves of our past sins and will lift us, together, into the mindset represented by the Book of Life. The process of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation will free us symbolically from the burdens of our guilt and will inscribe us into the Book of Life, enabling us to progress as a community and to renew our commitment to a world of justice. L’shana tovah tikatevu v’tihatemu. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.