Elul 15: Sins of Past

In college I was the “big man on campus.” Well, not all of campus… just Hillel. One guy always bothered me. He wanted the glory of leading services on Friday nights (Kabbalat Shabbat) for the big crowd at Hillel, but he never showed up when we needed people at Hillel for services on Shabbat mornings. In fact, he committed the ultimate crime: going to Young Israel instead of Hillel on Shabbat mornings. We weren’t good enough for him. I felt that it was just not fair to Hillel. My rule: unless you show up Saturday mornings, no leading Friday night. Needless to say, this guy – actually a nice guy by other standards – was not happy. His girlfriend, with whom I had been very friendly, was furious and never forgave me, even though I spent an entire Shabbat apologizing.

Flash forward, and I am Gabbai (commander-in-chief) of Shabbat services at the school where I work. Once again, something annoying and demeaning to the prayers occurs: a student asks for his father to lead services, but the father is late … very late. The son really wants his father to lead services. We are plotzing. Finally, I ask a friend to start leading services. He starts. Just then, the father arrives. Frustration! My first inclination is to say, “Mister, you came late. That is not fair or respectful to us. You should be punished.” But, I remember my disaster in college when I punished the Kabbalat Shabbat leader.

God punishes; we do not. Tefillah, prayer, is about mercy and kindness, not about putting people in their place. I needed to learn from mistakes of the past and to move beyond myself to what is right.

I asked my friend to kindly allow the student’s father to take over. I have been close to my friend and to the offending student, to this very day.

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Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 5) is the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Orthodox rabbinical school that teaches an inclusive, open, and welcoming Torah.