Making the Most of Our Mistakes: How Mechilah Can Give Us a Model to Go Forward on Inclusion

Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in the religious world, but I find that I often have trouble truly understanding the Jewish concept of Mechilah.  I actually spent a bunch of time reading about it yesterday as I was preparing for yesterday’s blog post, and I still can’t figure out whether the true weight of the tradition is in recognizing how we’ve harmed others and trying to make amends, or in seeking the forgiveness of those that we’ve harmed, specifically because we know that amends only go so far.  I suspect that the answer is somewhere in the middle, and that is why we see both the obligation to request, and the obligation to grant forgiveness.

I wonder if we can take this as a model for inclusion for the year.  I was reflecting this morning on the various congregations that I’ve helped to prepare in various ways this year, whom I know will be implementing things that we’ve discussed at the high holidays.  I was excited as I thought about all of the things that they will do, and momentarily perturbed as I realized that they would almost certainly not be perfect.  A week from today, and two weeks from tomorrow, there will be stories, probably at every congregation in the world, where inclusion did not happen the way we wanted.  There will be mixups, misses and unanticipated situations.

The question is not how to avoid those, because I believe that our tradition teaches us the folly of expecting perfection.  The question is rather, where do we go from here.

I’ve been in a lot of meetings where organizers are reflecting on past events, and been privy to a lot of anguished sharing sessions where participants with disabilities painfully recount things that went wrong.  Too often, the one side is busy defending the adequacy of intention, while the other side has determined that they have suffered at the hands of an organization incompetent at best and indifferent at worst.  Battle lines are drawn.  Hurts rage.

What if we did something a little different?  What if we practiced a little post high holiday Mechilah?

What if those of us in charge of organizing events were to say, “we want to hear where things did not go right.”  What if we were to then first acknowledge the painful nature of the experience for the participant that experienced it, and then have an earnest discussion about how it could be improved in the future.

What if those of us that felt excluded were to candidly share our hurt, assuming that we have a receptive audience who will show contrition.  What if we were to then do the really hard work of letting go of the pain and hurt, and offering forgiveness while we work together on a solution?

Judaism does not teach us to turn the other cheek, that sort of blanket forgiveness belongs to another faith.  Judaism does teach us that we have an obligation to forgive an individual that comes to us in true contrition, trying to act better.

If both sides practice this Mechilah, then we have a blueprint to move forward.  We’ve identified problems and solutions, and while Rosh Hashanah 5778 will no doubt still have its problems, they will be different and hopefully fewer than 5777, and each Shabbat, and each event this year will benefit from the process.

In tradition, Mechilah is about removing negative entries on the accounting of our souls (so I read).  What if, in this inclusion Mechilah, what we are doing is taking potential negative entries on the ledger of our collective and shared experience in synagogue life, and building instead credits to the ledger to make us more inclusive?  Then we might truly be sealed for a better year in the year to come, whether we believe that that is a spiritual phenomenon or not.

In closing, I hope that everyone that reads this has a wonderful experience next week and the week after.  Unfortunately, I’m reasonably certain that there will be some setbacks, and I hope we take those as an opportunity to grow our relationships, our dialogue, and our inclusion.  Shana Tova