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Forgivenss and Gratitude (KN 5777)

Yom Kippur the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar and we have just listened to Kol Nidre. On this day we will fast and pray for 25 hours in attempt to set things right with God. Repeatedly we will confess our sins in the short confessional, the Ashamnu, an alphabetical acrostic listing sins from A-Z or more accurately from Aleph to Tav; and through the longer confessional – the Al Chet, “We have sinned against You...” The majority of the sins listed are done by words and we say them communally, it isn’t just what I have done or you done, but we as a people have done, Judaism is a communal religion, we err collectively and we seek forgiveness collectively; but we are also individuals within the collective and so we must also take responsibility for our personal shortcomings.

The great rabbinic teacher Maimonides set forth the Jewish way of seeking forgiveness. First, we have to confess our sins; it is not enough to realize that we have done something wrong; we have to say out loud, hence the prayers. But more than that, if I have wronged you, then I have to apologize to you; saying it here in synagogue is inadequate. Apologies are not so easy to do. In the words of Elton John, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” But first and foremost you have to express regret for you words or deeds. And while that is a necessary first step, it does not get you off the hook by itself. Next in the process you have to acknowledge responsibility, it is something you did or said that hurt or upset someone. You can’t say, “I’m sorry that you’re mad or upset” that’s not taking responsibility. Next you have to offer to make amends, is there something you can do or say to make up for what transpired. It might be that the answer is no, but at least you can say, “If there is something I can do to make this up to you, please let me know.” Finally, you need to promise that it won’t happen again.

So why is it so difficult to apologize? It may be that we are ashamed or embarrassed by our behavior in which case most people’s initial response is to be defensive, so we have to overcome that inclination. Most of us try to have a positive self image, Stanford University, psychologist, Karina Schumann, published a paper where she reasons admitting we have hurt someone threatens our self image and so we are defensive trying to protect our egos. Schumann demonstrated that saying self affirmations prior apologizing raises our self image and helps us to improve our apology.

But the apology is only half the equation, for the relationship to be repaired there also has to be forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the one who was wronged. Forgiveness too can be difficult; just as an apology makes us vulnerable, so can a willingness to forgive. As difficult as it is for some to apologize, there are others who find it very difficult to forgive. When they feel hurt or wronged, it makes them angry; they want justice or perhaps even vengeance. They no longer trust the other person and so are not open to their apology. But just as it is important to learn how to properly apologize, so it is imperative to learn how to forgive.

The Yom Kippur liturgy is filled with language encouraging us to forgive others in the hope that God will forgive us our offenses. At the end of every set of Al Chet is the phase, “v’al kullam, elo-ah s’lichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kapper lanu – For all these sins, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.” We also say repeatedly the Thirteen Attributes of God, “Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful, and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for the thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin and granting pardon.” We also say, “Forgive us, our creator, for we have sinned; pardon us, our sovereign, for we have transgressed – for You, Adonai, are kind and forgiving; You act generously to all who call on You.”

The Divine forgiveness that we seek on Yom Kippur is only available to us for sins between you and God. God does not forgive for sins between you and someone else, for that you must speak to the person you have wronged directly. When you make a mistake and there is no one to set it right, then you turn to God. So for example, if you were get out of your seat, go down the block to McDonald’s purchase a cheeseburger and eat it – you would be violating Yom Kippur and Kashrut all at once, but you have not damaged your relationship with anyone except God; if you later repented of your action, there is no one to offer you absolution for your act, but God. But if I have stolen your favorite pen, I can feel remorse and pray endlessly, but unless I apologize to you, return your pen and promise not to take it again, my prayers are useless, it is your forgiveness that I must seek.

Forgiving is not forgetting, it does not undo the past, rather it is an attempt to let go of the pain and the anger that ultimately only hurts us. Forgiveness is actually an internal process; it is something that we do for ourselves. There is a Buddhist saying, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at another; you are the one who gets burned.” We don’t forgive someone just for their sake; we do it for our own sake. When we are unforgiving of others, we hurt ourselves. It is not easy to let go of anger. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering – remembering and not using your right to hit back.”

In our tradition, if you have wronged someone and you have apologized, but they have refused to forgive you, then you have to go back to them two more times to apologize and again seek their forgiveness. If after the third attempt, they still refuse to forgive you, then the sin is upon them and you can turn to God on Yom Kippur to seek Divine forgiveness. So going back to the stolen pen, I’ve returned, it apologized, offered reparations, and promised not to take it again, but in spite of my efforts, you are unwilling to forgive me, after I’ve sought your forgiveness three times, I can turn to God Divine forgiveness, it does not fix our relationship, but it does reinforce that I did everything within my power to right the wrong I perpetrated.

On the afternoon of Yom Kippur we read the Book of Jonah, I invite you to join us tomorrow at 4:15 to hear it. It is a strange book with a strange prophet about sin and forgiveness. God commands Jonah to travel to the foreign capital of Nineveh and there proclaim the word of God that unless the people repent, they will be destroyed. Rather than jump to do God’s will, Jonah hops on a ship going in the other direction. However, you can’t run away from God. A storm sweeps over the ship and they determine that Jonah is the cause, so they throw him overboard and God sends a great fish to swallow him, from the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed to God and repented of his actions. God again commands Jonah go to Nineveh and prophecy their doom if they don’t repent. This time Jonah goes and does as God commanded. The people repent and God forgives them and Jonah is dismayed! Perhaps Jonah is unhappy that he will be thought a false prophet by predicting something that does not come to pass, perhaps he is unhappy that he was sent to prophecy to a foreign nation hostile to Israel, perhaps, he is displeased because he is a champion for justice and no justice befalls the sinners of Nineveh, they repent and are forgiven.

There are those like Jonah who believe that when a crime has been committed that justice must be served, but the classical rabbis in assigning Jonah as a prophetic reading on Yom Kippur itself try to teach us that Judaism values mercy and forgiveness even over justice. Justice is important, but it is not the highest value. In fact, we pray on the High Holy Days that when God judges us that it be done from the Divine Throne of Mercy not the Throne of Justice, for if we were to be judged by strict justice, most of us would be found wanting. Rather we want God to be merciful and forgiving. We may be without merit and undeserving, but in spite of that we ask to be forgiven.

Ideally, forgiveness leads to reconciliation. We saw this in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Rather than punitive retributive justice, they sought to employ restorative justice, which fosters dialogue between victim and offender leading to satisfaction for the victim and accountability for the offender. Imagine what the Middle East might look like if Israel and the Palestinians could find a way to do this. My colleague Dennis Sasso shared a story of forgiveness from the world of sports that exemplifies this concept.

In 1965, San Francisco Giant’s Juan Marichal and Dodger John Roseboro, in the heat of the pennant race, engaged in a fierce 14 minute brawl captured in an iconic image on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Marichal responded to having his ear clipped by Roseboro’s throw by clobbering Roseboro with his bat. Marichal was fined, suspended by the league and sued by Roseboro who continued to suffer headaches for the rest of the season.

Ten years later the two men met at an old-timers game, shook hands and during a TV interview Marichal apologized to Roseboro, who graciously accepted.

Seven years after that, Roseboro was instrumental in advancing Marichal’s admission into the Baseball Hall of Fame, from which he had apparently been excluded because of the 1965 incident. Roseboro traveled to the Dominican Republic for Marichal’s golf tournament and proclaimed to the world their reconciliation and renewed friendship. At Roseboro’s funeral in 2002 Marichal was an honorary pall bearer and delivered a moving eulogy for his friend. A beautiful example of the power of forgiveness.

While we can’t change the past, how we think about it and how we feel about it can have an impact upon our present. It is difficult to be optimistic and feel happy if we are angry. But we can control how we think about and even how we feel about past events. We can be the masters of our own fate. One of the factors that can help us be more forgiving is gratitude. When we are grateful for that which we have it actually makes us more like to be forgiving. Gratitude is behind the rabbinic concept of brachot, of saying blessings each day for everything we experience. We can fill our day will blessings and at the same time fill our hearts with gratitude for all the wonders in God’s world. In fact, Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project says that forgiveness requires gratitude. Forgiveness is the flipside of gratitude. It involves responding positively to transgressions by offering mercy instead of vengeance. (Positive Psychology News website)

My mother was an example to me of struggling to stay positive and aware of gratitude in the fact of chronic pain. She lived with constant pain for years and at times it would be overwhelming to her, but then she’s say to me, “I need an attitude adjustment” and we would talk until she felt better about things. Afterwards, we would both feel better.

Most of us think of Yom Kippur as a serious and sober holiday and that certainly is reinforced by all the prayers and breast beating that place, but in the Talmud we are told there was no happier day than Yom Kippur for on this day God forgave us the sin of the Golden Calf and gave us the second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments upon them. (Ta’anit 30b) There is even a statement that Yom HaKiPurim as we find it in the Torah can be translated as a Day like Purim. On Purim we sing and dance and celebrate our salvation; on Yom HaKippurim we celebrate that God has forgiven us.

So while we fast and pray, let us focus on gratitude for all that we have, allowing us to forgive others and feel forgiven by God. Let us celebrate this state of affairs knowing that we are going into this New Year with a clean slate and much to celebrate. May this New Year 5777 be one whereby we will be able to sing and dance and celebrate all the good in our lives.

Fri, September 25 2020 7 Tishrei 5781