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Yom Kippur - 2007 / 5768 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe  


Yom Kippur - 2007 / 5768 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe

It was not uncommon in “the old country” for there to be someone whose job was to see to it that tzedakah funds were collected from those who could afford to give, and distribute those funds to those in need.  One day, he came home unusually late, and was especially tired.   His wife could see the kind of day he had and said, “You were out for a long time today. Did you have any success?”  He replied “Yes, I am 50% of the way there. I have convinced all of the poor people to receive!”

There are times that every congregational rabbi feels like that fundraiser, especially after Yom Kippur. I know I have. Only what I am brokering is forgiveness.  I often feel like I was successful, that is to say, Yom Kippur was successful, in getting people to ask for, and be prepared to receive, forgiveness.  There are years that I feel like I was very successful at this, at getting people to take teshuvah seriously. I feel this way because I hear from people afterwards telling me about what they did as a result of Yom Kippur. The most gratifying stories are usually the ones when people tell me that they took steps towards healing a broken relationship. Inevitably, it involves forgiving some wrong on the part of one person or both. I always wonder, when I hear one of those, how many more stories like that are out there. Unfortunately, I sometimes hear about the ones which did not go so well. Those are the most heartbreaking stories, and I especially wonder, when I hear one of those, how many more stories like that are out there.

Occasionally, those stories have to do with a sibling or a child or even a spouse – or even a former spouse. Most of the time, they have to do with a parent. Sometimes these are stories of abuse, but they are often stories about broken dreams and disappointments, or just slights and thoughtless behaviors that took on a life of their own.

We read the fundamental teaching from the Mishnah about Teshuvah earlier in our service: “for transgressions between human beings and God, Yom Kippur atones. For transgressions between one human being and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” No vicarious atonement in our tradition.   Relationships cannot be repaired via a third party.

But we read something else that we do not all believe.  There are other parts of our liturgy that we say that not all of us believe, but this one is different. It is not a theological issue. We read:

“I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have wronged me, whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.”

The truth is, we are not always so prepared to forgive.

Why is that? And what happens when the one who is wronged is not so ready to be forgiving?

 Naomi Rachel Remen is an MD whose popular reflections on wisdom have made her a sought after lecturer. She tells of attending a Yom Kippur service to hear a well-known rabbi speak.

“But the rabbi did not speak directly about God's forgiveness.

Instead, he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and, carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the bimah or podium. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father's arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted. Turning toward her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and with his customary dignity began a rather traditional Yom Kippur sermon, talking about the meaning of the holiday.

 The baby girl, feeling his attention shift away from her, reached forward and grabbed his nose. Gently he freed himself and continued the sermon. After a few minutes, she took his tie and put it in her mouth. Everyone chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie and smiled at his child. ... Looking at us over the top of her head, he said, "Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?"  Just then, she reached up and grabbed his eyeglasses. Everyone laughed out loud.

Retrieving his eyeglasses and settling them on his nose, the rabbi laughed as well. Still smiling, he waited for silence. When it came, he asked, "And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?"

Back then, God's forgiveness was something easily understandable to me, but personally, I found forgiveness difficult. I had thought of it as a lowering of standards rather than a family relationship.” 1

By now, Dr. Remen probably knows that forgiveness is a Jewish imperative.  Maimonides teaches that “We should be slow to anger and easily appeased. And when our forgiveness is requested, we should grant it with a whole heart and a willing spirit; we should not be vengeful or bear grudges even for a grave injury." “This,” he said, "is the way of the upright Jew."

Easier said than done. As we all know, it is a lot easier to legislate behaviors than emotions.

Which is why the rabbis of the Talmud understood that there may be those who would not be so quick to offer forgiveness. And they also understood that with few exceptions, people deserve an opportunity to let go of the wrongs they have committed.  So they created a standard: a person must make three sincere attempts at Teshuvah, after which he or she is absolved of further responsibility. One can even do Teshuvah with someone who is no longer alive: Maimonides teaches that one should go to the grave of someone they have wronged in the presence of a minyan and ask for forgiveness. Clearly, this is not going to change the life of the person who was wronged, but it provides an opportunity for the one doing Teshuvah to put this in a different place, and to be able to move on.

And it works the other way, as well.

A number of years ago, a friend of mine approached me about the relationship he had with his father, who, by then, was long gone. Theirs was a very difficult relationship, and there was a lot he wanted to let go. So here is what we did: he took a pad of paper and a pen, and he wrote, and wrote, and wrote, pages and pages, everything he wanted to say to his father. We went out to the cemetery where he was buried, and standing by his father’s grave, he read the letter aloud. There was no minyan, but there was a witness. When he finished, he put the letter in an empty coffee can, struck a match, and turned it into smoke and ashes. After it cooled off, we dug a small hole at his father’s grave, poured in the ashes, and covered it over. When we left, his relationship with his father was different – and he was different.

Even from beyond the grave, relationships can change. They cannot be completely remade, because forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. But we always have the power to let go.

So today, I am like that fundraiser. But I am not going to ask you to give – I am not going to tell you about how important it is to do teshuvah.  The liturgy does a good enough job of that. I am going to ask you to give. I am going to ask you to find a way to give forgiveness to the people who have wronged you and who have hurt you and even betrayed you – not for them, but for you. After all, if they try three times and you rebuff them, they are off the hook.  But those who have been wronged are left holding the anger and the pain.

Forgiveness does not wipe the slate clean. It allows us to put the hurt, the disappointment, the failure, the betrayal in a place where it is no longer toxic, so your healing can take place.

Sometimes, that is more difficult than others.

As I said earlier, there are exceptions. Murder, of course, is at the top of the list. But even that can be more complicated than we would typically think. 

 My colleague, Rabbi Karyn Kedar shares a story of a conversation with a friend of hers about forgiveness. She had known that her friend’s mother had been murdered, but had never asked details, waiting until her friend chose to share them, if ever. That conversation inspired her to do so. Her friend revealed that it was her father who murdered her mother. And now she was facing a terrible dilemma. “He's sitting in prison, sick with cancer," she said. "He wants to see me. I struggle between the thought of seeing him and never seeing him again. Do I forgive him before he dies? Is it possible to forgive him?”

They continued their conversation over a number of  months. She could not decide whether she should see her father again or not. Finally, Rabbi Kedar said something very important to her: "Forgiveness is not about fantasy. No one expects you to go back to a loving father-daughter relationship."

"What do you mean?”, her friend asked.

"You need not reestablish a relationship. In fact, there are times that you forgive and get out of the way. When you forgive, there is a great internal transformation. You are changed. Your perspective is different. But your father may be just the same. He may have ignored the opportunity for change and be unaffected by your transformation. If that is the case, get out of his way."2

She does not tell us what her friend ultimately decided, nor does she tell us what we already know: if he has changed, if he has transformed, then she can heal even more. Never completely, but perhaps more. For some relationships, that is the best we can do.

To forgive someone is to believe them to have been wrong, and to let go of the moral leverage that grants us over another.

I have a friend who told me, a few years back, of a business associate who was visiting from Israel. They were together for several days, and he noticed that every day, at exactly 5 PM our time – 11 PM in Israel - he called his wife. At first, my friend was impressed with his attentiveness and dedication. When my friend commented on how impressed he was, his colleague explained that some years earlier, he had had an affair with another woman, about which, in time, his wife found out. The damage to their relationship was severe, but they stayed together. And now, whenever he travels, he needs to call her every night at the appointed hour, no matter what time it is where he is, even, or maybe especially, if it is the middle of the night where he is. His wife has said that she has forgiven him, but he knows better.

Forgiveness is renouncing the position of remaining superior. And with it, freeing yourself from the anger and the energy it takes that could be directed to more positive ends.

 A few years ago, I told you a story that Rabbi Harold Kushner relates from his days at Temple Israel in Natick. It bears retelling: one Yom Kippur, he gave a sermon about forgiveness, about how it is not a sign of weakness and concession, but an indication of strength. A woman in his congregation called the next morning, and came in to see him. The sermon had upset her. She and her children had been abandoned by her husband some ten years earlier.  Life had been extraordinarily difficult for her. And here, her rabbi was telling her to forgive him! He responded by telling her that he did not want her to excuse him, not say that what he did was okay. What he wanted was for her to let go of him. To not let him have the power of defining her as a rejected woman. And he said to her:  "Look, for ten years, you have been standing in Natick holding a hot coal in your hand, waiting for your ex-husband to come by so you could throw it at him. For the last ten years he has been living in New Jersey and you haven't hurt him at all, but you have burnt your hand in the process. Can you understand forgiveness is a favor you do yourself, not a favor you do the other person? Forgiveness is something you can do when you are strong enough to let go."

But what about when you do not want to let go? What about those times that despite the pain and the hurt, you still want to be in each other’s lives? Those are the times to remember that when a wound is deep, forgiveness means allowing it to scar over. When it does, that spot will never be as pretty as it was before.  But scar tissue is stronger.

And what about all of the little hurts and disappointments that we experience all of the time? We cannot be in relationship with each other without sometimes bruising, and sometimes mistreating each other.

Do you remember Love Story, by Erich Segal? It was the best-selling work of fiction in the United States in 1970, and most of us remember one line in particular, as uttered by Ali McGraw in the film version: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Nonsense.

Love means not only having to say you’re sorry, but saying it over and over and being prepared to deal with the fact that saying those words do not make everything alright. Love often means proving that you are sorry – and it means taking each other back in spite of the hurt and the wrong. Words matter, and need to be spoken, even when they are not enough. And until something more can be done, they need to be accepted, especially when they are not enough. Forgiveness is messy, and it is rarely complete.

At this moment, all I have are words. And I share them noting that a large percentage of the people in my life with whom I interact on a regular basis are sitting here right now, including members of my family. I know that here are people sitting here whom I have hurt, whom I have wronged, and perhaps most of all, people whom I have failed.  They are the same words I spoke last night. They need to be repeated.

 If I have hurt you, or failed you, or wronged you in any way, I ask your forgiveness.  And to anyone sitting here who believes that you have hurt, wronged, or failed me, know that I was listening to my own words. I forgive you.

So now I am doing better than that fundraiser. There is at least one person ready to give.

Won’t you join me?

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1 Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., My Grandfather's Blessings , "All in the Family," pages 99-100

2 Karyn Kedar, God Whispers , “Give Away Your Anger”, pages 63-65