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Thursday, December 08, 2022
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Recently, an article was published in The Atlantic by Professor Emily Oster which generated a lot of controversy. It was entitled, “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty,” and argued that we should not dwell on mistakes made during the pandemic. Everyone did the best they could—now let’s move on.

In reading some of the responses, it is clear that there is a lot of anger and unprocessed feelings out there. Rather than get into the details of some of the mistakes, I’d like to focus on one element of the discussion, which gets to the heart of what teshuva means. It was interesting to see people intuiting some ideas that we know well from the Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva.

The very first section of Hilchot Teshuva (1:1) spells out the most essential aspect of teshuva—viduy, or confession. The Rambam makes it clear that this is viduy devarim, a confession in words. In order to receive forgiveness, you must first articulate what you did wrong. This is true whether the mistake was intentional or accidental. And undoing the mistake is not enough—if you stole money and give it back, you must still articulate that you did something wrong in order to receive forgiveness. And the more, the better: וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְהִתְוַדּוֹת וּמַאֲרִיךְ בְּעִנְיָן זֶה הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח. Going into detail qualitatively improves the process of asking for forgiveness.

The Rambam further specifies (2:9) the process for asking another person for forgiveness. The viduy must be directed towards the person you wronged, and then you can ask the person for forgiveness. The trite “do you mochel me” that you often hear before Yom Kippur doesn’t work; You need to articulate the actual wrong, and then ask for forgiveness. If the person is not ready to forgive, you come back with three people and try again, and again. If after three sincere attempts, the person still does not forgive, then the sin is on the one who withholds forgiveness. The Rambam even movingly provides a process for asking forgiveness from the dead (2:11). Even though the person cannot forgive, there is still a value for the living in recounting our sins. While the dead cannot forgive, the living can still repent and repair.

This is the beauty of the Jewish idea of teshuva. In our time of cancel culture, Judaism teaches that no sin is unforgivable. But at the same time, there are no automatic do-overs. We don’t just say, “mistakes were made” and move on. We have to confront and admit what those mistakes were in order to move on.

The last aspect of teshuva I want to focus on is that of learning from our mistakes. Obviously, we cannot ask forgiveness for a wrong we are still committing. The behavior needs to stop first. Then, we can delve into why we made that mistake, and ask forgiveness. But the Rambam says (2:1) that full teshuva only happens when we are in the same situation again, and act differently. Until you are in the same situation again (which we may hope never happens), teshuva is defined (2:2) as making a commitment not to repeat the same mistake again.

In summary, to have a full process of teshuva, a person must stop the behavior, articulate the behavior to the person who was wronged and resolve not to do the behavior again. They can then ask, and hopefully receive, forgiveness.

Emily Oster got a lot of negative feedback for the article, but I don’t fault her. Ironically, by writing an article arguing that we should not focus on the past, everyone is now discussing the past. But I give her credit for raising the topic. I think what was missing is that she asked for amnesty (essentially, all-around forgiveness) without the steps outlined above. She is not to blame for the excesses of the pandemic response, but she must feel guilty about some things, or she would not be calling for amnesty.

The past two-and-a-half years were a major global upheaval—probably the largest one in history that most of us can remember. We all made decisions for ourselves about how to react, but we also made decisions that impacted others. We made choices for our kids, and may have forced our choices on friends and family, or alienated them because of our differences in approach. For those in communal leadership positions, we had the responsibility for a larger group of people, and our choices impacted their lives. And those in government and other leadership positions had the most influence and thus the most responsibility. But we all made choices that affected others.

For anyone who feels they made every decision correctly, and would not do anything different next time (God forbid there is one), I envy your certainty. For the rest of us, letting an upheaval of this magnitude go by without cheshbon hanefesh does not make sense. We all did things right and did things wrong. Cheshbon hanefesh literally means an accounting of the self. Just as an accountant will list out credits and debits, let’s list out our wins and losses, good calls and bad ones, and be honest with ourselves.

If you feel like your choices caused harm, and you wish you had done things differently, tell the people you impacted. Have an honest conversation. I would suggest that the viduy should include not just what you feel you did wrong, but why. This is especially true if you feel you erred unintentionally. Regarding the pandemic, many people justified their actions based on their limited knowledge at the time, or because they relied on experts. But if our knowledge or experts turned out to be wrong, don’t we have a responsibility to ask why? Did we rely on the wrong experts? Did those experts rely on bad information? Was the right information out there, but we ignored it for some reason? Is it possible we were intentionally lied to? Did we get caught up in the frenzy and fail to stop and think why we were doing something? Did we only look at one side of the problem and not consider any unintended consequences of our decisions?

I think people are not giving an honest accounting of their bad decisions because they are afraid to admit they were wrong, or were deceived. If we want to do better when faced with a similar situation in the future, we can’t be afraid to admit we were wrong. And in order for it to be safe to admit you were wrong, especially for someone in a leadership position, you have to know your honesty will be met with acceptance instead of attacks. The Rambam teaches us that once someone sincerely seeks forgiveness, the burden is then on the harmed party to forgive. Knowing that you can be forgiven is what makes seeking forgiveness possible.

With the pandemic, there were certain minority opinions early on that later became majority positions. Without getting into any specific examples, there were plenty of statements that would have gotten you kicked off social media in 2020 that were headlines in The New York Times in 2022.

If you’ve more recently gone back to “normal,” or started to reassess the last few years, don’t just assume that your timeline was right—the pandemic’s over now, so of course we’re back to normal. It’s only over to the extent that the minority became the majority. We know a lot of things have changed, but we haven’t gotten much of an accounting of why. Did policies and practices change because the facts changed, or because our interpretation of those facts changed or because we just got tired of it?

If you came to the same conclusion as your friend, but a year or two later than they did, explore with them why you each interpreted events so differently. You will learn a lot about each other, and yourselves. So many people fought over pandemic response; friends, families and communities were torn apart. How much of that was just a misalignment of information, interpretation, prioritization or just failing to understand each other’s perspective?

If you were one of those that turned out to be “right” all along, you might be feeling pretty smug now. You are probably frustrated that no one listened to you, or worse, that you were seen as crazy or ostracized, and now that everyone’s come around, they want to move on. To those of us in that category, I would say as follows: First of all, no one was perfect, and no one made all the right decisions. Let’s each think about what we wish we did differently, and apologize to those we hurt. And if we want a real accounting from those who hurt us, we need to be prepared to accept it with love, and forgive.

The pandemic is over (at least for most people), but the time of accounting has just begun. Let’s first look at ourselves, and honestly account to those closest to us what we wish we did better. Let’s then participate in supporting our communal institutions as they do the same, with the knowledge that the only goal is to improve, which benefits us all. We need to hold our elected and unelected officials and corporations that drove a lot of the pandemic response to account for their actions, but we also need to account for our own reliance on them, or failure to challenge them, when they led us astray.

Together, we can move on and be stronger for the effort. We won’t all agree on what we should have done differently, but perhaps we can find a way to talk it through in a more productive way. I pray that relationships that were torn apart over pandemic disagreements can be repaired, and that together we can find a way to constructively move forward.


Ben Sandler lives in Teaneck with his wife and children.

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