There's a concept in Judaism known as "teshuvah," which means "returning." The term implies a return to righteousness, and repenting for past sins. In Judaism, when we think of teshuvah during Rosh HaShana (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), we think in terms of collective sin: We ask G-d to forgive us for the sins "we" committed, even if we did not personally commit those sins. We also pledge to right wrongs, even where we did not personally engage in wrongdoing. This is what I am thinking about as we inaugurate the Biden-Harris Administration after four years of President Trump.

There's a story I remember from my Hebrew school days that I think is apropos of the occasion--

G-d is in heaven with the angels, and G-d asks an angel to go to Earth and bring back the most precious thing he can find. The angel goes to Earth and finds the largest diamond in the world. He brings it back to heaven and shows it to G-d. But G-d says that the diamond is not the most precious thing on Earth. So the angel returns and finds the most beautiful painting in the world. He brings it back to G-d, who again says no, that is not it. The angel returns to Earth a third time. He spots a man with a knife. The man is outside the home of his enemy, planning to kill him. As the angel watches, the man peers into the window. He sees his enemy putting his child to bed and kissing her goodnight. When he looks on this scene, the man realizes the horror of what he was about to do and begins to cry. The angel swoops in and grabs the man's tears. The angel brings the tears to G-d, who tells him, yes, this is the most precious thing in the world--the tears of the repentant sinner.

This story illustrates the importance of teshuvah. But where I think it is really applicable to our current situation is when considered in the context of collective sin and collective repentance: I didn't storm the Capitol and kill a police officer. I didn't lie about an election and encourage violence. I didn't attack and demonize non-citizens. Be "we" did, and I am part of that "we." I bear some responsibility for the actions of my fellow humans and my fellow Americans; even those who I actively oppose.

And so the question I am thinking about is, What is my role in helping our country turn toward righteousness? What responsibility do I have--does each of us have--to help heal our nation and bend the arc of history towards justice?

I think every one of us has a role to play in our national teshuvah. We should work towards reconciliation with those who disagree with us, even as we work towards justice for those in need. As an asylum lawyer, my job is to advocate for my clients and for others seeking refuge. It is also to listen and talk respectfully with those who disagree, and to try to understand their viewpoints. For those who have harmed asylum seekers (by persecuting them or lying about them, for example), it is my responsibility to help them recognize the humanity of those seeking protection in our country. Also, it is my responsibility to give them space to repair the harm and seek forgiveness.

In the Jewish tradition, sins against G-d can be atoned through prayer and repentance, but sins against other people can only be atoned once the wrong has been made right (to the extent that this is possible). Even if it is late, and even if the harm is severe, we should always welcome repentance and teshuvah. This is not to say that those who have done wrong should be let off the hook--taking responsibility and accepting a just punishment are part of seeking forgiveness. But the flip side of that coin is that victims of harm and the general community have a responsibility to try to forgive the repentant sinner. In the immigration context, we also have a responsibility to try to understand the concerns that motivated the harm and which underlie opposition to asylum seekers. While lying about people and hurting them is unacceptable, there are legitimate reasons to restrict immigration and limit asylum, and we advocates need to consider those concerns as we work to heal our country and move forward.

There's one last story I would like to share on this occasion. It's from the founding of our republic. During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, George Washington's chair had a carving of a sun on it. The carving depicted the top half of the sun peering over the horizon. At the end of the convention, Ben Franklin remarked, "I have often... looked at the sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting, but now at length, I have the happiness to know that it is rising." Ben Franklin is my favorite Founding Father, and unlike me, he was an optimist. For my part, I still wonder whether the sun is rising or setting on our great nation. The answer to that question--to paraphrase William Shakespeare--lies not in the sun, but in ourselves.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: