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Forgiveness and Reconciliation

05/21/2015 11:43:00 AM


Rosh Hashana, 2000

by Harold M. Schulweis

The Rabbi of Belz, Shalom ben Elazar Rokeach of the 19th century, wrote: There are three types of exile. The first is when Jews are in exile among the nations. The second is when Jews are in exile among Jews. And the third is when a Jew is exiled within himself.

There are Jewish families whose members are in exile; alienated from each other, families whose members do not speak to each other. There are parents who do not speak to their children and children who do not speak to their parents.

There are siblings who do not speak to each other. There are long time friends who are estranged from each other. There are families who live in exile. How do I know? Because my study is a window on the world.

The telephone rings in my study. Papa has died. Arrangements for the funeral must be made.

"I would like to meet with the entire family," I say. The voice on the other end is silent.

"That's not going to be that easy Rabbi," she says.

"Why? Are they not in town?"

"They are in town all right. But the boys haven't spoken to each other for over ten years. And that goes for their children. They won't sit in the same room together.

"But it's their father" I reply.

The other voice says "I know."

I meet with the boys, their wives and their children separately. Not together. And at the funeral the brothers and their respective families will sit separately, not together, not in the family room but on separate benches in separate rows. An angry mechitzah separates the family. Why? How did it start? When did it start? When I ask the origin of the anger, I discover that no one in the family remembers what caused the impasse. No one knows its genesis, but the deadlock continues without end. Who is right? Who is wrong? The silent anger hovers over the "levaiah". Shivah will be in separate homes. After the funeral, one of the brothers whispers "Rabbi, can you officiate at separate unveilings?"

The divorced mother, sits in my study with her son to discuss the honors for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. She is near tears of anger. "I don't want my ex to have an aliyah. He doesn't deserve an honor." She turns to her son, "You don't really want your father up there do you?" The son turns crimson red. Later in the day, his father called me and presented me with a litany of complaints against his former wife. Who is right? Who is wrong? At the Bar Mitzvah the young man is nervous, not because he has not mastered the Haftorah, but because he does not understand the mishpochah. At the Bar Mitzvah, another family mechitzah is raised: separate rows, separate seats and there will be separate Bar Mitzvah receptions.

I have tried to intervene. Most of the time the parties refuse to come together. It's too painful, too burdensome. But being together is indispensable for any sort of dialogue. You can't say "thou" to yourself. I am ever so politely advised to stay out of it: perform your ritual duties, preach the eulogy, offer your commentary, conduct the services." But you can't seal off the study from the sanctuary. The family will be in the synagogue Yom Kippur in separate rows, at separate services of the sanctuary.

What happens in the study outside seeps into the sanctuary. The human soul has no mechitzah. The rabbi's study is no hermetically sealed cloister. From Selichot on through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the prayers cry out for forgiveness; slach lanu, m'chal lanu, kaper lanu -- forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. On these Days of Awe I come to ask forgiveness. In the tradition of our faith, I do not ask forgiveness for some original sin, some inherited depravity, for some spiritual stain that has infected my soul at birth and to expiate for a sinful strain of chromosome that can be traced back to Adam and Eve. I inherit no original sin. But I have my own.

But our tradition knows that I am not perfect. I am not unblemished, flawless. I have sins to confess and for which I seek forgiveness. The Jewish view of human nature is expressed in the Bible in the book of Ecclesiastes 7:20. "There is no human being on earth who has done good and has not sinned."

Next week I will come with you to the synagogue to spend 24 hours in fasting and personal repentance to seek forgiveness and to confess. I will not hide my own transgressions behind the skirts of the community. I will not disguise my own transgressions behind the syntax of plurality "We have sinned. We have transgressed." No, I have sinned. I have transgressed. I have hurt. I have injured. I have gossiped. I have libeled. I have lost my temper. I have manipulated. I have been implacable, stubborn, obdurate, proud, unforgiving, jealous, envious, petty.

On Yom Kippur I hold up a mirror to my inner soul. Ten times I will recite the Al Chet, ten times in the course of Yom Kippur. I will recite the Al Chet not only in public aloud but also in private, in silence when no one is to hear my confession except me and my God. Why Al Chet in private?

I can fool you. I can fool my family. I can fool my friends. I can fool my community. But I cannot fool the silent dialogue within called "vidui", the confession between me and my God. I can find all kinds of excuses for my personal transgressions, for my pride and arrogance. I can blame my background, my parents, my upbringing. But a mirror ritual law of confession states that when you recite the Al Chet you are to stand upright on your own two feet. You cannot lean upon the lectern or table.

I am here to ask forgiveness from God. That God in our tradition, does not want my suffering, my sickness or my death. A rabbinic Midrash tells of the evil king Menasheh who placed a pagan idol in the Temple of the Lord. When that king Menasheh came to pray for forgiveness to ask for t’shuvah, the angels protested "Should a person as evil as this man be able to repent? And they locked up all the windows and doors to heaven. What did God do? God dug out a small hole beneath the throne of glory in order to hear the repentance of king Menasheh. God breaks down the mechitzah between you and Him.

God atones. God pardons. God forgives! God! God! God! And me, whom do I forgive?

And you, whom do you forgive? Or do we think that forgiveness is only God's affair? Do we think that the Al Chet runs only vertically, from up to down? But the Talmud won't allow that! "Those transgressions between God and the individual, the Day of Atonement atones for; but those transgressions between the individual and his/her fellow human being, the Day of Atonement does not forgive, unless one personally appeases the other and seeks forgiveness."

Is prayer only vertical -- up/down, down--up? Is it only God who forgives? only God who must understand? only God who can pardon? Is this the shrewd way I learn to segregate God from my world? Is this the way I draw a horizontal mechitzah between heaven and earth keeping God out of my world?

That's our trick, keep it vertical. If prayer, repentance, forgiveness are only vertical, then all acts are in God's court. No wonder prayer appears irrelevant; it has nothing to do with me. No wonder I am bored by the length of the service and the ten fold litany of the Al Chet; it's all about God, not me.

If I treat prayer only vertically, up down, all I really need to do is to praise God above, to cheer Him on, praise the Lord, Hallelujah. God You are merciful, You are kind, You are slow to anger, You are compassionate. God, You take care of it. God, You make peace. "You've got the whole world in Your hands." Me? I davven, I fast, I sit in my seat. I am an innocent bystander! I'm God's cheerleader.

But in Judaism we know better. The purpose of prayer is not the adulation of God but the imitation of God, not the admiration of God but the emulation of God's ways. God is the ideal, the model to be emulated by me in my life horizontally, between me and you, and my family and friends-- brother, sister, son, daughter. The rabbis spelled out the moral correlation, "As God is merciful, be thou merciful. As God is compassionate, be thou compassionate. As God forgives, you, forgive." Between God and you, there is a moral correlation.

But you know, when I come to services, I'm not moved, I don't experience God. How do you experience God? How do you experience God's love, Gods forgiveness?

How do we experience that God forgives? Because we forgive. How do you experience God's love? When you love. What does it mean to believe that God is moved by our prayers? When we are moved.

Are you moved to act? Will you leave the synagogue changed? Or will you leave here the same way you entered? Same seats!! Same row! Immovable, unchanged, implacable, immutable. Will you forgive?

Poor innocent naive rabbi, do you know what he did to me? what she said, what they plotted? How can I forgive?

But dear friend are you yourself so perfect beyond reproach? Are you beyond criticism? How do you appeal to God? Yet knowing your faults and transgressions, you still manage to ask God to forgive and pardon you? And the other, is he so irremediably evil, so damnable? How can you ask God to bend while you yourself remain stiff, judgmental, unyielding?

Dear naive innocent cloistered rabbi, you ask forgiveness but how can I forget what he-she-they did or said? But hold on, dear friend, did anyone ever ask you to forget? Did Torah ask you to design a willful amnesia? What has forgiveness got to do with forgetting? Does Judaism ask for forgetting? Where is it written that when God forgives your sin He thereby forgets your sin? Judaism is a reality based faith. To forgive is not to forget: to forgive is to be liberated from the inner anger, from the quest for vengeance that consumes your life and embitters the life of your family. To forgive is not to forget. No one expects you to forget. No one believes that forgiveness eliminates the memory of the pain and anguish of the injury.

A rabbinic sage explained that sin is like pounding nails into a wooden chest. And repentance and forgiveness is like removing the nails from the wooden chest. The nail may be removed but the hole remains. The nail can be removed but the scar does not disappear.

Forgiveness is not amnesia. Time is irreversible. You cannot turn back the clock. Forgiveness does not reverse the past but it promises a new and different outcome. When you forgive, when you seek reconciliation, things may never be as they were before the injury. But you can establish a new relationship, a speaking civil relationship. Through forgiveness you don't eliminate the holes, but you can remove the nails that tear at the soul of your being and tear your families apart. Anger consumes you. You are master of your fate and fashioner of your life.

What have you and I learned all these years from the readings of the Torah? You know it. Consider the book of Genesis. It is filled with sibling rivalry, hatreds between parents and children. What did the rabbis choose for us to study on the first day of Rosh Hashanah? Mother Sarah and father Abraham cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael into the desert. But note well, the angel of God does not abandon Hagar or Ishmael. God plays no favorites. Follow what happens at the funeral? "And Abraham expired and his sons Isaac and Ishmael came to the funeral and buried him in the cave of Machpelah." Then the Bible goes on to list the names of the children of Ishmael, the grandchildren of Abraham. Who is right and who is wrong? Sarah or Hagar? Abraham or Ishmael? Who cares? There is something sacred that transcends the quarrel and brings them to the funeral as brothers. It's Papa's funeral. How will we honor him? By breaking up his family? By not speaking to each other? It's our son's Bar Mitzvah. It's our daughter's wedding. Shall we play out our wars on the souls of our children?

Jacob and Esau: Was Jacob right or Esau right? Were their parents who played the dangerous game of favoritism right or wrong? Was father Isaac right when he loved Esau or mother Rebecca wrong when she loved Jacob? Who knows the motives and origins of the sibling rivalry? But when the boys, Jacob and Esau, after they exiled each other, now meet each other, Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept. Who was right and who was wrong? Isaac or Rebecca? Jacob or Esau? Who cares? We are brothers, children of the same womb, sons of the same father. What is important is the victory of reconciliation and the possibility of transformation. What is important is not to dwell obsessing on the recriminations of the past, but on the opportunities of a better year. How shall we honor our parents, by warring with their children?

How is this family web of pain resolved? Turn to the concluding chapter of Genesis. And Joseph was favored by Jacob with a coat of many colors. And the brothers sold him into Egypt as a slave. And Joseph rose to high position in Egypt and the brothers who sought food appear before him and did not know that it was Joseph. Now Joseph could get even with his brothers. He could realize his revenge and make them pay for their betrayal. Let them grovel before him. But Joseph could not refrain himself:   "I am Joseph. Does my father live?' And he fell upon his brother Benjamin and wept aloud." Who was right and who was wrong?

Should I speak of reconciliation not speak of Rwanda or Ireland or India and Pakistan, or Barak and Arafat. Would it not be nobler to speak of global issues, international concerns? There is a time for that. But let's not eclipse the local, the domestic, the personal affairs; let's not avoid our wars, our conflicts, our responsibilities.

What is asked of me, you, us on Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur?

Seize the sanctity of this moment. Break the impasse. Break down the anger. Break through the stubbornness. Overcome the ugliness of past history. Open your heart, open your mouth. Initiate the first call. Initiate the first piercing of the wall of silence. Reconcile. Maybe it's a better term than forgiveness. Seek to reconcile. Bend.

Bend! Dare to bend. The curvature of the Shofar is kafuf, it is bent, to teach us to bend our stubbornness and our pride. The sound of the Shofar includes shevarim, the sobbing staccato of broken notes to remind you that t’shuvah, repentance, the road to reconciliation is a process, a series of steps. The sound of the Shofar is broken for in God's eye nothing is more whole than a broken heart.

What is asked of us during these 10 days of t’shuvah –  change. Take yourself seriously. The power of reconciliation is in your hands, in your heart, in your mouth to do it.

There's a humorous Yiddish folk anecdote that illustrates the importance of truth and reciprocity in reconciliation. Joe met Harry in the foyer of the synagogue and said "I bear you no grudge, Harry. For this coming New Years, I wish you what you wish me." "So Joe, you're starting up again?"

Take it seriously. T’shuvah is about dying, like the white kittel is about shrouds. Let the old self die so that a new self may be born.

Reconciliation is hard. It requires a measure of heroism and sacrifice. Sacrifice is always associated with atonement. In ancient times and in modern times, there is always sacrifice attached to atonement and reconciliation. Sacrifice. Love costs. Forgiveness costs. Reconciliation costs. Peace costs. Family costs. Swallow your pride. Bury your stubbornness. Sacrifice.

It carries risk. What if the person you seek to appease doesn't answer, remains obdurate? The sage Maimonides in the Mishnah Torah urges us to seek appeasement again, again and again. And if the other remains stubborn after three attempts, only then may you leave him alone. The one who refuses to reconcile is now the sinner. He is achzor, cruel. It is forbidden to be obdurate. One must be easy to pacify and find it difficult to become angry.

Why have I chosen Rosh Hashanah to speak about Yom Kippur? To give us time.

Because Rosh Hashanah prepares us for Yom Kippur. I want to give ourselves time, during these 10 Days of Repentance to enter Yom Kippur with a pure heart and a clear conscience.

I chose to speak of reconciliation on Rosh Hashanah because Rosh Hashanah is prologue to the Day of Atonement, the Day of healing and of moral courage. The courage to take the first step, to say the first word, to fall on the neck of the other and to weep. I am sorry. I miss you. My children miss you. I miss my family. I miss you, my friend. Let us begin a year of goodness. I do not want us to visit our angers on our children and children's children. Save the family. Save your life.

There is suffering out there, man-made suffering, anger, resentment, loneliness, and we can remove it. There are human wounds out there, and we can bind them.

You can make a difference in shalom bayit. No one can serve as your intermediary. It is up to you. You can demonstrate to yourself and to your children the power, meaning and relevance of Judaism. Through prayer, repentance and acts of kindness, you and I can remove the sadness of the evil decree. You are teacher. You are transmitters of family values. When you gird your loins and seek reconciliation you teach your family that Judaism is real, that it makes a difference. You teach that prayer can transform.

Don't waste the sanctity of the High Holy Day. Don't leave the synagogue the way you entered it. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without internal change is no service to God and no honor to our people. Seek reconciliation. Let there be "t’shuvah mahavah".

I ask of you and myself courage.

These Days of Awe require personal courage, personal reconciliation. What is Jewish heroism? Our sages said, Who is the hero? He who makes an enemy into a friend, an adversary into an ally. You can find a hundred reasons for not reaching out. But outreach keruv begins now, with me. Close your Prayer Book. Get out of your pews. Look into the eyes of the other –  Papa, Mama, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend. Did we not hear the same song and prayers today, the words of the prophet Jeremiah?  "Is not Ephraim my beloved son, my beloved child? Even when I speak against him, I remember him with affection. Therefore my heart yearns for him. I will surely have compassion." Extend your hand, embrace the other.

Heal the pain! The services are not over with the singing of Adon Olam. The true service begins when you come home and look at the mezuzah on your doorpost. God forgives. God seeks reconciliation. Dare we not?

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784