Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5773 by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

As God Forgives, Can We?

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
Rosh HaShana
Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA
Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA
1 Tishrei 5773
16/17 September 2012

Twenty eight years ago, on Erev Rosh HaShana, I prepared for my first visit to what we called “our student pulpits,” small congregations across the US and Canada that engaged students from the Hebrew Union College for a year of monthly or bi-weekly visits. I was beginning my fourth year of the five year rabbinical program, and had spent the past two years serving a small congregation an hour and a half away by car from my Cincinnati, Ohio home. In August 1984, I prepared for a very different experience. I had taken a position as the once a month rabbi in Anniston, Alabama. For monthly visits, I would leave Cincinnati early on Friday morning and fly to Atlanta, and then would continue, in a 10 seater, on to Anniston. I would return home on Sunday evening.

My first visit to Alabama was for Rosh HaShana 5745. I remember agonizing about my first sermon. How could I, who had spent my entire life in the northeast and the Midwest, find common ground with these southerners? I ended up writing two sermons, one of which used as my point of connection the recently completed Summer Olympics. Surely, I thought, every American can relate to the Olympics!

When I arrived in Anniston, however, and began to meet the members of Temple Beth El, I realized that I had worried needlessly. The Jews I met were, like me, seeking community and connection. We were not southerners or northerners with totally different worldviews. Rather, I saw that I had landed in a Jewish community populated by caring folks who had worked to create and sustain a synagogue to serve the Jews of Anniston and its environs.

We began by playing Jewish geography, learning about one another’s roots, learning about one another’s journeys, finding out how they had made their way to eastern Alabama, and how I had made my way to Cincinnati. We were all trying to discover what it meant to begin a new year. How would we begin to look back, and then to look forward? How could we find words to savor the sweetness of the year that was now ending? And how would we acknowledge, and then to let go of the bitterness of the days or months that were now concluded? And how would I, still a student, serve as a teacher and rabbi to these Jews who cared for their modest community and their historic building with such love and devotion?

As I prepared to stand here tonight, I realized, once again, how blessed I am to be returning to you and to this Beth El. Tonight we welcome the new year together for the seventeenth time. While we could certainly begin with a reference to this summer’s Olympic games, I know now that we do not need to depend on “universal prompts” to dive into conversation! You have blessed me over the years by sharing your lives with me as we have made our way, with song and sighs and words of prayer, from Rosh HaShana through Neilah. And of course, through the glorious Erev Rosh HaShana desserts organized by the Sisterhood and the sumptuous break the fasts prepared with such love by the Men’s Club! We gather here tonight, like Jews across the world, to be together, both because of and in spite of our differences. We’re here as northerners and southerners, as folks blessed to live in this beautiful Shenandoah valley and as visitors, as those who come from generations of Jews and as individuals whose families, Jewish or not, might be surprised to see us here tonight. And in this important election year, we’re here as Democrats and Republicans and Independents. We’re here, each of us, to consider the same questions asked by the good people of Temple Beth El in Anniston twenty-eight years ago: how do we begin again? How do we make sense of the past? How do we move ahead into the future, with greater intentionality and clarity, with purpose and with hope?

Every year, we open our machzor anew. Gates of Repentance offers up a liturgy that integrates the insights of tradition and the innovations of modernity. The words on the page do not change from year to year. But we change. Each of us, opening this book tonight, has changed in the last year. So as we meet the words on the page, whether we are hearing these words or reading them for the first time in our lives or for the fiftieth time or more, we are meeting them anew.
This Rosh HaShana could be the time when we hear something we’ve never heard before.
This Rosh HaShana could be the time when the words truly enter our hearts and our minds and create an opening.
This Rosh HaShana could be the time when something nudges us, just a bit, and some light comes into a place in our souls that was previously in shadow.
This Rosh HaShana could be the time when we realize that the clouds that have been blocking the stars for so many nights—those clouds have moved on, and the sky is once again clear and open.
This Rosh HaShana could be the time when we stand to greet one another and realize that we feel lighter—the burdens that have weighed us down seem more bearable.
This Rosh HaShana could be that time.

Beginning during Selichot services and continuing throughout eseret y’mei teshuvah, we enumerate our failings, our missteps, the ways in which we have missed the mark. We repeat these words in the plural, reminding us that we do not stumble alone. In the company of others as fallible and imperfect as are we, we ask for forgiveness.

This exercise is for us. God already knows how we have failed, when we have lost our focus, or lost our way. We are here not because God needs our presence, but because we need to be here. We need to be together here, tonight, to begin to ask ourselves for forgiveness for our failings.

For many of us, this business of claiming our failings and asking for forgiveness is the most challenging part of these days. Yet too often, this day does not “work” for us. We’re fine while we’re here, sitting in temple with others, reading the prayers, enjoying the music of the choir, greeting others. We see glimmers of the work we want to do to clean up our act, to rededicate ourselves to being the best we can be. Sitting here and repeating the same words Jews all over the world are saying may give us a lift and a sense that we are connected with others in a way that matters. The powerful words may help us to reach down deep into the dusty pockets of our hearts to empty them of the crumbs of shame that we carry from day to day, sometimes from year to year. And before we depart, we open our hearts to the healing blasts of the shofar.

And then the service ends, and we depart from this sanctuary. Another night comes, we face ourselves once again, and see that we’ve fallen short of our expectations of ourselves. We may descend into doubt, or self recrimination, or self-loathing.

Our Machzor, our High Holiday prayerbook, includes a prayer that pushes open a door in our heart that may have swollen shut. Tomorrow morning, when we take out the Torah, we will sing these words, Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun…” These are the first words of a text from Torah that is repeated throughout the high holiday season. These “13 Attributes of God” describe a God who is gracious, a God who forgives.

What is forgiveness? Let us consider:
Forgiveness includes
1) acknowledgment of a wrong
2) acknowledgement of our responsibility in that wrong
3) asking the one we have wronged for pardon. We can end the cycle of blame by asking for the compassion of another.
4) Then, we can make restitution. We can work towards repair. Acknowledging responsibility, we begin the process of healing.

“Adonai, Adonai, El Rahum v’hanun: Adonai, Adonai, God compassionate and gracious” thus begins this haunting chant. These words, which are among the oldest texts in our liturgy, are first uttered by Moses when he pleads with God not to punish the people who have just built the Golden Calf. Moses has to remind God that God is not the destroyer, but the Creator of life. Moses reminds God that God has declared Godself to be
“endlessly patient, loving, and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving inquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.” God hears Moses’ words and forgives the people. (Ex. 34:6-10)

These words appear again in a slightly different form in the book of Numbers. The spies who have been sent out to scout the land return with a report that frightens many of the people. The Israelites respond by expressing their lack of faith in God’s ability to lead them into the land. Again, Moses pleads with God to forgive the people, reminding God, once again, that God has described Godself as “slow to anger and abounding in kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression…” Moses chooses his words deliberately, and once again, God listens. (Numbers 14:17-20)

The rabbis puzzled over these images. How can it be that God needs to be reminded of God’s own compassion? In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis imagine God as a prayer leader, wrapped in a tallit, instructing Moses by example. The rabbis imagine God saying, “Any time that Israel sins, let them repeat this chant and I will forgive them.” It is as if these words will remind God of God’s eternal and ever-renewed covenant with the people. “I am God before the individual stumbles, and I am God after the person errs and seeks repentance.” In spite of the discrepancy between God’s constancy and our frailty, God offers us a brit, a promise of acceptance, a covenant of forgiveness. Our ancestors committed themselves, and the generations that follow them, with these words: “Na’aseh v’nishmah: We will do, and we will listen.” (Ex. 24:7)

One of my favorite questions that I’ve been asked as a rabbi was posed by a ten year old girl when I arrived at my first pulpit after ordination. On a crisp Sunday morning in the fall, I visited each of the religious school classes. Kids were invited to ask questions of me, the first woman rabbi most of them had ever met. “Rabbi,” this student began, “do you really believe all those words you read in the prayerbook?”

Do we really believe the words we read in the prayerbook? Can we imagine a God who actually forgives us? That is, of course, a central theme of these holy days. We sing through lists of errors, mistakes, blunders that seem to come as part of the price of being human. We enumerate our failings NOT to determine the extent of punishment. We’re not reciting our “alphabets of woe” so that we can measure how far we have fallen. RATHER, we confess in a context of a brit, an agreement that we have inherited from those who came before us. Our wise ancestors knew that all of us struggle to be good, to behave with intentionality and decency. Each of us wrestles with our own challenges, our own internalized judges, our own rigidities and self-deprecating reflexes. We are the heirs of a tradition that teaches that even as each of us is unique in our complexity, so is each of us unique as being created in God’s image. Each of us reflects one of God’s infinite faces.

As God forgave our ancestors who built a Golden Calf, as God forgave the frightened Israelites who doubted God’s power to take them through the seemingly endless wanderings and into a settled land, can we, too, learn to forgive?

“Adonai, Adonai, El Rahum v’hanun: Adonai, Adonai, God compassionate and gracious” My friend Rabbi Anne Brener calls this her compassion chant. Anne says it reminds her to have compassion for herself and for others. “I sing this chant whenever I am angry with myself, feeling that I have missed the mark or could have done better. I appeal to the God-like part of myself to be compassionate and not give over to judgment, anger, or despair.”

When we forgive ourselves, we may be able to see that others are just as vulnerable as we are. When we have compassion for ourselves, we gain perspective on our own strengths. None of us is all good or all bad. None of us messes up all the time, and none of us is consistently perfect. We are humans, with human failings and foibles. And when we begin to forgive ourselves, we discover that the act of heart-opening is a source of enormous strength. When we forgive ourselves, and put an end to the blame game, we can move on. We begin the essential work of repair. Compassion is contagious—when we treat ourselves with gentleness and care, we discover we can treat others with a generosity of spirit and patience that may surprise us. And then true repair, tikkun, begins.

Remember Moses’ second appeal to God to forgive our anxious ancestors? God’s response is a single, succinct sentence: “V’yomer Adonai salachti kid’varecha: And Adonai said, ‘I pardon, according to your words.” (Numbers 14:20) God says, “Moses, I offer forgiveness to these people, as you have requested.” Our rabbis incorporated these words into our High Holiday liturgy. We’ll read them for the first time at the very beginning of our Kol Nidre service in 10 days, again on Yom Kippur morning, and then, for the final time, in Neilah, the concluding service on Yom Kippur.

God forgives. Can we? Will this be the year when we follow God’s example and forgive ourselves? And then will we ask others to forgive us? And will we find a way to forgive those who have harmed us?

For some of us, the journey to repair may be long and arduous, impeded by doubt, interrupted by detours, plagued with delays and distractions. But on this Rosh HaShana Eve, we can commit ourselves to beginning anew, to trying again, to renewing our covenant with ourselves and our people and our God by claiming compassion and care and loving kindness for ourselves, and for others.

I conclude with a prayer:

You who forgave our ancestors, teach us to forgive ourselves. You who embody the qualities of caring, of love, of compassion, teach us to have compassion that will enable us to see ourselves as You see us, with loving eyes, with an open heart. Let us see ourselves through Your eyes, for You see us as beloved creatures, formed in Your image. You see us as beings capable of good, even as we are capable of evil. On this Rosh HaShana Eve, renew our spirits and our will to repair ourselves and our world with compassion and love.

Ken y’hi ratzon: May this be God’s will.

L’shana tova.

Vered Hollander Goldfarb and Rabbi Gail Diamond, “Slichot: the 13 Attributes (Midot)—God Teaches Us how to Ask for Forgiveness,” essay and study texts:

Anne Brener, “Polish the Soul for Elul,”