For the sin which we have committed before Thee with wanton looks; for the sin which we have committed before Thee with haughty eyes; for the sin–oh, gimme me a break, thought Steve. The Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service wasn’t even an hour old and Steve already felt he had had enough. Steve looked around at the congregation; many people, his parents and older sister included, were swaying back and forth, tapping their chests with their fist as they recited each sin. His two little sisters, a pair of twins, were sitting on their chairs playing with Beanie Babies. How about the sin which we have committed before Thee by playing with Beanie Babies in synagogue, thought Steve.
Steve had been attending the adult services since his bar mitzvah three years ago. He had heard all the sermons about repentance and forgiveness, but reciting these sins still seemed silly to him. Maybe it was the old fashioned, awkward English translation, laced with terms like unchastity, usurious interest, stiff-necked pride, idle gossip, wanton looks, and haughty eyes. Those wanton looks and haughty eyes always made him want to laugh out loud. Maybe it was the melodrama; people standing and hitting their chests. Some just symbolically tapped themselves, but others gave themselves pretty big whacks.
“I never did half this stuff. I don’t even know what some of this stuff is. What sin associated with impurity have I ever done or you or Mom or the twins?” Steve had asked his father once on the way home from synagogue. Well, no, certainly they hadn’t touched any dead bodies or done other gross things covered by the laws of purity, his father admitted, but everyone commits most of these sins at some time in their lives. So, it is symbolic and collective; we are repenting for everything on the part of everyone in the community as a community. Still, Steve would read down the list of sins and always think it was weird.
Steve was tall and thin, leading most people to think he was older than sixteen, although his awkwardness suggested that he still hadn’t grown into this tall, adult body. At school, his nickname was Beanpole or Bean for short. He didn’t like the nickname, but it stuck. If he had any talent for basketball or even liked the game, he might have been a star on his high school team, but he was klutzy and didn’t do well in sports.
Instead, he was very good at chess and played the violin really well, earning the first violin position in the high school orchestra his freshman year, but these weren’t the kinds of things that made a kid popular at his high school. He had a best friend, Davy, who had some kind of genetic disease that made him deformed and kept him in a wheelchair. But Davy was smart and funny. He loved watching sports and always dreamed of being tall and straight like Steve. “If I had your body, Steve, I’d play center on the basketball team,” he would say. Davy was the only kid who called him Steve. Everyone else called him Bean. The kids had a nickname for Davy–Pretzel–because of his twisted shape, but Steve had never called him that.
Steve and Davy were quite a pair, one tall and straight as an arrow, the other twisted and wheelchair-bound. They played chess together and just hung around. They talked a lot about the kids at school. Davy was brilliant at seeing through the boasting and pretension of a lot of the kids. He could cut through all the bullshit in an instant as if he could read your mind.
“That girl really likes you,” he would say to Steve.
“How do you know? I’ve never even spoken to her,” Steve would usually reply. Steve was not very popular with either the boys or the girls, at least not the cool kids or the jocks. He would have liked to be more popular, but he didn’t really know how. He thought a lot of stuff the kids did was stupid or gross, like drinking beer at the park at night until they threw up. So he spent a lot of time with Davy, which was fun but definitely wasn’t cool. In fact, when kids weren’t calling him Bean, they were calling him Nursey, as in Davy’s nurse.
But this year might be different. A girl in the orchestra who was also part of the cool group of kids showed some interest in Steve. He actually got up the nerve to talk with her a little. Jenny, a tall, outgoing girl, didn’t seem as snotty or clique-ish as the other kids who thought they were so cool.
“There’s Davy, coming in with his family. I wonder why they are so late,” Steve’s father said, nudging Steve. “Davy doesn’t look very good. What do you think?” he asked. Steve mumbled something about Davy looking okay. But he didn’t look okay at all, Steve thought.
Steve had been wondering where Davy was and for once was sort of glad when Davy wasn’t at synagogue early while everybody was arriving and talking. Steve and Davy had had a big falling out this past week at school.
And the stupid thing was how unfair Davy had been. Davy never liked Jenny from the start. “She’s not interested in you. She’s using you,” he insisted. “She’ll drop you like a rock,” he predicted.
“How do you know? You don’t know anything about girls. You’re just jealous,” Steve argued, but he wasn’t so sure Davy was all that wrong about Jenny. Steve sure didn’t know what Jenny saw in him, except, maybe, that he was taller than she was, unlike most of the boys at school. When they were together she mostly made little observations about other kids in the orchestra or talked about becoming a model. Steve didn’t know what he wanted to be. He usually just listened.
Anyway, Jenny had invited him to join her and some other kids after school. They were going for ice cream. Steve eagerly agreed. He had planned to hang around with Davy, but he figured he would take Davy along since it wasn’t really a date or anything like that–just a bunch of kids going off for ice cream.
Davy was against the idea. “They don’t want anything to do with me. Let’s play chess like we planned.” Steve insisted. But when he showed up after school with Davy, the kids made a big scene. They were going to go to an ice cream place in a car one of Jenny’s friends had and there was no way they could take the Pretzel along. Davy was right.
“Are you coming with us or not?” asked Jenny. Steve felt torn. He really wanted to join these kids. It was his chance to make new friends. Why should he let Davy ruin it, he reasoned. He wasn’t married to Davy or anything. He hoped Davy would just tell him to go ahead, but he didn’t.
“Hey Nursey, make up your mind. It’s us or the Pretzel. We want to get moving,” another kid shouted.
“We’ll play chess later,” Steve said to Davy, and he left Davy.
Steve was happy just being included for once. The kids talked a lot about other kids and teachers and rock bands. Jenny seemed nice, but Steve didn’t have too much to say. He was thinking about Davy and that he shouldn’t have left him.
The next day at school, Steve tried to talk to Davy, but Davy avoided him. When Steve finally caught up with him, Davy didn’t want to hear anything he had to say. They hadn’t even tried to talk to each other since.
So when Davy and his family weren’t at synagogue at the start of Kol Nidre, Steve was relieved. Davy’s dad was an old friend of Steve’s dad. The families were pretty close. He hadn’t told his family anything about the incident after school. He sort of guessed what his father and mother would say about it. They would not have approved of leaving Davy like that. But it was so unfair. What special claim to him did Davy have?
The service moved forward, but Steve was still staring at the list of sins. Was there one that covered betraying a friend? He had to admit, that’s what he did. He had promised to do something that afternoon with Davy, even if it was just play chess and hang around, but then he cut out. He studied the list of sins: breach of trust, deceit, spurning, vain oaths, confusion of mind. Confusion of mind! That was a great one–he’d had nothing but confusion of mind since that afternoon after school.
Walking home, his father turned to each of them and said, “If I have done anything to hurt you or that was unfair this past year, I am sorry. I try to be fair and respectful of each of you although I might not always succeed. But I promise to keep trying.” Steve mumbled something like it’s okay.
Steve walked on in silence as his mother, father, and sisters chattered away. Suddenly Steve turned to his father. “If you say you’re sorry to someone, they have to forgive you, don’t they?”
“Not necessarily,” his father replied. “If you’re really sincere and you really commit yourself to fixing whatever it was that you did wrong and you follow through, then they should forgive you, but I don’t think they have to. Why? Did you do something that you’re troubled about?”
“Nah. I was just curious whether if you repented they had to forgive you.”
The next day Steve looked around for Davy. He had decided to apologize and try to set things straight just like his father had the night before. He knew exactly what he would say. But Davy and his family never showed up.
After the Torah reading and a bunch of appeals for money, Steve slipped out of the service. A lot of kids were hanging around on the steps to the Hebrew School wing. Usually Steve hung around in the lobby with Davy, who couldn’t maneuver his wheelchair around the steps where the kids gathered. Without Davy around, Steve drifted over to the kids on the steps. A few were part of Jenny’s crowd at school. Steve hung around there until his parents were ready to leave.
Most of the kids were okay. A couple were jerks. “Hey Nursey, where’s your good buddy, the Pretzel?” one shouted. The others watched for Steve’s response.
“I don’t know. He’s not my good buddy, and I’m not his nurse,” Steve replied.
“Ya coulda fooled me,” the kid continued.
Steve decided to ignore him and started talking to a couple of the other kids. He liked most of these kids and wanted to be liked by them. They’d never accept Davy so why push it. Still, it bothered him that he didn’t even want to admit he and Davy were good friends. But heck, maybe they weren’t good friends anymore. He tried to talk to Davy, but Davy didn’t respond. It wasn’t his fault.
The mystery of where Davy and his family had gone was solved walking home that afternoon. They took a route that passed Davy’s street. He looked down the street and saw an ambulance in front of Davy’s house. Even though it was still Yom Kippur, Steve’s father called Davy’s family. Davy had suddenly gotten very sick, a complication from his condition. The doctors decided to put him in the hospital for a few days.
Steve felt very confused. He wanted to apologize to Davy and ask his forgiveness for the incident after school, but he also liked being around the other kids. And now Davy was in the hospital. What if he died? Well, it would solve one problem, he almost thought. But it was such a terrible, horrible thought it scared Steve. “Oh God, please make Davy well, please, please please,” he prayed with a sincerity and fervor that he hadn’t had for any of the Yom Kippur prayers. All through Ne’ ilah, the concluding Yom Kippur evening service, Steve prayed that Davy get well.
Steve finally got to visit Davy a few days later, when the doctors let him go home. Davy, who seemed smaller and more twisted than usual, was lying in bed. An oxygen tank stood next to the bed, but it wasn’t being used. It was an awkward visit.
Steve asked some stupid questions about the hospital, like how the food was, and made a lame joke about getting to skip the Yom Kippur fast. Davy barely responded. Steve tried his apology. “Look, I’m really sorry if I did anything to offend you or hurt your feelings this year. I know you’re mad about my going off with Jenny that day, and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done it.”
Davy didn’t say anything at first. Then, in a weak but angry voice, he asked, “Do you call me the Pretzel too?” He spit out the word Pretzel.
“I never have. Never. I swear it,” Steve insisted.
Just then Davy’s mother entered and announced that Davy needed rest. Steve patted his friend on the arm as he left, but Davy didn’t respond.
The following weeks were uncomfortable, at least regarding Steve’s friendship with Davy. While Davy was home recovering, Steve spent increasing amounts of time with Jenny and her friends. When he was with them, he hardly thought of Davy. He also visited Davy often at first. Steve would sit with him, they’d play chess and talk, but it wasn’t the same as before. They avoided the subject of Jenny and Steve’s new friends. Steve stopped coming as often.
Steve’s father was the first to comment about it. “I hear you’re not visiting Davy like you used to. You know, his dad told me that he could use some companionship. You guys used to be great friends.”
“Well, things have changed I guess. We’re not such great friends anymore,” Steve replied evasively.
“Just because he got sick is no reason to end the friendship. He’ll be returning to school soon. I know it is a lot to ask, but his dad would appreciate it if you could help him a bit at school like you did before. I think you both enjoyed it,” his father said.
Steve didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure Davy wants it. Anyway, I have different friends now. We do different stuff. I’m not sure Davy will fit in.”
“What happened between you two?” his father asked.
“Nothing. Things just changed,” Steve insisted.
“I don’t believe that. Something happened.” His father started thinking very hard. After a moment he turned to Steve. “Did something happen between you and Davy before Yom Kippur?” his father asked, recalling the walk home following Kol Nidre.
Steve suddenly was tired of being evasive. He told his father all about his fight with Davy, about Jenny and her friends, about his confusion and torn loyalties, about kids calling Davy the Pretzel, about leaving him that day, about apologizing, about everything. His father thought quietly for a few minutes before speaking. “There is more to repentance than just saying you’re sorry. Even more than just being sincerely sorry. Repentance means changing your ways. It means fixing the wrong thing you did.”
“But I don’t want to give up my new friends and…” Steve started to protest.
“Repentance doesn’t mean you have to give up your new friends. It doesn’t mean you have to be Davy’s friend forever. But it does mean you have to treat Davy with respect, to be honest with Davy, with your new friends, and with yourself. Davy’s body may be weak, but his mind is sharp. He senses your disrespect and your dishonesty, even if your new friends don’t. But they probably pick up on it too in their own way. That’s not how to build any kind of friendship. If you’re sincere about repentance, then you should start by thinking about practicing respect and honesty.”
Davy was back in school the next week. Things were as awkward as before. Steve still felt torn between Davy and his new friends. And despite thinking over what his father had said, he hadn’t even begun to figure out how to practice respect and honesty in this situation. He was sitting with some of his new friends in the cafeteria when Davy rolled his wheelchair down a nearby aisle. Steve spontaneously waved, beckoning Davy to join them.
Davy guided his wheelchair up to them. One kid jumped up. “Hey Pretzel, you asshole, get lost. We don’t want a spaz around here.”
Steve felt a sudden rush of anger. “He has as much right to be here as you do. And his name is Davy. Don’t you dare call him Pretzel,” he shouted.
“So Nursey suddenly has a voice. We don’t fucking need you either.” The kid pushed Davy’s wheelchair hard. “Get the fuck out of here now.”
Steve grabbed the kid and pulled him away. “Leave him alone!” he shouted. The kid turned on Steve and started punching and kicking. Steve had never been very good at fighting–too thin, too klutzy–and he wasn’t any better now, but he did manage to land a couple of wild punches before the cafeteria monitors broke up the fight.
Both boys were automatically suspended for the rest of the day for fighting, even though the principal agreed that the other boy had instigated the fight. Davy came to Steve’s house right after school. “Hey, everybody at school is buzzing about you. All your new friends think you were great!” he said, showing more enthusiasm than he had shown in weeks. “Some of those kids aren’t so bad,” he added. Davy then handed Steve a folded note. “Jenny asked me to give you this.”
Steve opened the note. She had drawn a big heart with a message inside. It read: Stick to the violin. Love and xxxxx, Jenny.
“What did she say?” asked Davy. Steve handed him the note. “I guess she wasn’t impressed with your martial arts skills, but she still likes you,” he concluded. They both laughed together for the first time in a long time.
“I’m really sorry for leaving you that day. And I’m sorry that I wasn’t being straight with you or with any of the others. I should have stood up for you sooner.”
“It’s okay. Forget about it,” Davy said.
But Steve didn’t forget about it. He remembered it every Yom Kippur as he read through the list of sins and thought about what repentance really means.