Don’t be a Fonz: Admitting one’s mistakes in seeking redemption

RABBI JOSEF DAVIDSON

BY RABBI JOSEF DAVIDSON

One of the most popular programs on television during the 1970s was “Happy Days,” a nostalgic comedy about the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

During a turbulent era (when have we not lived through a turbulent era?), “Happy Days” provided a romanticized retrospective on a time of innocence. One of the main characters was Arthur Fonzarelli, better known simply as Fonzie or the Fonz, (portrayed by Henry Winkler). Fonzie was a natural leader in the guise of a biker, a tough guy with a soft heart, a charmer, but loyal to his friends. If the Fonz had one character flaw, it was that he could never admit to being wrong. In fact, he couldn’t even say the word! He could not allow himself that level of vulnerability in the company of his friends and foes.

 “To err is human” is a cliché with which all are familiar and which is eminently true. Everyone makes mistakes; everyone offends. When one commits a trespass against another person, against the community or against God, one feels isolated from those who were offended. One doesn’t need a scarlet “A” sewn onto one’s clothing to feel the stigma of having sinned. Guilty feelings manifest themselves in such a manner as to make the offender uncomfortable in the company of others with the knowledge that one was wrong.

In our Torah portion for this week, Vayikra, there are prescribed offerings that speak to the feelings of guilt, shame and sin as well as well-being and volunteerism on the other side of the spectrum. It would be easy to read these prescriptions and think that alleviating guilt, shame and sin are as easy as taking an animal to the priest for an offering, that it is the offering itself that atones for the wrongdoing. This notion flies in the face of the prescription for atonement with which most are familiar from the High Holy Days, namely, that one has to acknowledge the wrong (Fonzie was stuck at this point), ask forgiveness from the injured party or parties and not commit the same act again when the opportunity arises. How are these two prescriptions to be reconciled?

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Atonement, being at one with God and with the community, is possible only by acknowledging, asking forgiveness and refraining from acting again. Only in this manner can one break the isolation that comes from the knowledge of having committed trespasses. The purpose of the offerings described in this and next week’s Torah portions is to ritualize the reentry into the good graces of God and community. By sharing a meal with others, the isolation ends, the Teshuvah, the return, is acknowledged in a very tangible manner. The offering did not make atonement for the sin; it announced that the individual had atoned and was ready to rejoin the community.

To err may be human, but so is the mechanism by which to atone for errors. Though there are no longer offerings made to announce the reestablishment of communion with friends and with God, the act of reconciliation is enough. 

In this manner, the burden of guilt, shame and wrongdoing may be lifted from one’s shoulders, breaking the isolation and allowing for the support and love of the community. 

It is OK to say, “I was wrong.” That’s the first step back.

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson, affiliated with Congregation B’nai Amoona, is retired and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.