As a snot-nosed American fifteen-year-old, I can vividly remember getting in a fight with my mother on the High Holy Days. We were, in fact, driving to shul, and I was in the back seat of the car, my mother in the front – my father and my sister also crammed in – and my mom and I had a nasty shouting match. I can still see the road we were on – with the coloured autumn leaves somewhere in the middle West of America, where few British Jews, I imagine, have ever been. But whether you have been there or not, you can still imagine this kind of family fight. On the days when you are most of all supposed to be with family, loving one another and reconciling and uniting, and you somehow find yourselves screaming at each other instead.
I think it is one of the truly great ironies of our High Holy Days – a time ostensibly given over to repentance, renewal, and forgiveness – that the necessary family proximity more often causes angry “airing of grievances,” as an episode of Seinfeld once so sagely put it. There my mother and I were, me at 15 and she an adult, screaming at one another on the way to shul, a dozen years ago this month.
We went immediately from that argument into services to intone the familiar words of the Mishnah about the Day of Atonement:
“For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”
And then, in some nice lines the American Reform machzor has added, we said, still sitting together, next to one another:
“I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have wronged me, whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.”
Looking back, it’s very clear to me now that I was wrong, and my mother was right. How often is that the way? And what’s worse, I yelled at her on the High Holy Days when I should have spent my time loving her. The great irony of these days – that we should be focused on forgiveness but are often at odds instead – is that the High Holy Days are really about a very simple truth. We all know it, but we could use a little reminding: Life is a series of forgivenesses, and you have to, above all, forgive the ones you love, continually.
Life is a series of forgivenesses, and while we may focus, on one hand, on getting ourselves forgiven during these ten days, what we really badly need is practice in the forgiving of others. We are all fallible, and we all fail each other. The image of this time, the gates of repentance opening for 10 days, soon ready to close, means we have to find a way to forgive others before it’s too late. It is on our heads.
And this doesn’t mean you have to be a putz and roll over and let people walk all over you. There are a lot of Jewish words for a person like that, which makes me think we’re awfully afraid of the idea of letting people make mistakes against us. We don’t have to forgive someone before they’re even remorseful or asking for our forgiveness. We do, however, need to be open to forgiveness – to make ourselves available for forgiving, even if that means just physically putting ourselves around someone else — even if we’re angry. That is to say, there must be some sort of forgiveness in our own hearts even before we have been asked. Each person has a role to play, and it is not solely the responsibility of the “sinner” to make the peace. That’s why it says: “But for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” In a sense, we, the injured party, are the masters of our injurer’s future, for only our pardon can make atonement possible. We have a lot of power, as forgivers.
And here’s a little secret. God forgives us already. It’s written into our liturgy at the very end, on Yom Kippur: “In the greatness of Your faithful love,” it reads, “forgive the sin of this people, as You have accepted this people from Egypt until now. And the Lord said: ‘Salachti kee dvarecha.’ ‘I have forgiven them as you ask.’” That’s our liturgy, our machzor, recording each year that God has already forgiven us. God forgives us for our sins, thus it is our task to be the God-like ones and forgive those who have hurt us. Be like God of whom we say over and over again during these days: “Erech apaim v’rav chesed v’emet; notser chesed la’alafim, noseh avon va’fesha v’chata’a v’nakeh…” “This is Your glory. You are slow to anger, ready to forgive.” We’re not saying it over and over again because God’s forgot. We’re saying it to remind ourselves of how we need to be — more like God, who forgives others every year.
There’s a story on this subject I can never help but tell: my friend back in the States lost his father. He was very close to him. He told me once: “Five years ago my sister died; 4 years ago my mother died; and this year my father died. I was not close with my sister. She suffered a terrible affliction her entire adult life, and we had not been particularly close as children. I was close to my mother. We spoke at least weekly, but we also had our differences. I was closest to my father, and he was absolutely my hero. I always assumed I would miss him the most. But that’s not the case. I miss my sister most, and think of her daily. I miss both what I don’t have, and what I didn’t have, whereas with my parents I miss only what I no longer have, but I had plenty.”
It’s no less true for being cliché. Life is short, but love is long. “Salachti kidvarecha.” “I have forgiven them as they ask.” As Philo, a Jew from Alexandria, put it 2,000 years ago:
“Some people make vows out of hatred of their fellowman, swearing, for example, that they will not let this or that person sit at the same table with them or come under the same roof. Such people should seek the mercy of God, so that they may find some cure for the diseases of their soul.”
“The disease of their soul.” A pretty harsh phrase. But we all have such diseases.
And we also know, we really know, that the only way to get through life is to be constantly in a state of forgiving others and of being forgiven. “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” I hope these words from our Tradition resonate with all of us this week as they resonated inside my mother and me on the High Holidays a dozen years ago and a half a world away. Shana tova and gemar chatimah tovah.
Rabbi Leah Jordan
Ordained Leo Baeck College July 2013
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.