GIFT OF FORGIVENESS
Kol Nidre Sermon, 5772/2011
Rabbi Debra R. Hachen, Temple Beth-El, Jersey City
Let us begin with a story I heard years ago from Rabbi Saul Teplitz. Ancient myth has it that when humans were being created, each of the angels brought a gift. From one - muscle so we could work and defend ourselves; From another - fleetness of foot. Another - keen vision. Another- skills of analysis and wisdom. Still another: tenderness and compassion. So we grew in the image of God...
Then came the bad angel. The one some call the Devil. In his desire to make our lives miserable, he gave us the gift of memory. Every failure, every false step, every missed opportunity, every misdeed – engraved forever. We could no longer love our neighbor, as every wrong they did to us and every misspoken word would remain with us to haunt us. We could no longer love ourselves. We would see our weaknesses before our eyes at all times, our guilt hanging over us. We would never have self-confidence. The Devils gift of memory would have ruined our happiness. To counter this, God responded with one last gift - the gift of forgiveness. Personal failure would still exist, but -- with forgiveness -- we have the power to place our memories of the past in context and face the future with new possibilities.
There's truth in this story. Memory can be painful. Memory brings its own kind of curse, when it sends us back to revisit failure, weakness, and imperfection in ourselves. And in others. In his book, Forgive for Good, Dr. Fred Luskin, co-founder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, describes how we harm ourselves when we take the pains we have experienced and create a grievance story which we tell over and over again. And how the first step toward forgiveness is creating a new story in which we emphasize how we overcame challenges, not how we were victimized.
It's not the memories themselves that are the culprit - but the way we integrate those imperfect moments in our lives. Instead of taking those moments as temporary set-backs, normal events in the life of a human being, we too often allow our failures to define who we are. Instead of pride in the college from which we graduated, or the job we fill successfully -- we remember the rejection slips, the turn-downs, the broken relationships. And even worse, we come to expect perfection not only from ourselves, but from those around us. So, even as we disappoint ourselves, others are always disappointing us as well.
Some say that religion makes this all worse. It asks us to live up to high standards we can never attain. It gives us countless rules to follow, and warns us of punishments if we break them. But in Judaism that is not what religion is all about. Our high standards are not there as a test, with a personal God declaring who will live and who will die. The standards are there to give us a better life. Even a simple rule like fasting on Yom Kippur, is meant to be broken if the fasting will be harmful, as our Torah teaches: Chai bachem; live by them – by the mitzvot. Live by them, do not die by them. The rules and laws created over centuries by human beings just like us – inspired by their vision of a loving God -- are there to enhance life, to make it more just and loving. To make US more just and loving. And they are there to help us through the difficulties that living naturally brings in an imperfect world. Religion is not the arbiter of human failure, but rather the force that picks us up when we fall, comforts us, and points out the right way so we can try again. Furthermore, religion does more than hold out to us a vision of an ideal world toward which we aspire; it also affirms a vision of imperfect people, joined together to inch toward that goal. As Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it in his book, How Good Do We Have To Be? "Religion is not there to condemn us for our mistakes, but to say: I will guide you through the minefield of moral dilemmas."
Yom Kippur comes to bring us God's message that we are not expected to be perfect. In the confession we recited tonight we included these words:
Who among us can say, I have not sinned?
The answer is obvious: no one. There is no such thing as a perfect person. The God we believe in doesn't ask perfection of us. God - the source of all the is good in the universe - knows we cannot be perfect, because God created us. God – through the unfolding power of evolution -- made us this way -- fallible, imperfect, stumbling. But, like a parent with a toddler, God, the ultimate conscience -- doesn't berate us when we take a wrong step, or trip and fall along our way. Like a parent, God nods and encourages, knowing that only through trial and error will we be able one day to stand taller and walk more confidently on the path of goodness.
There is much that keeps us from trying again when we fail. Fear, self-doubt, and shame. Rabbi Kushner explains, though, that our Judaism is actually the cure for feeling of guilt and shame. He teaches that shame is feeling bad for who you are, and that the best cure for that is to have someone accept you for who you are, and tell you that you matter. In God’s eyes, we all matter. But the way we know that is through human beings, God’s messengers. We need other people who we trust and respect to give us the message that we deserve to be taken seriously, deserve a second chance, that we have value even when we are blind to it ourselves.
Ever visit a classroom with a really great teacher? He or she will not berate the children, nor put them down when they get an answer wrong. Such a teacher steers the students toward discovering truth and knowledge, and never gives up when someone misses the mark. You don't have to get 100's on every test to please such a teacher, and we suspect that such a teacher actually takes more pride in the student who pulls up his grade than the one who never gets a wrong answer.
Our sages say that God is really like that teacher, trying to draw out the best in us, never giving up on us. This message comes through in the Hebrew term for sin, "Cheyt," which is really from an archery term, meaning to "miss the mark." We take aim, we make the attempt, but we miss. So much of our wrongdoing is like that, isn't it? How often have you tried to choose your words carefully so as not to hurt another person, or gone out of your way to do what you thought was kindness, only to have it fail in its intended results, or even backfire and bring the very pain you were trying to alleviate?
And how often have we faced difficult moral decisions, where there was good on both sides of the scale, and we found ourselves forced to choose a path which we knew was imperfect. One only has to look back at this 10 year anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq: remembering our wanting to stop a dictator in Iraq, yet not wanting to cause pain and suffering to innocent people who had already been persecuted by their own government. Our actions in Iraq were imperfect: for there was no ideal choice. Yes, it was made worse by misleading information. We faced a tough choice: intervene too late; intervene too soon. Our government chose. And now we have had ten years of our own soldiers – as well as many civilians dying each week. Over 4200 U.S. soldiers have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. And over a 1000 more from other countries. and still there is no perfect solution. As Americans, we feel pride in our desire to bring freedom to others; we also feel shame that this desire has brought unintended consequences of death, sorrow, and chaos. Sadly, after a few years we started to move the story to the back pages of newspapers and of our minds. On this Yom Kippur, we ask God for forgiveness for hardening our hearts or despairing of hope in this long terrible war. And we pray for wisdom and courage on the part of our politicians. Help them take aim and bring this war to a close and help the Iraq and Afghanistani peoples to form a more peaceful society.
Israel has also faced a challenging decade. From a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza which angered the Jews who lost their homes and livelihoods; from having to block contraband material on its way into Gaza – requiring it to pass through ports for inspection; to enduring increased rocket attacks against Israel’s citizens; and at the same time trying to find a way to negotiate the path to a two-state solution and protect civil rights of all. We were all shocked by the burning of a mosque in the Bedouin town of Tuba Zangria – inside the green line, in Israel itself; even more shocked since the Bedouin of that town serve in the Israeli army and are loyal Israelis. There is some comfort in the immediate condemnation of this act by the Israeli government and the efforts devoted to arresting the arsonists. And in the outpouring from every Jewish group condemning this act, especially as it comes during the High Holy Days - a time we are called upon to display our best values. What I found most humbling, was the reaction from the leader of the town who refused to take funding from Islamic outside groups for rebuilding, saying that he had good relationships with the Israeli government and that as citizens they would take the government’s help in this crisis. And three days ago, I took hope at the rallies in nearby Rosh Pina where Arab and Jewish Israelis marched together to say Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies. And I am also hopeful because our Reform movement responded within hours and set up a fund to assist in the rebuilding and refurbishing of the mosque. If you would like to contribute, we will try to add a link to our homepage after the weekend.
Political decisions are most often morally ambiguous and challenging, because they must take into account varied opinions and beliefs. Raise taxes or cut spending or how to balance the two. Approve more charter schools, or work harder to make the current public school system healthy. Support free speech and peaceful revolution in Arab countries or sit it out for fear that the new governments will be anti-Western and radicalized.
Difficult decisions are not only the stuff of politics. They happen on the personal level. We too face momentous choices, even life and death choices. When we are gathered around the hospital bed as a loved one is dying. The impulse is both to hold on to the loved one and to allow him or her to go. Families are often pulled apart during such times. If only we would grasp that there is no perfect answer; only an effort to aim our intention of love, respect, and honor in the right direction. How hard it is to actually say the words “it’s OK; we love you; you can go now” to a dying parent or spouse. And how hard not to second guess ourselves, hard not to create a story that just relives the pain.
Rabbi Kushner tells the story of an evening in which he had to make two shiva calls to members who had lost their mothers. At the first stop, the son laments to the rabbi, "Why didn't I insist that she move to Florida. I encouraged her to stay here, close to family and friends. If only I had pushed her to go, the warm climate would have made all the difference. She wouldn't be dead." At the next stop, a different mother’s son took the rabbi aside. “Rabbi, he said, I feel so guilty. I let my mother move to Florida. If only I had insisted that she stay here close to family and friends, she might still be alive today."
This incident reminds us that there are no ideal answers, no perfect decisions. The world is not some puzzle which we can someday complete when we find that last piece and squeeze it into the right spot. Life is always shifting, changing, presenting us with new dilemmas. And we will fail over and over because that is the complex and unredeemed world in which we live. Yom Kippur comes once a year not to bring us to the point of despair, but to point us to hope.
On Yom Kippur, we remind ourselves of our failures and imperfections -- not so that we can give up on ourselves or beat ourselves up, but so that we can grow and learn. The metaphor for this day is powerful: We call it Yom Ha-Din, the day of judgment -- a day of fear and dread, as we stand arrayed before God, the Judge, to be examined for our deeds. Consequences are inevitable when one appears before a human judge. But our fear this day should not be that a divine judge will strike us down. It should be the fear that we will be locked into the past; too harsh on ourselves; stuck in self-recrimination or in anger at others. Rabbi Kushner puts it well, "If we are afraid to make a mistake, we will never be brave enough to try anything new, we'll be afraid to grow."
Judaism gives us a great gift. It tells us that our past mistakes, no matter how serious, do not define who we will be tomorrow. If we are an impatient, arrogant or inconsiderate person today: we can change. We don’t have to accept it and live with it. We can follow the five steps: acknowledge our wrong, fix it, make it up to those we’ve hurt (even to ourselves), resolve not to repeat the wrong, and resist it when it arises again. And then we get to turn a new page. It’s not just on Yom Kippur that we can start anew; it’s every day. Every day that we have the courage to say, if God believes in me, than I can believe in me. For even if others give up on us, God never does. As the liturgy says, I am waiting for you as soon as you turn back to me. And our sage taught, the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are never closed.
There was a program at a major prison a few years back called Shakespeare in Prison. A director worked for months with those incarcerated for serious crimes and had them produce and act. When putting together a radio piece about this program, a reporter got to know the prisoners personally as well. then he looked up their crimes. And he asked the actors/prisoners about their past. Over and over he got the same answer: I’m not that person anymore.
When the sun goes down tomorrow night, those are the words we hope will be on our lips, too. “I’m not that person any more.” Yom Kippur is not just about reciting the Al Cheit: a list of all the sins we have done wrong. If this day is to be more than fasting and reconnecting with tradition, it must be transformative. Or at least point us in the direction of transformation.
A true story is told of a man who left his addiction and went into a halfway house run by an inspirational rabbi. One day an elderly woman died and her family gave her old sofa as a donation to the institution. The man was carrying the sofa down the stairs when an envelope fell out. In it was a thousand dollars. The man could have pocketed it, but he turned it in to the family. He explained, I learned here that God does not make junk. I am not the person I was before. That person is long gone.
That is what God asks of us. Remember what we have done wrong – but remember the possibilities we can still embrace. If we accept that we are not condemned forever to repeat our faults, perhaps then we can be keep open the possibility that others who do wrong will also be able to change. Yes, it is easier to brand someone as a liar or cheat or insensitive. To divide people into the good ones and the bad ones. Yet on which side would most of us end up if our wrongs followed us around the rest of our lives? Acknowledging that others are human does not mean we condone their wrongs. We don’t turn a blind eye. We turn a discerning eye. We see that we have a choice of how the future will play out: by working through a difficulty, calling on the other to take responsibility, owning our part – if any – in the situation; or even deciding that we need to distance ourselves from additional harm.
The story is told of the great Rabbi Meir who came home one day and started praying that an evil man in his town should die. His wife, Bruriah, stopped him. You must not pray for the sinner to die; pray instead that he will turn away from his sin.
Our tradition teaches that God does not hate the sinner, but the sin.
Yom Kippur reminds us that the battle against evil and temptation is not waged by arguing with God over whether we sinned or not. The battle is not even waged by sitting in prayer or fasting for 24 hours. The battle is not fought by putting up a defense that God made us capable of evil, though it is tempting to blame God for our failures just as children blame a parent for not raising them in the most perfect way. No - we fight our best battles against missing the mark, against Cheyt - by taking our own conduct into our own hands. But owning our own mistakes and learning from them. And by asking for God's help.
That is why the Devil's gift and God's gift are both truly precious. For it is through the gift of memory that we can learn. Only by knowing who we were yesterday, only by gaining some perspective on our former actions, can we decide who we will become tomorrow. Memory, even memory of our failures and imperfections -- especially of our failures and imperfections-- is a precious gift. It is the source of guilt - the kind of guilt that stirs us to change. When paired with God's gift, the gift of forgiveness, guilt does not weigh us down, but it prods us to get out of our rut, to try a different approach. It encourages us to rebuild a marriage that has been neglected, or to make contact with a child, a sibling, a parent from whom we have been long estranged. Memory of failure can bring pain, but the promise of forgiveness brings hope.
And ultimately we are a people of hope. Yom Kippur means literally the Day of Kippur: of covering up. We don't sweep our errors under the rug, but we do gather them all in one place. We examine them. We acknowledge them. We own up to the imperfections in an imperfect world. We confront them head on. We make confession. Then we add hope. We add faith. We add the will to change. We add God's forgiveness. We add the belief that these "sins" do not define us, they simply tell us what must come next. Then we do cover them up: put them away. For, once we have truly done the work of this day, our misdeeds are distant memories, not nagging ones. And tomorrow – is truly the first day of the rest of our life. And God, like the parent teaching a child to walk -- is just ahead -- holding out his arms and urging us to take the next step.