Yom Kippur: Lessons in Forgiveness from The High Holy Days

September 13, 2010 - 4:20 pm 28 Comments
 The Power of Forgiveness

During this time of the year, Jews from every nation and sect gather together in their temples and synagogues to celebrate Yom Kippur– The Day of Atonement. This day is the highest and holiest day in the Jewish religious year; it is a day of prayer, reflection, and fasting. It observance marks the end of the 10-day New Year period that started with Rosh Hashanah. It is the year 5768 by their traditional calendar which is considered to be the first day of the Creation, and it is when a record of the soul of the Jewish people began.

It is a time that is greeted with solemnity and gratitude, for Yom Kippur prepares and proclaims a special oath, covenant or promise. The promise is twofold: That we can come closer to the presence of God in our lives, and that we are assured of the forgiveness of our sins. This twofold promise translates into a twofold theology much akin to our traditional understandings of a Unitarian God and a Universalist doctrine of salvation.

The Jewish people, according to Evelyn Underhill, the renown religious scholar, states that:

The Jewish soul, as it discloses itself to us in its records, was, from the beginning, peculiarly sensitive to God.”

As recorded, these early Jews possessed a rare and almost absolute devotion to the leadership of Yahweh. This dedication, expressed through its sacred holidays and ritual observances, became the focal point and the rhythmic life’s blood of the Israelite society. This devotion to their God and the noble almost defiant resolve they maintained even through many centuries of persecution, created a unique and intimate relationship of a people with their God, which was then collected into inspirational and ethical teachings that became known as the Hebrew Scriptures. These writings and subsequent Rabbinical commentaries created the picture of a people with a distinctive moral fiber. It is a quality of fiber that, when it was woven together, understood and practiced, gave each believer a spiritual and ethical quilt of meaning and purpose for their whole lives.

The twofold message of the Jewish understanding and practice during Holy Day of Yom Kippur finds its greatest and most lasting meaning in the atonement and in the forgiveness of sins. This outlook and commitment becomes for us, the key point for our understanding and for our appreciation of the Jewish religion as a whole– to understand how, and in what way, forgiveness and absolution are given and received.

Yom Kippur demonstrates our universal human need for the both reverence and repentance; that without a willingness to devote yourself to something and/or someone, and to the equally important need or willingness to accept each other’s brokenness and trials, and to offer forgiveness, we humans can easily give in to sins of self importance, vanity and pride, and miss the opportunity to live our lives with inner peace.

This reciprocal ideal is the basis of Judaism. It translates directly into the later Rabbinic wisdom of Jesus, and helps to form the basis of Christian thought and making its way down to us as the roots of our Western standards for morality.

Originally, in the era of Jewish history that predates the establishment of the local temple or synagogue, animals sacrifices were substituted for personal repentance. Not until the later time of the Prophets, did the concern for individual conscience take priority over the group consensus.

In those earlier times, a bundle of sticks would be attached to a goat and then the goat was either sacrificed or sent off into the wilderness. Each stick represented a known or confessed sin, and symbolically, the animal carried them all away, thereby absolving the sins of the transgressors. This practice was the origin of the term- scapegoating: It was a ritualistic way of transferring or projecting the flaws and sins, the guilts, fears and shames of a tribe, a group, or any family onto a sacrificial target so that the offending people can start again with a clean moral slate.

Now, as this practice has changed over the centuries of culture, this scapegoating procedure now primarily refers to projecting an excuse for rightful blame; We are all familiar with the therapeutic abuses of this practice… Such as in early Freudian understanding, we could indict our parents: ” I blame it all on my mother! Or as the great comic theologian, Flip Wilson, used to exclaim: : The devil, the devil made me do it!”

In a more convincing and compelling understanding of the practice of scapegoating states that it is a spurning of reality and responsibility for what we, as individuals, and as adults what we choose to do! Unfortunately, or tragically, we often scapegoat what we, as communities, groups, and nations are willing to deny and then accept about ourselves; What we are willing to tolerate from our leaders, or what we can easily justify and condone in our daily or social life! All the avoidance of personal and corporate responsibility negatively affects our interpersonal behavior, lowers our cultural reputation or can serve to corrupt our national consciousness. That might be the truth behind the popular statement: We get the government we deserve!

Back to the development of the idea of forgiveness…

Historically, when worship became more localized in temples and synagogues, the expiation of sins and trespasses that a person had to atone for became more individual and communal. In this shift of emphasis, the faithful would enter the place of worship and be instructed to be quiet, to meditate and to rest or to wrestle as they continue their introspection.

They were told to fast from food, and more importantly, to fast from their frantic pace of life in order to allow space in their thought … To give themselves a space and a time for reflection … To give themselves more time to the consider their lives and to appraise or evaluate their current motives and ethical directions. This thoughtful, thorough, and sometimes agonizing assessment of one’s behavior, ethics, and values would eventually lead the person to a heartfelt contrition.

This time, having been set aside at the beginning of the Jewish New Year, holds many valuable lessons for us today. Jew and Gentile, agnostic or mystic alike, can each benefit from an examination of their values, their goals, their ways of relationship, and to evaluate those areas of their lives that are in need of improvement or redirection. It is time set aside to recognize their next steps, their best steps towards wholeness.

Like the devout Jew, we can find profound benefit in a periodic personal and communal struggle to find workable answers, and in the renewed willingness to resolve our own personal and communal shortcomings. Because of the power and the benefit of this practice, modeled by Judaism for the world, I will ask you these introspective questions:

Do you give yourself least a day each year to take a good look at your life? When did you last take a moral inventory or give yourself a spiritual assessment or schedule an ethical check up?

When did you last consider your motives and acts, your habits and patterns, your vices and values?

Since cultivating both forgiveness and repentance are the central concerns for healing any lingering emotional problems any of us might have, how do you provide yourself with this opportunity?

How do you use your spiritual ideals and beliefs to examine your motives and values, so that you can let go, and free yourselves of any past negative patterns or difficult feelings?

When these problems plague us, it is often beneficial to express them in confidence, and with seriousness to a caring and appropriate person; someone who will understand you and place them in a healthy spiritual and/or psychological context for our greater understanding.

It is often problematic if or when we keep our feelings to ourselves, and then by our all too human tendencies, we wind up dwelling on them, so then they become intensified! Because such rehearsal can make us angry or bitter, in fact, it can paralyze us emotionally by becoming an obsessive concern and become, in our minds and hearts, overwhelming!

As I have learned personally and professionally, when we keep our negative feelings to ourselves, we can become attached to them- as it is said psychologically, we over-identify with our problems- so much so that we miss the whole purpose of letting go- of losing them and freeing or forgiving ourselves!

We can ask: How is it that you still find some value in holding on to the thoughts, feelings, or experiences that promote the three great spiritual and psychological poisons: Regrets, remorse, and lingering resentments? Ask yourself: How is that attitude working for you? How does holding on to it help you to live more completely and love more fully?

Now does that mean you should openly share everything, with everybody? You know, “wearing ones heart on one’s sleeve?” Or does it mean that we are to be so open that you allow the cruel and insensitive people in our world to dump on you? Does it mean because you have been hurt, you allow yourself to be used as someone else’s punching bag? Of course not! There is a definite need for privacy, and an abiding respect for disclosure and discretion, and that certain ethical boundaries should always be maintained. …

Additionally, and vital to our well being is this corollary: While we are encouraged to forgive, we are compelled not to forget what others do to us, but to use whatever the painful wisdom of those lessons have given us. By refusing to forget, we can promote self esteem and self respect by avoiding the tendency to fall into the same traps or patterns. As I see it and practice it, forgiveness and tough love effectively work together.

When forgiveness is taught as a genuine spiritual approach its full or lasting emotional benefit is not given through a quick pious formula or is to be used as a convenient rationale that gives easy permission for your ego to feel justified- and then keep on doing what it pleases- be it an addiction, a self punishment, or simply continuing to do anything that is hurtful to ourselves or to anyone else.

Forgiveness does not come from just bluntly airing your differences, or causally telling or complaining to someone about your troubles. Equally true, is that forgiveness surely does not come from just logging time in the pews, or sitting piously through a religious service, or from going through the enforced church instruction or the expected motions of repentance without truly understanding it deeply. It is not some pious magic ritual that gives you instant salvation or can satisfy you easily with some form of cheap grace.

In my research and understanding, in my life and professional practice, forgiveness has four general ways it expresses itself- two are self defeating and unproductive, and two are positive and in religious language, they are more redemptive.

Briefly, the less positive ways we express forgiveness center themselves on how and to what extent we will avoid conflict, try to keep the peace, etc., because we are afraid to lose the friendship or partnership, so we often too quickly forgive. …

We forgive without expecting a change in the behavior of those who have hurt you… Guess What? They will do it again!

The second self-defeating approach is found in the refusal to forgive- when we continue to rehearse the hurt, hold on to grudges, remain stuck or refuse to move on emotionally from slights and insults we all might receive over a lifetime…

The two more positive ways combine a willingness to forgive with the expectation of behavioral reform, or true contrition by the offending person. The first way is simply known as Acceptance. Accepting what has happened to us, knowing what our roles in it was, and understanding both the offense and the best response of wisdom and then moving or getting on with our lives. We have to accept that we might never receive a sincere apology, but we have learned from the situation, and now choose to let go…

The last approach is Genuine Forgiveness. It involves not holding a grudge, not lording over another in some pious way, but clearly expecting behavioral changes that restore trust and intimacy, that give or help to regain respect and equality to the person who is willing to offer forgiveness…

Forgiveness is accomplished only when it is understood in earnest, and then reinforced by one’s community’s or one’s personal and family values. Forgiveness is then affirmed in one’s heart or received by one’s conscience. And when it is genuinely experienced, it is a powerful and often transformative way to find a release from any burdens and toxic beliefs that troubled us for so long.

In the Kol Nidre Service, which comes at the culmination of the High Holy days, there is a prayer of forgiveness…

As it is a long prayer, I would like to share a short portion of it with you now…

If you have trouble with the concept of a God, please interpret it as Truth, Spirit, or the Source of whatever is good, right, fit or true for you…. you might like to sit quietly and use this as a prayer for yourselves, or just listen as it is an example of the Jewish promise of peace and release….

“[May it be your will, dear God, that I fall short or sin no more, that I do not revert to my old ways, that I do not cause anger or hurt by my actions.

Holy One, I ask that you wipe away any misdeeds that I might have committed with your great compassion. As it is said in the Psalms…. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable before You, my God, my Rock and my Redeemer. Salat AMEN

So I ask you to understand that we are all in need of empathy, forgiveness, and respect; And even though you might wear the marks of physical pain, personal loss, some relational scars, or some secret shame, know, down to the depths of your being, that today you have been given a promise of release and relief upon your acceptance and repentance, and that the God or source of your understanding holds out its heart to you, and offers you this day, the soulful gifts of freedom and hope ….

So it is that my last thoughts on Yom Kippur for you is this: Shalom and Shalem… Peace and wholeness; peace and restoration … May there always be enough… Enough forgiveness, justice, empathy and compassion for us all. So BE IT

Opening Words:

The irreverent and antiestablishment psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz encapsulates the teachings of forgiveness in these pithy and declarative words:

The stupid neither forgive nor forget;

The naive forgive and forget;

The wise forgive but do not forget….


Children and Forgiveness;

When we are young, we learn from our parents…

When we are older, we judge their actions…

And when we are old enough, and wise enough,

we learn to forgive them… . Adapted from Oscar Wilde

Closing Words:

“[We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. Any of us who is devoid of the power to truly forgive, is also devoid of the power to truly love.

It is true that there is some good in the worst of us, and there is some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate, and more open to life and love.]” From Martin Luther King, Jr.

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