Category Archives: Forgiveness

The Bridge To Forgiveness

Yom Kippur Eve- 5768

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My dear friends, the plaintive call of Kol Nidre reaches out to us, as we entreat God to forgive us for all that we have done wrong in the year gone by. At the same time we are called to be forgiving of others. Forgiveness is the basic theme of the day.

The author, Naomi Remen, describes how one year she attended Kol Nidre worship and the Rabbi was giving his traditional forgiveness sermon, when he paused to pick up his squirming one year old from his wife’s arms, then continued his message. She was adorable, making faces as he spoke, at one point grabbing his tie, sucking upon it. Then she grabbed his nose. At that point, he departed from his printed text and asked, “Think about it. Is there anything this beautiful baby can do that you could not forgive her for?” Then she grabbed his glasses and burped. “And when does it stop? When does it become hard to forgive another? At 3? At 7? At 14? At 35? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?”

This evening, let us once again explore this topic of forgiveness. Rabbi Karyn Kedar has written an entire book on the subject, which I will draw upon, beginning with her opening poem entitled “The Bridge:”


Forgiveness is a path to be walked.

There are steps along the way:

loss, anger, acceptance, learning,

forgiveness, restoration.

And along the way, you will come upon a bridge.

When you step upon it, it will carry you,

support you, connect you to another side of life,

a side waiting to be discovered.

Forgiveness is a perpetual journey.

There are many bridge crossings.

Each restores a bit more of what you have lost.


This whole process begins with a sense of loss. When we are wronged, someone offends us, hurts us, is cruel or uncaring, and we feel loss. How could she do that, taking away my position, undercutting me in such a way, messing up everything? How could he say that, when it’s not true and is so insensitive? How could he act in that fashion? We lose trust in those, who we felt would not behave in such a manner. Our security is shattered, since we felt comfortable and safe. And the loss is more poignant since it is often inflicted upon us by those who are dear to us, friends and family, trusted associates and co-workers, professionals upon whom we relied. At times we even lose faith, questioning how God can allow this injustice to occur, whether the sudden illness that invaded our body or the storm that blew through our lives, changing us and our community forever. Something good is taken from our lives and we are diminished.

And then we become angry. Of anger Rabbi Kedar writes:

There is good reason to be angry.

There is good reason not to be angry.

Anger can be like a river

that swells beyond its banks,

flooding and destroying everything in its path.

Or it can be like a river

that flows through your soul,

washing away all that needs to be gone.

Discernment is

knowing when to be angry and when to let it go.


Anger is natural and necessary as a response to loss leading to forgiveness. It is the first reaction. When we are angry, it is difficult to think or speak rationally. Our spirit burns from what we see as an assault, whether it be the unkind word, an undermining act, unfair criticism or simply unacceptable behavior. When we are undone, anger often is our first line of defense. It tells us that this is wrong and forms a shield around us, protecting us momentarily.

The problem with anger is that it can be destructive, not constructive when it permeates our response to a situation. A midrash teaches, “when the kettle boils, it spills hot water down its side.” So it is when we boil over with anger. We merely scald ourselves. We feel so hurt and disgusted that we cannot move on with our lives.

For some, being the victim is a comfortable role. It allows you to feel as though you deserve goodness, wholeness and love. However, remaining in that role denies you the possibility of growth. Anger is healthy, but only as a first step to healing and forgiveness.

Sometimes we will have to realize that we are angry with a spouse, a parent, a brother or sister, a friend, co-worker, angry at ourselves, even God, before we can move on to forgiveness. Forgiveness will mean letting go of our anger, leaving the darkness that is our reality in order to gain control of our spirit.

Then comes acceptance as part of the forgiveness process. “Acceptance is the compassionate embrace of yourself and your place in the world: without judgment, without fear, without regret.” (p. 5) We suffer loss and initially respond with anger, but ultimately if we are to heal, we accept our reality. There is frequently no choice. The illness strikes; the storm arrives; the mistake has been made; the job is lost; the marriage is no more; the death is real, whether we like it or not. Life does not always turn out the way we desire. Sometimes it is our own fault, sometimes due to others and sometimes by forces beyond our control.

Acceptance does not mean that the pain, the hurt goes away completely. To some extent it is like the athlete, who during the week is sidelined by an injury, but when game day comes will play through the pain. As some of you know, I often am subject to headaches. However, I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon, that being, when I am on the pulpit or busy with some activity, the headache seems to abate. Later when life calms down I might feel the pain afresh. So it is with our emotional pains; when we accept them we can lead our lives more fully, though on occasion they will give us a jab.

One of the challenges of acceptance is how to deal with the question of “why” something has happened, but as most of us are aware there is no answer. Sure we know the meteorology of storm tracks, but not why it came our way; we understand that cancer attacks cells in the body, but not why those cells belong to me or my loved one. In trying to deal with this question Rabbi Kedar writes: “I do not know why some die too soon, or others never find love, or how others are able to forgive. This, I do know: that it is only in this state of not knowing that I am humble enough to approach the mystery. To forgive you must embrace the mystery.” (p. 81)

For some the “mystery” is that part of reality, which is chaotic, that part of the world we simply cannot comprehend. It is randomness. For others it is God. We can blame God, be angry with God, but then turn to God as well for the strength to accept that which is our lot in life.

Coming out of acceptance is the opportunity to learn and grow. Forgiveness can be an evolving understanding. We learn from loss, from anger, from survival and perseverance. When we release the pain of the past we can then learn to be open to what the future can bring.

Literally, while sitting at my desk preparing this sermon I heard the ring, telling me an e-mail had arrived. It was from a woman I have not seen or to be honest even thought of in over 30 years. She saw my name on a list of former staff members of the URJ Eisner Camp and wanted to make contact. Janice wrote: “I remember you helping me through a rough time at camp in 1975. Do you remember Allan Z?  Well, he DUMPED me that summer, and I fell apart!!!  I have a memory of you letting me hang out in your room and looking after me.  I’m happy to say as soon as camp was over, I met a new boyfriend, and we just celebrated our 26th anniversary. I’ll never forget your kindness….” We never know when we make a difference in someone’s life.

I do recall how torn, angry and inconsolable she was at the time. I was her camp supervisor, but she just could not function as a counselor for a while. She needed time to recover, but ultimately was able to pull herself together, accept where she was, forgive Allan for the hurt and move on effectively. Clearly she learned and prospered from what was a calamity at the time.

When we are in the midst of a painful moment, it is difficult to find that silver lining, to glean understanding or wisdom, to grasp a greater lesson. Forgiveness involves learning. In some cases it will be intellectual growth, prompting us to better evaluate and analyze future situations. Emotionally we will grow, counterbalancing devastation with hope. Even spiritually we can come to realize that making the Divine connection is possible and does not have to only be a refuge of last resort. That connection is open any time you want it to be. Pain can be a powerful teacher.

Friends, forgiveness is not a matter of unconditional love: forgive and forget. “There should be no forgetting of evil acts, no condoning of offense, sin, hatred. To forget is to run the risk of allowing these evils to happen again. Yet at the same time, to hold within us the horror and pain of every offense diminishes our lives.” (p. 3) We recognize our loss, allow a period of anger, accept our reality and even learn from the experience. Forgiveness is not condoning the wrong in the world or the offense inflicted upon us. It is not forgetting. It is a state of being that allows us to move on and be restored.

Ultimately that is our goal. We want wholeness in our lives. We know we cannot go back to where we were before our equilibrium was disturbed. Our world is never the same after we have suffered a hurt, but it can be reconstructed, perhaps even better than before. Through full forgiveness we restore our faith and trust in others, in ourselves and God. For a while all seemed dark and ugly. With forgiveness we can once again find a sense of beauty. Where briefly all seemed lost, we can regain optimism and hope.

I invite you now for just a moment to close your eyes and envision those who have hurt or angered you the most this past year. You may need to address this to yourself. Try out these phrases:

Tonight I forgive you.

I am moving on with my life.

I will not let my resentments pull me down.

I give up my anger which has been holding me back.

Tonight I forgive you.”

May this Day of Atonement that we begin tonight provide us with the opportunity to make the spiritual journey across the bridge of forgiveness.



Much of this sermon was based upon the writing of Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar in her book The Bridge of Forgiveness.

From A Mother To Her Girls

Yom Kippur Yizkor 5768

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This day of Yom Kippur is intended to help us grow as human beings, created in God’s image. We do this by introspection, evaluating how true we have been to the values instilled within us, and where we fall short, make amends. If we are honest, we will admit to those areas of our behavior that have been sinful, commit to remedy them and seek forgiveness. If we are observing this day with depth and integrity, we confront the quality of how we live our lives with the backdrop of our own mortality.

The primary other time when this kind of soul searching occurs is when we are facing our own deaths or that of loved ones. The following poem, written by Rabbi Karyn Kedar, whose thoughts informed my Yom Kippur evening sermon, entitled “From A Mother To Her Girls,” speaks to this moment. It is written from a daughter’s perspective and the connection between parent and child seems to have been strong and positive. I believe it addresses many of our losses. You will not relate to all of what she writes, but perhaps some of it. She begins:

“The morning you wake to bury me

you’ll wonder what to wear.

The sun may be shining, or maybe it will rain;

it may be winter. Or not.

You’ll say to yourself, “black, aren’t you supposed to

wear black?” Then you will remember all the times we went

together to buy clothes: the prom, homecoming,

just another pair of jeans,

another sweater, another pair of shoes. I called you my Barbie dolls.

You will remember how I loved to dress you.

How beautiful you were in my eyes.


When we lose loved ones, especially when we have experienced the gift of years with them, we immediately recall time shared. While often they will be major events- weddings, birthdays, B’nai Mitzvah, or anniversaries, but frequently they will be the more mundane moments- time spent shopping, enjoying a meal, holiday observance, a story that was repeated over and over, a childhood experience, a trip that was shared. Then after specific recollections will hopefully arrive a sense of calm: the knowledge that there was a special relationship, one that will be missed, but whose memory provides a warmth and glow. Rabbi Kedar continues:

The morning you wake to bury me

you will look in the mirror in disbelief.

You’ll reach for some makeup. Or not. And you won’t believe that

this is the morning you will bury your mother.

But it is. And as you gaze into that mirror, you will shed a tear. Or not. But look. Look carefully, for hiding in your expression, you will find mine.

You will see me in your eyes, in the way you laugh.

You will feel me when you think of God,

and of love and struggle.

Look into the mirror and you will see me in a look, or in

the way you hold your mouth or stand, a little bent, or maybe straight.

But you will see me.


When loved ones die, we are disoriented. The simplest task is difficult to accomplish. Tears flow one moment, while at other times we feel like we want to cry, but the tears do not come. They are gone and our world is just not the same.

At the same time our loved ones live on in us. When it comes to parents and siblings, there is often physical continuity. We look like them, walk and talk like them. If you want to see what I will look like when I am in my 90’s (I should be so fortunate to reach that age in health), just look on the pulpit. But beyond physical links, we all carry aspects of dear ones who are gone within us, whether we realize or not. It can be in an expression, facial or verbal. It can be in situations, where we have learned from the best how to respond. When relationships are solid and healthy, we can even grow from our losses. Rabbi Kedar teaches:

So let me tell you, one last time, before you dress,

what to wear. Put on any old thing. Black or red, skirt or pants.

Despite what I told you all these years, it doesn’t really matter.

Because as I told you all these years, you are beautiful the way you are.

Dress yourself in honor and dignity.

Dress yourself in confidence and self-love.

Wear a sense of obligation to do for this world,

for you are one of the lucky ones and there is so much to do, to fix.

Take care of each other,

Take care of your heart, of your soul.

Talk to God.

Wear humility and compassion.


We honor our loved ones most by leading our lives fully. There is a time to mourn and a time to rise up from mourning. Loss is something that each of us incorporates and even compartmentalizes in our lives. It has its place, but cannot dominate our being, for that would not be a way to honor loved ones.

Deeds of goodness are the more lasting tribute.  They were not saints. They had strengths and weaknesses, moments when they were endearing and others that simply had to be endured. Still we take the positive lessons they taught by word and deed and incorporate them in our lives. The fact that we are here and they are not is a gift to be appreciated and out of tribute we can make a difference.

Lastly we honor them by preserving that which was most precious- families, friendships and your relationship with God. Then Rabbi Kedar concludes:

When you wake to bury me,

put on a strong sense of self, courage and understanding.

I am sorry. Forgive me. I am sorry.

Stand at my grave clothed in a gown of forgiveness,

dressed like an angel would be, showing compassion

and unconditional love.

For at that very moment, all that will be left of me to give is love.



The major theme of this day is forgiveness, always a challenge. When death comes, forgiveness is more possible than ever. Perhaps we were hurt by them. We need no longer carry that baggage. What would be the purpose other than to continue as victim? Put it down and grant forgiveness. Reciprocally, we can ask forgiveness for what we have done wrong with the knowledge that it can never happen again.

What does endure is love. Even when they are gone, the love we have and the love they gave continues to be a source of positive spiritual energy within us.

On this Yom Kippur afternoon, may the lessons of this day and those of memory,  bring us comfort and strengthen us for our New Year.


Restoring Holiness to Our Communities

Rabbi Oren J. Hayon
Temple Emanu-El
September 12, 2008
Elul Sermon #2:
Restoring Holiness to Our Communities
This evening our purpose is to explore the ways we can restore holiness to our communities. The notion of the synagogue as an institution of holy purpose is one that is deeply familiar and dearly cherished by members of this congregation in particular. All of us are acquainted with a Jewish concept that is central to this idea: the concept of tikkun olam, acts of social justice undertaken when a motivated individual or an inspired group of like-minded souls get together to bring meaningful change to the places they live.

Doing religious repair work on our communities has been at the heart of Reform Judaism for decades, and it boasts the same inspiration that drove the grassroots success of other social movements in our country and around the world throughout history.

For us as Jews especially, the roots of spiritual revolution lie deep in the earliest layers of our biblical heritage. Our literature and legends are filled with tales of inspired people rising up to change and improve their world. The dramatic stories of Abraham smashing his household idols, of Moses defying Pharaoh and the cruelty of Egypt, of the Israelite prophets willing to stand up in the face of corrupt and shallow religious institutions, to point accusing fingers and condemn them for their flaws, at risk of censure and exile and even death: this is the legacy of Jewish tikkun olam, of an individual’s potential to personally bring needed change to the world.

But our topic tonight is slightly different. Tonight we are talking about another element of the relationship between self and community, another way of bringing repair and restoration to the places that are broken or neglected. And in contrast to tikkun olam, this is an area that is largely overlooked by much of progressive Judaism today. And it’s too bad that that’s the case, because this idea is just as critical to the way that community develops its sanctity, which is, of course, precisely what we are charged with exploring in this installment of our Elul sermon series.

I want to talk tonight about the moral pressure that a community can bring to bear on its members, rather than the other way around. We all know plenty of stories about heroic and memorable people bringing extraordinary change to the places they live, but what about the converse, what about the ways that the values and priorities of a holy community can push its members to become better human beings?

It might sound simple, but it is an idea that is sometimes hard for us to embrace, and I think that’s true for a couple of reasons. First, we live in the United States of America – and in Texas. The culture of our nation and our state are solidly built on the myth of the rugged individual. Our heroes are cowboys, pioneers, solo entrepreneurs and visionaries. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was John Wayne and not Jimmy Stewart; we learn by the end of the movie that freedom is really won by the lone gunslinger, not by the politician.

But it’s not just directors of western movies who favor the strength of the individual over the community; anyone who’s worked in the Jewish community has encountered this too. There’s more than a small kernel of truth at the center of that old joke about two Jews and three opinions. We Jews, and especially we Reform Jews, often chafe against the idea that we should compromise our individual autonomy for the betterment of the community or the movement. After all, the whole basis of Reform Judaism, it can be argued, is the existence of the sovereign self, the rational individual governed by the gifts of his own mind and his soul. Being a Reform Jew means being able to stand up to any tyranny – of politicians or law – or rabbis, for that matter – and say no: I know better than you do what is right!

That is exactly why we are so skilled in the art of tikkun olam, of changing what is wrong in the world out there. But what we are significantly less good at is acknowledging the potential of our communities to change us. We are much less comfortable at the art of surrender, at the spiritual practice of allowing ourselves to be changed in substantive and long-lasting ways by the places we live and pray. But if we can do that, hard as it may be, we will have helped our communities achieve new heights of effectiveness and sanctity.

Any adolescent – and anyone who has parented or taught an adolescent, for that matter – can share plenty of stories about the power of peer pressure. The students in our schools are constantly under pressure from their classmates about academic performance, about who to socialize with, about what to do with their leisure time. They can tell you exactly how destructive – and also how irresistible – those forces can be, even if they are driving the student to behaviors and values he or she personally knows to be wrong. But they can also tell you that when kids form relationships with the right kinds of friends, with encouraging teachers, enriching sports or clubs, they will do anything they can to uphold the positive values and priorities that those communities promote. A student that moves in social circles where it’s actually cool to be a leader or a scholar will develop self-motivation toward leadership and learning much stronger than she would otherwise receive from her parents or teachers.

In the same way, when our religious communities exert social pressure on us to act in ways that are right and good, the result is not only that we do better things with our energy and our time, but that we absorb Judaism’s time-tested values about what is right and wrong in the world. Eventually all of us, as members of the community, reinforce its social enticements and rewards for behaving in loving, nurturing, ethical Jewish ways.

We are taught by Jewish tradition that it is a mitzvah for us to accept from our community what is called tochachah – admonition or rebuke. This is a well-established but largely-ignored principle: that we are commanded to help the community carry out the obligation to correct its members when we see them going astray. When we see a friend or a colleague or a family member going down the wrong path, we have to gently and lovingly reprove them if their action threatens the community’s ideals. We automatically have a stake in the well-being of the people we love and the people we share community with; we have an obligation to them. We have to help let them know when they are missing the mark so that we can all get back onto the right path together.

There is an intriguing commentary on the Shulchan Aruch – the exhaustive 16th century collection of Jewish law – which addresses a fascinating legal inquiry. The question is asked: Is it sufficient for a Jew to follow the commandments simply because he sees his friends or his family doing them, and not because he believes that the tradition insists upon it? The commentary responds: No. Even if you are following the actions of righteous people who are doing everything right, your obligation is not discharged until you acknowledge that the reason for acting Jewishly is that you are a part of a holy community, not that you are imitating holy people. Without knowing that mitzvot come for the purpose of serving God and strengthening the Jewish people, you might learn to value the individual over the community, which might in turn lead you to haughtiness and a disregard for Jewish values, to the sin of what Alan Morinis calls “spiritual mediocrity”.

Despite all the good that it can do, and all the good it has done, tikkun olam can be a narcissistic religion when practiced alone. If we conclude that our only Jewish calling is to change the world in ways we think are positive, then we may never learn to be self-reflective or open to spiritual growth. But working to cultivate the virtues of humility and modesty, on the other hand, acknowledging that there are ways the community can change us for the better – that is an entryway to Jewish enrichment and development.

This month of Elul is a time of our most earnest moral self-scrutiny. Next week at this time we’ll be learning together at our congregational observances of Selichot. Dr. Morinis will share with us the tools and the techniques of the Mussar movement, which were developed precisely for this reason – to help Jews recognize the traditions and resources outside of ourselves that can help make us better people. It is a deeply important subject for to spend time on as this reflective month of High Holy Day preparation draws to a close.

Judaism’s gifts of spiritual self-improvement can help prime us for the approach of the High Holy Days, but its regimen is not necessarily comfortable. The hard work of teshuvah – repentance and apology – does require some abdication of the ego, which always hurts a little. But in the end, the High Holy Days are not about tikkun olam; they are about tikkun atzmi – not repairing the world, but repairing the human self with the guidance and support of our community. Allowing ourselves to be changed by our community and not the other way around is often uncomfortable, but it is always worth it.

There is a wonderful legend told about Rabbi Akiva, the wise ancient sage of the Talmudic world. As the story goes, Akiva – before he was Rabbi Akiva – had reached the age of 40 without ever having amassed a single piece of Jewish knowledge. One day, he was walking near a natural spring and he noticed that a slow drip of water had over time worn a hole through a large stone. At once, Akiva was enlightened. He said to himself, “If something as soft as water can bore its way through something as hard as stone, then the words of Torah can certainly penetrate my soft heart of flesh and blood.” He returned home and immediately committed himself to learning the traditions of his people.

We are all free individuals, and we are all at liberty to live our Judaism in the ways that our own hearts and consciences compel us. That is at once the marvel and the challenge of Reform Judaism. We have to discover that our freedom does not override the obligations that come along with living in relationship with others. It is an art more than a science, but we can find ways for our sprawling spiritual liberty to be shaped by the wisdom and the goodness of our Jewish community.

We do this by learning about what our tradition teaches, what its texts really say, about justice and truth and morality. We do it by allowing ourselves to be swept up and embraced and yes, changed, by the marvelous traditions and the penetrating wisdom of Jewish life. By continuing to work toward strengthening relationships and connection with other human souls, by standing alongside them and helping lift them up with our presence and our love and by realizing how it feels to have ourselves moved and improved by being a part of something this large.

And in that way we can cultivate the spiritual heart that Rabbi Akiva felt beating within him, the soft and pliable spirit that allows the goodness and the promise of Judaism to change us. That is the imperative of this month of Elul and of the entire Jewish year: to see and make real the vision of our selves as better than we are – loving, kind, spiritual beings, privileged to be a part of, and changed by, this beautiful Jewish community of faith.

May this be God’s will. Amen.