Writing from prison, a Jewish inmate talks about accepting responsibility and seeking forgiveness
Editors Note: This letter came to us from a Conservative Jewish inmate who wrote in response to Rabbi Deborah Wechsler’s article about the High Holidays, Judgment Day.
I am a Jew, born and raised under the Conservative umbrella, and now residing in a community of one. How can that be? I am a prisoner in a United States Federal Prison Camp and currently have the distinction of being the only practicing Jewish inmate. My arrival in prison occurred approximately three years ago and just before the Jewish holiday of Passover. Ashamed, humiliated, embarrassed, disgraced and now void of all possessions, family, friends, colleagues and even my wife of 24 years, I was by the very definition a lost soul looking for a reason to wake tomorrow. It must be made crystal clear that there are no plausible excuses, rationalizations or possible justifications for my actions, for which I pled guilty in a court of law. Standing before my friends, clients, and the community, it was time for me to accept responsibility for what I had done, try my best to understand “why,” learn the lessons that God intended, and find a way to move forward with life. Certainly no easy task for a once-respected attorney and member of the Jewish and secular community, who once had everything: a wonderful spouse, a terrific daughter, and a contingent of family and friends, almost all of which seemed to disappear with the sound of the judge’s gavel. To say I was lost is an understatement.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “In the end we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” No truer words have struck my ears. My legal troubles began over two years before the fatal day of my sentencing. During the legal process, and despite a rabbi and a few congregational friends who were tremendously supportive, I found myself no longer welcome in the shul that was once our home. While I tried my best to understand and certainly accept this as part of my punishment, a part of me wondered how a place of worship that was so warm, friendly and inviting could so abruptly close its doors on someone so very much in need of finding his way and seeking out God.
After entering the criminal justice system, accepting responsibility for my actions and trying to understand how and why this could happen to me, I could not help but think that somehow my Jewish faith and, in fact, God, had let me down. Boy, was I wrong! It wasn’t God, my temple, or anyone else that was responsible for my downfall, or who was capable of mending my soul, it was purely and simply me. After months of struggling with my own Jewish identity, I returned to the chapel with no minyan, no Torah, no tallis, no congregation; just me, a siddur, and God. Time has not healed the wounds that I have caused, but it has given me the opportunity to learn the lessons of humility, honesty, tolerance, and has blessed with the chance to begin my life anew and allow me to at least try to fix all that I have broken. In Judaism there is a doctrine of shever v’tikun, breaking and then repairing. For all things there is a before and an after, a shattering and then a rebirth. Your whole world may be destroyed, only to be rebuilt. Similar to the floods in the time of Noah and the destruction of the Temple, we face cataclysmic events in life which require that we search deep into ourselves for the wisdom and the strength to survive and to grow. In this process a new person has also been created.
Over the past several years Jewish inmates have come and gone and for now, at least, I am a congregation of one. Each and every Friday night for Shabbat I enter a white cinder-block room we call a chapel. This room contains prayer books and religious writings for every religion imaginable. There is a single book shelf dedicated to Jewish prayer books and writings, no bima and no Torah, but we are given a locker which houses matzah (used in place of challah for Shabbat Kiddush), two candlesticks (one of which has been broken over time), two candles, several kippot (including one made of yarn by a fellow inmate who was practicing his crocheting), and a set of tefillin. The Shabbat service begins with the lighting of the candles and is aided by a correctional officer who holds the lighter (which we are forbidden to possess). The service follows the siddur and includes frequent pauses of reflection on the past, consideration of the realities of the present, and dreams of the future. The service always concludes with a prayer for my daughter and Hatikvah, my favorite song. The conclusion of the service requires the assistance of a non-Jewish inmate, not very hard to find, to blow out the Shabbat candles – they are not permitted to burn out on their own, and candles are considered a precious commodity. This Shabbat ritual takes place every Friday night and has come to mean more to me than any religious service I’ve ever attended, next to the bat mitzvah of my daughter in Israel.
As the High Holy Days approach, I look once again at where I am and reevaluate my religious beliefs in light of my current journey. I have come to understand that religion cannot be used as a crutch to rely upon as we walk through life, but should serve as the manual or guidebook which aids us in building a meaningful and purposeful existence. We cannot assume that our religious beliefs will absolve us of our wrongs, provide us with a “get out of jail free” card, or miraculously heal the wounds which our hands have created. For there is no universal forgiveness for our misdeeds. It just doesn’t work that way.
When I pray it is for those that I care most about in my life, those I have touched with my words or actions, and those who I hope can find it in their hearts to forgive. My prayers are for health, hope, and happiness. They are for the things of my past which made me who I am, and for the things yet to come which will shape who I will be. My prayers are for strength, courage, and for the unwavering conviction that my glass shall remain half full; as reality proves, things could always be far worse.
I believe that no individual is perfect and at some point in our lives we will make a mistake, or two, or three. In fact, mistakes and errors in judgment, our imperfections, make us who we are and define us as human beings. It is our errors in judgment, morality or ethical flaws, which force us to learn about life, face our fallibility, and remind us of the human need to strive to make the world a better place. Yet, despite the inevitability of our errors and miscues in life, we have not quite grasped the concept of forgiveness. For many, the mistakes of others are not recognized as a tool for understanding, learning, and improvement, but used as a weapon to belittle, ostracize, or inflict pain upon another. The Jewish faith teaches us compassion, understanding, and the importance of forgiveness, and yet few truly understand and even fewer practice this very basic precept. King Solomon taught us that seven times a righteous man falls down and seven times he stands back up. A righteous person is not necessarily one that was born righteous, but who becomes so by standing up despite the fact that he has erred in his ways. I would like to think that God judges us not so much by the mistakes we make, but by how we deal with those mistakes and our willingness to redress our wrongs and make amends.
In order to forgive another you need to be able to put on their glasses and try to see the world through their eyes. It is the ability to accept another’s actions without judgment and to try as best we can to understand the thought process and decision-making behind another’s actions that leads us to forgiveness. Understanding another’s motivations and reasoning does not require us to accept or agree with the act or the resulting outcome. It does, however, demand an open mind, a frank realization that there are many factors that cause us to act, and a recognition that frequently mistakes need to be made for a person to learn and to better themselves. We often see issues as black or white, truth or fabrication, just or unjust, right or wrong, but we fail to accept the fact that many of those issues which we may see so clearly actually appear as shades of gray to others. We are all artists painting a picture as we travel through life: our picture. With the each decision we make, a stroke of the brush is added to help define our picture and through the years of experience and time, color is gradually added as our work of art becomes clearer and takes shape. There are frequent mistakes requiring a touch-up, a redo, and sometimes many attempts are needed in order to get it just right. Forgiveness requires us to get into the artist’s head and accept their work, for better or worse, but more importantly searching for understanding and realizing that this painting is a work in progress, and not yet the masterpiece that society has come to expect. In the words of Suzuki, “I am an artist at living – my work of art is my life.”
Forgiveness is having compassion for the artist, the actor, with the understanding that for those errors made, the actor often feels guilt, embarrassment, shame, and humiliation. Admitting our own missteps in life is acknowledging the notion that we are not perfect and require tweaking, a concept not taught by most parents, teachers or clergy. The actor must live with the errors made in the past and learn to accept them as lessons being taught in the school of life.
The true dilemma of forgiving another can be found in the misconception that forgiveness in some form requires forgetting. This notion is the farthest from the truth. In fact, if one is to forgive, they must never forget the error that was made as it becomes their obligation to follow the actor to learn so that the previous road traveled is never traveled again. Forgiveness has nothing to do with forgetting, but everything to do with the humanity of allowing another to just be human.
I am proud to be Jewish and even more proud to tout the fact that with each challenge I may face it is through the Jewish traditions, customs and teachings that I become a stronger and better person in this world. The experiences of the past several years have taught me many lessons of life, of love, of family, of friends, of tolerance, or understanding, and most importantly of forgiveness. As I continue my journey I go forward knowing that the life I have been blessed with will not last an eternity, but it will be the legacy that I leave behind for which I will be remembered. It is my goal in life to be happy, to fill the world with friendship, love of mankind, compassion and respect the reality that our time on earth is limited and each second is far too precious to waster. My glass remains half-filled and this is who I am, even in a congregation of one.