Teshuvah is the New Black
Netflix redefined binge watching this summer. For the first time, the DVD Rental-by-mail and more recently, video streaming service, revolutionized television by producing their own television series. Unlike prime-time shows or cable network favorites, these serials did not premiere an episode at a time. The viewer was not forced to wait week after week to watch the next installment. The entire season premiered at once. As a result, I joined countless others by spending hours on the couch zipping through their series in a few short days.
One series that stood out to me was the critically-acclaimed Orange is the New Black, the story of protagonist Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling and based on the real-life experiences of Piper Kerman, which chronicles her year in a minimum security women’s prison. This comedy-drama series has a cast of characters to keep the viewer entertained, each in jail for a variety of reasons. Some believe their crimes were just (standing up to a rapist, participating in a political protest,) while others made a mistake or were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The essence of the story is told through the eyes of the privileged Chapman who is struggling with the broken justice system and challenges of being at the bottom of the totem pole in the Department of Corrections. What fascinated me was that all of the inmates attempted to change, but for many, they were stuck in a vicious cycle. From the murderers to the thieves to the drug mules (like Chapman,) they each showed remorse during the first season and expressed a desire to start anew with a clean slate. Many inmates, referring to Chapman as “college” because of her liberal arts education, ask for her assistance in writing appeals letters, hoping to start over. Furthermore, while an outsider may assume that a prison full of criminals leads to violence, the women at the Litchfield, NY federal prison create a family, looking out for each other and caring about each other, even having veteran prisoners serving as “mothers” to new inmates. There is a clear desire among the prisoners to do teshuvah, to repent, and receive a second chance. What was so heartbreaking as a viewer was the realization of how hard that second chance is. Throughout the show prisoner after prisoner had their appeals denied.
[Spoiler Alert] The rare case in which an inmate won her appeal and was released early didn’t last for long. Taystee Jefferson’s (played by Danielle Brooks) release from prison was celebrated by all prisoners as a new day. She did teshuvah and was given a second chance. Only a few episodes later though she returned to Litchfield Penitentiary. She informed all the inmates how hard it is to actually change. She, like many, was stuck in a vicious cycle. In an odd way, prison gave her a routine, a community, and a purpose. As a free woman she felt alone versus the world.
This series reminds us that teshuvah is the easy part. As Jews, we are given the entire “holiday season,” the month of Elul and the High Holy Days to do teshuvah and repent. Repenting – acknowledging that we’ve done something wrong, saying we are sorry, and asking for forgiveness – is the easy part. It is the change that follows that is most difficult. All of us feel remorse, like the inmates in Orange is the New Black, when we are caught and must deal with the consequences. When we are stuck dealing with the punishment, we realize that we shouldn’t have done what we did to get us there. The real test of teshuvah is what we do with our second chance when it is given. Will we be brave enough, and strong enough, to start anew or when given a second chance, will we succumb to our old ways of making mistakes? The irony is that our fixed liturgy is prepared for us to continue to make mistakes. Even when we vow to change, we do wrong. After all, only minutes after we conclude the Neilah service, and thus, conclude Yom Kippur with a clean slate, we acknowledge that we have transgressed in the Amidah. We too are caught up in a vicious cycle. We cannot let our fear of returning to wrongdoings prevent us from repenting. Let us always shoot for a clean slate, and strive to be a better version of ourselves when given a second (or third, or fourth) chance. After all, when it comes to what is trendy, Teshuvah is the new Black.
Please note: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is available to stream for all Netflix customers and is for mature audiences. This dramedy set in a women’s prison includes strong language, sexual situations, violence, and the use of drugs.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky