The Seeds of Teshuvah, the Mitzvah of Forgiveness: Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon by Rabbi Joe Blair

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774

Rabbi Joe Blair

The Seeds of Teshuvah, The Mitzvah of Forgiveness

Shalom, Chag Sameach, and Shana tovah.

Rosh Hashanah is the start of one of the new years in the Jewish calendar, generally considered the most significant of those four beginnings. It is connected to Creation and the crowning of God as sovereign over all, the Creator. We see it as a time for a new fresh start, an opportunity to begin and a way to move forward, with new resolve and the ability to let go of the errors, flaws, and baggage of the past. It is not about forgetting – G-d forbid! – for remembrance is at the heart of Judaism in almost all things. We are nothing, if we do not remember.

What then, is this concept of renewal and the new start that is talked about for this holiday? What good is Teshuvah, and why bother, given this need to remember? If we are going to continue to carry around the recollection of every error, every transgression, every injury, every sin, every mistake we have ever made, how can we ever move on or change?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. We are human – and by definition we are flawed, imperfect, and limited. Sometimes we know that about ourselves, and the errors we make in missing the mark are predictable; in light of others we are surprised, astonished even, when we look at what we have done, afterwards. Sometimes we know what we are doing or have done, while other times we are oblivious or ignorant of it. Occasionally, we are unaware both at the time we do it and afterwards – and if we are confronted with it, it comes as a shock. That, my friends, is the human condition. We all fit that description at one time or another. Try as we might, fight it as we wish, it is still true. We all act at moments in ways that miss the mark, and that cause us to be less than we could be or would aspire to be. That is as true for me as it is for every one of you.

As my colleague and teacher Rabbi Hayim Herring wrote recently, based on Numbers 15:26 about the strangers living in their midst, we read this as those who come for their once a year visit, people we don’t know. That Hebrew phrase, however, is more flexible, and can as correctly be translated as ‘the stranger who resides within our self.” This is a truth – for we do not always know our self – and when we run into that stranger within, it is a heart-stopping moment. I had that experience this year.

I have spoken before of the five steps of Teshuvah: it is simple enough to describe. 1) Hakarat Hachet - One must identify and recognize the ways in which one fell short, 2) Haratah - be sincerely regretful or remorseful, 3) viddui - ask forgiveness from the persons injured, 4) tikkun - seek to repair or restore to the degree possible what has been damaged or injured, and 5) nissa - work to avoid that action or behavior if the situation arises again.

In my cheshbon nefesh – accounting of my soul – this year, I have identified things that I said or did that clearly missed the mark; more so than in other years. Much of where I missed the mark was in relation to the lengthy, painful, and stressful contract negotiations process. I can make excuses, but it doesn’t change the fact – I am not proud of some of my actions, emotional responses, and words.  I have written about this in the bulletin, and in board reports – I have personally, privately and publicly acknowledged it, and I do so here, as well.  

I say now to all of you, to those I may have injured or caused pain, I am truly sorry, and I regret it sincerely.

I hope that those persons I have injured or hurt can find it within their hearts to forgive me. Let me say here as a clarification, that when I ask for forgiveness, I do not request that anyone forget, for that would be wrong for both you and me. Judaism does not teach the empty concept that one must forgive and forget – for that leads to neither, and no healing for anyone. One must remember in order to forgive.

Now we come to the heart of what I want to talk about tonight.

Why should you forgive? Not only me, but anyone?

You already know that Judaism teaches us to do so. Leviticus 19 commands that we not bear a grudge. The prayer in our machzor has us say “I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, whether deliberately or by accident….” This same theme is included in the daily prayer, the Shema al-hamitah – the Bedtime Shema. So you know that this is what we are “supposed” to do.

But I want to be more realistic and practical than simply parroting these teachings. Is forgiveness automatic? No.

No one can demand it of you, and only you can bestow it. There are situations that forgiveness may never be appropriate – of a person who killed your loved one, for example, or a terrorist.

In most cases, however, forgiveness is appropriate. It grows out of compassion, and is the means to allow relationship. If you don’t forgive, you have foreclosed the option of an ongoing relationship. Think – if you never forgave your spouse or your child or your parents or your siblings for the things they did, could you continue to deal with them day after day? What would that do to the love and relationship that you had with them?

A respected colleague from my days in Durham, Rabbi Steven G. Sager, wrote a recent blog post called “To Forgive is Human.” [He based it in part on the poem How Divine is Forgiveness by Marge Piercy, from Available Light.]

How divine is forgiveness?

It’s a nice concept

but what’s under the sculptured draperies?

We forgive when we don’t really care…

We forgive those who betrayed us

years later because memory has rotted

through like something left out in the weather…

We forgive those whom their own machinations

have sufficiently tangled…

We forgive those we firmly love

because anger hurts…

We forgive mostly not from strength

but through imperfections…

We forgive because we too have done the same to others…

or because anger is a fire that must be fed

and we are too tired to rise and haul a log.

"In their reflections concerning the Day of Atonement, ancient sages of the Mishnah recognized that forgiveness, both asking and giving, is the human act on which the renewed world depends year after year.

"For all transgressions between a person and God—the day of Yom Kippur brings atonement. However, for all transgressions between one person and another—Yom Kippur does not bring atonement.

"Between people, there is no atonement without forgiveness.  Beneath any formula or ritual of atonement, forgiveness requires that one person stand face to face with another. It’s a nice concept, but between the idea of forgiveness and the act stretches human nature. Perhaps through anger, fatigue, indifference, love, pettiness, pity, or piety—each person who considers forgiveness carries and is carried by motives most human. A Talmudic storyteller agrees:

"Rabbi Abba was once offended by Rabbi Jeremiah. Rabbi Jeremiah went to Rabbi Abba’s house to apologize, but he could not bring himself to knock on the door. He sat down on the threshold. Just then the maid threw some dirty water out of the window and some of it splashed onto Rabbi Jeremiah’s head. Rabbi Jeremiah yelled:  I came to apologize and they’ve made a trash dump out of me!? Angrily, he shouted:  Just remember! He raises the poor out of the dust, the wretched from the trash dump (Psalm 113:7). Rabbi Abba heard and came out. When he saw the splattered Rabbi Jeremiah, he said begrudgingly:  Now I suppose I have to apologize to you since Solomon has said:  Go, grovel and badger your neighbor ‘til he releases you (Proverbs 6:3).

"This is not an account of forgiveness asked and granted. The storyteller offers no clue of the underlying offense; neither does he describe any resolution. When the curtain descends, two sages are standing face to face, each one leaning heavily on his motivation and his own biblical verse.

"This is a story of the lurching movement towards a conversation that might lead to forgiveness—of some sort.

"To forgive is human. If it were divine, it would be easy."

     ----  Rabbi Steven G. Sager

Forgiveness is a gift – not only to the one that is forgiven, when it has been requested, but a gift to the one who grants it. Forgiveness lightens the soul, and removes the weight of carrying the anger with you. It doesn't mean forgetting.

As Rabbi Rami Shapiro, a very non-traditional thinker, said in his most recent pamphlet on forgiveness, “…I forgive people all the time. If you hurt me and ask for my forgiveness, I immediately smile, grant your request, and give you a hug. Then, when we part, I make a mental note never to trust you again. It isn't that I cut off all ties with you. On the contrary, we may have a close and continuing relationship, but I no longer entertain the notion that you won’t hurt me. Chances are you will, and chances are I will hurt you as well. So forgiveness isn't the ending of hurt or the possibility of hurt. … Forgiveness is the act of moving on with your life a bit more wisely. Forgiveness won’t erase the past, but it just might free you from it; it won’t save you from suffering, but it just might help you realize that suffering is simply part of the human condition. … Forgiveness isn't a skill, but a level of understanding of the nature of life and how best to live it. …Forgiveness isn't a tactic you can employ to make your life less stressful, more joyous, or to end suffering. … Forgiveness can free you from dragging the sorrow into your moments of joy, and allowing the horror to corrode your moments of happiness…. ”

So, forgiveness is a gift given to the one who is forgiven by the one who forgives, and also a gift from the one who forgives to them self. As angry, as hurt, as resentful as you may feel about a situation; as right as you are, as justified as you are, I urge you to think about forgiving others out of compassion – after all, it is their limits and their imperfections and flaws that lead them to act in ways that need to be forgiven.

Act in the mode of imitatio Dei – like God – and forgive. Think about the 13 attributes of God that we include in the service multiple times and places. 'Adonay, adonay, eyl rachum vechanun, erech apayim verav chesed ve’emet. Notzer chesed le’alafim nosey avon vafesha vechata’ah venakay'. Lord, God, gracious and compassionate, long-suffering, abundant in loving kindess and truth, extending loving kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Shemot/Ex. 34:6-7)

In so doing, give yourself a double gift. Forgive others, which will free you from the burdens of carrying all that with you – and at the same time, forgive yourself.

You know that you are your own harshest critic; feel compassion for your own limitations, imperfections, and flaws, and recognize that you did your best in the moment. Forgive yourself for when you missed the mark, or fell short, just as you would someone else. Give yourself permission to enter this new year as someone who has been forgiven, and who can strive to be their own best.

May it be so for you, and for all of us.  Ken yehi ratzon.

I apologize for the longer than usual time I have spoken tonight. It felt very important to share this message – so I hope you will forgive that as well as anything else. Shana tovah umetukah tikateivu.


[Delivered at Temple House of Israel, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5774]