The Benefits of Forgiveness
Yom Kippur Morning
October 9, 2019 – 10 Tishrei 5780
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Shana Tova. Happy New Year and Gut Yuntif.
On Yom Kippur there is a particular poignancy to the communal nature of our prayers. Last night, in the introductory reading just before Kol Nidre, we sang the following: Beshiva shel malah, uveshivah shel matah. Al da’at hamakom v’al da’at hakahal. Anu matirin lhitpalel im ha’avaryanim. The translation in our Machzor alters the English words slightly, but the meaning of them is this: By the authority of the heavenly court, and by the authority of the earthly court, with the consent of God, and with the consent of this congregation, we hereby declare it permissible to pray with those who have transgressed….
“Those who have transgressed” refers to all of us. We are here today as one, each a transgressor of major or minor failings, or perhaps, both, but as a community, nonetheless.
Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; a time for seeking forgiveness; a day to repair our relationships. And indeed Yom Kippur is a time when we hope that our appeals to one another for forgiveness these past days will be met with forgiveness for our wrongs.
But the Hebrew, Yom Kippur, tells us so much more than the English translation. Allow me a bit of Hebrew language instruction.
The word KIPPUR (or Kopher, a cognate of Kippur), is the very same word as the material that the Biblical Noah used to seal the cracks in the Ark that he constructed. Kopher is the substance that repairs the flaws and mistakes that inevitably occur in wooden boat construction. And Kippur is the ACT of repairing the flaws and mistakes that inevitably occur in human relationships. And so Yom Kippur, is, quite literally, the day – Yom – of repair – Kippur.
Not a one of us lives in perfect harmony with others. We all could benefit from a day like Yom Kippur. We are all imperfectly managing our way through life. It is part of being human. But it is those flaws, those mistakes that we make, that enable us…that give us an opportunity to discover ourselves — and to learn how we handle repairing our failings.
On Rosh Hashanah I mentioned the concept of Chesbon haNefesh. Cheshbon haNefesh is taking an inventory of our souls, taking stock of our life. On Yom Kippur, many Jews dress in white — symbolic of burial shrouds — as a reminder of the reality that one day we will all die. These High Holy Days are to focus our attention on what is most important in life.
The Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius said: The true worth of a man is measured by the object he pursues. So what, then, do we pursue? At the end of our life, he prods us to consider, what do we want said of us and what is our life’s purpose? What is our measure of success? What do we want to have accomplished? How do we truly wish to live? How do we want to love? How do we hope to repair our relationships?
The Days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe. But these days of awe are, perhaps, misnamed, if we were to consider them as the only time we might seek forgiveness. In one of the oldest works of commentary on the Book of Lamentations — Eicha Rabbah — the rabbis wrote that “like the ocean which in never closed, so too are the gates of repentance always open” (Lamentations Rabbah 3:43).
These Days of Awe, these High Holy Days, give us, however, what our tradition calls a Pitchon Peh, an opening, an opportunity to turn to our friends and neighbors and loved ones and ask for forgiveness. And that is all well and good. Being asked to be forgiven is not easy. But today, on Yom Kippur, I want to speak about what is likely far more difficult than asking for forgivness — forgiving others.
Our tradition has some clear guidelines on how to do this.
Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher, taught that:
“When a person who wrongs another asks for forgiveness, that person should forgive the other with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if the individual was aggravated and was wronged severely, he or she should not seek revenge nor bear a grudge.” (Mishne Torah 2:10)
Great advice. And it is. If only it were that simple. But forgiving someone who has hurt us deeply is far from simple. In all likelihood, we are still angry, still aggrieved, still not ready to forgive.
The Book of Ecclesiastes might seem to support our simmering rage. It teaches that there is an occasion for every purpose under heaven.
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. A time to tear and a time to mend. A time for silence and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate. (Eccl. 3:1-8)
But Ecclesiastes also teaches (7:9) that anger dwells in the hearts of fools.
And so, while we may fume and stew over being wronged, and feel justified in our anger, there is wisdom that suggests we would be wise to let go of it.
And in as much as Ecclesiastes has a lot to say that is worth heeding, the words of the Stanford Forgiveness Project (which has conducted extensive research,) bears out the truth of our Biblical poet.
In a New York Times article published last summer by Tim Herrera called: “Let Go Of Your Grudges, They’re Doing You No Good,” Herrera writes: May 19, 2019:
“A study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology as part of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, suggested that “… forgiveness training may prove effective in reducing anger as a coping style, reducing perceived stress and physical health symptoms, and thereby may help reduce” the stress we put on our immune and cardiovascular systems.
“Further, a study … found that carrying anger into old age is associated with higher levels of inflammation and chronic illness. Another study … found that anger reduces our ability to see things from other people’s perspective.”
“Holding onto a grudge really is an ineffective strategy for dealing with a life situation that you haven’t been able to master. That’s the reality of it,” said Dr. Frederic Luskin, founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project.
“Whenever you can’t grieve and assimilate what has happened, you hold it in a certain way,” he said. “If it’s bitterness, you hold it with anger. If it’s hopeless, you hold it with despair. But both of those . . . do mental and physical damage.”
At the same time, he said, the converse is true: Full forgiveness can more or less reverse these negative repercussions of holding onto anger and grudges.
Perhaps most crucially, Dr. Luskin stressed, forgiveness is a learnable skill. It just takes a little practice.
A little practice. Perhaps that what Yom Kippur is here to teach us — that we need to practice forgiveness — and not just once a year, but regularly.
Hanan Harchol, an Israeli educator and animator, teaches that the act of forgiving has emotional consequences. Often we think that when the heat of our emotions has cooled, we will be able to forgive. Contrary to what most of us might think, he teaches that our actions can affect our emotions, effectively turning that dynamic on its head. Rather than expect that our emotions will move us to forgive, he suggests that the act of forgiveness will enable our emotions to cool. Through the act of forgiving we are unburdened from our resentment. Hanan advises: forgive first, and then you will free your emotions from anger.
It places a new order on which is first, the cart or the horse.
At the beginning of my words I mentioned the poignancy of the communal nature of our prayers. On this sacred day of Yom Kippur, we collectively begin our work to repair our relationships with one another. The hope is that the words of our prayers will help us to move beyond mere words to see the shared human experiences and challenges that lie at the core of those prayers. Yom Kippur asks us to deal with the hurt we have caused others.
It calls upon us to respond to those failures. But is also strengthens us by reminding us that we are not alone in that work.
May this Yom Kippur, this day of repair, help us to carry our insights from this holy day beyond the confines of our synagogue and beyond the pages of our Machzor, our prayerbook, and may we be strengthened to live them every day.