Teshuvah and Truth?
February 28, 2019
I spent part of yesterday tuned into the hearing of the House Oversight Committee with Michael Cohen. I suspect that most viewers saw in the hearing exactly what they expected to see, even before the hearing began. That is to say, if you were inclined to be a supporter of President Trump before the hearing, you likely were one afterwards. And vice versa. I am curious if the testimony and discussion were effective in changing anyone’s mind.
I found myself viewing the proceedings through the lenses of two Jewish concepts: teshuvah (repentance) and emet (truth). Teshuvah is best known to us from the High Holy Days. Coming from the Hebrew root related to “turning,” teshuvah is being sorry for what we did wrong and seeking to correct it, turning from our old ways towards our better selves. The medieval sage, Maimonides, posited five steps for someone seeking to do teshuvah: recognize what you have done wrong; take responsibility for your actions; take steps to repair the situation; take steps to grow and learn from the situation; and, when you find yourself in the same situation again, make a different choice. Has Michael Cohen completed teshuvah for his misdeeds? I don’t think so. But is he on a path of teshuvah, seeking to repair his mistakes and be better in the future? Possibly, but there would still be much more to be done.
The other value I saw at work in the hearing is emet, which means “truth.” Truth is a tricky concept, especially when dealing with accusations of lying and liars. I am mindful of a teaching from our tradition that notes that the Hebrew letters that spell emet are aleph, the first Hebrew letter, mem, the letter in the middle of the alphabet, and tav, the last Hebrew letter. The teaching points out that one must therefore travel a great distance, even the entire length of the alphabet, to put “truth” together. Its pieces are not right next to one another, but require effort to assemble. Here, the truth may lie scattered among the questions and answers of the hearing, making us work to uncover emet in its entirety.
These questions – “Did Michael Cohen do teshuvah?” “What is the truth that can be uncovered?” – are not intended to be partisan or biased. Asking the questions is a way to see Jewish values at work in the world by applying the teachings of our tradition to current events. It certainly makes for interesting viewing and a framework for living our lives.