In Season 5 of the CW show, Arrow, the (spoilers) Green Arrow is captured and forced to recognize his own sins. He comes to the realization that he has enjoyed killing people and disguised it as a righteous crusade. Halacha of television and murder aside, there is the recognition by Oliver that he had the right mission, but a wrong desire in that mission, leading him to sin. In the process of his repentance, however, he condemned himself as a monster and determined to push others away. Only at the persistence of his team did he return to the fold and realize that he needed to reconsider his motives before he continued in the field of vigilantism. This brings up excellent questions regarding morality, sin, and repentance with the High Holidays around the corner.
What is the purpose of repentance? Within a Jewish context, t’shuvah is about turning from one’s sin and, more or less, completing viddui and tachanun. This should be done every day. While we do not currently have a Temple in which we can offer sacrifices, the Siddur prayers have taken the places of sacrifices so that we may still commit to HaShem. Not only should one examine their actions and repent from evil deeds every day, they should commit to observing the High Holy Days – this (repentance, commitment) is the purpose of the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 130:2).
The goal of the Ten Days of Repentance (Aseres Yemeni Teshuvah) is to be purified before HaShem. This is both intentional and unintentional sins, including ones we may not be sure we committed (if one is unsure if they transgressed a sin, for example, there is a greater level of repentance in this cases, 130:2, in order to ensure the same level of regret that is present as when one is sure they did transgress a sin). Part of one’s repentance is to commit to increased Torah study, mitzvos, and charity. It is during this time we are more stringent in observance as well.
Does this align with Oliver’s moment of truth? Far from it. Chabad points out that there are dangers in over-analyzing one’s own sin life. While we are to keep a record of sins to atone for them, confession should come quick and not be waited for later. Additionally, with confession is the need to quit the course of action that leads to sin. Within Orthodoxy we accomplish that by the fences in Talmud. For example, one should not touch an object associated with work on Shabbos. We call these items “Mukzeh.” One such example is picking up a pen on Shabbat. Unless it is for the purpose of moving it, we should avoid interacting with items that are related to work to ensure we do not commit the work itself. It is much easier to write on shabbos if pen and paper are already in hand, just as it’s easier to tear off a fruit or leaf from a tree if we’re climbing it or playing in the yard (there are varying levels of stringency/leniency here that permit different views, from kids playing in a yard to not playing in a yard). So too we have fences to prevent unintentional sins. The Kitzur discusses these in detail.
Returning to Oliver’s approach, however, this is where Hollywood misunderstands repentance. Repentance is not about feeling condemned and quitting. Repentance is not about being limited in life and joyless. Repentance is not about failing and being stuck in failure. Repentance is recognizing where we have fallen short and sinned. Repentance is identifying our weakness to the Evil Inclination (yetzer hara) and no longer giving in to it. We swing the kaparot not out being forgiven, but to help us get the right frame of mind and perspective. Swinging a chicken over one’s head does not atone for sin, but it does help us recognize that this is the punishment we deserve for our sin (Siman 131: 3, Laws of Yom Kippur). So, should Oliver feel remorse for all the deaths he caused in the show? Of course. Does that mean that he can never move forward? No, it does not. Aryeh Kaplan, in The Handbook of Jewish Thought, teaches that regardless of one’s sin, there will always be a chance for repentance.
Repentance is not atonement. We atone for our sins by paying the cost, yes. But repentance, t’shuvah, is more than that. Just as a Baal Shuvah is one who returns to the faith, the root word here is to return to service of HaShem. To repent means to atone by stopping the sin, no longer committing the sin, confessing the sin, feeling shame and sorrow, then turning away from it and living righteously instead.
When it comes to bridge-building, this is something that Jews and Christians can share. Both theologies teach that forgiveness is a prayer away. Hollywood may have missed the point, but that doesn’t mean that we have to as well. Instead, we can take the opportunity this Elul, and every Elul, to have introspection and prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah, the Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur. We can seek forgiveness of sin every day, but it is taught that HaShem is even more willing to forgive, being inclined to have extra grace, during this season. True repentance is not committing to celibacy or refusing to do right because of a risk – it is changing our ways and our wills to match HaShem’s. It is choosing to pursue holiness. We may never get there, since it’s a never-ending pursuit of mankind, but it is nonetheless one of the most proper pursuits we can engage.
How will you prepare?