Yom Kippur Eve- 5768
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,
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.
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.