sermon: Kol Nidre 5778

The Art of Forgiveness

Learning to forgive ourselves may just make it easier for us to forgive other people.

This past June, political commentator Bill Maher made a racial slur on live television. The next day, as is the custom in the public apology cycle, he said he was sorry with these words in a statement:

Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show. Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.

The road to forgiveness always includes the word “sorry,” and Bill Maher used that word, but this struck me as a pretty weak attempt at expressing contrition. In recent years, the public apology has gained much attention, and the website SorryWatch dissects and critiques apologies made in the public sphere.

About Maher’s apology, the website observes,

You mention twice in a brief 59-word statement that the show was live. The implication is that being ‘in the moment’ explains/excuses your behavior. The word ‘banter’ likewise minimizes what you said. And we are supposed to feel sorry for your sleeplessness? Basically this is about you — not about your audience. There’s no substantive reflection about why ‘the word was offensive.’ What word? Show us you get why that word should not have been in your mouth. And how will this word not pop out again some other time when you’re live and bantering?

And like Chris Christie did back in 2014, we can’t expect the apology to be well-received when we use language like, “mistakes were made” and “this isn’t who I am.” When we seek forgiveness, we have to admit that we made a mistake, we have to say what the mistake was, and we have to admit that yes, this is who I am. After all, that’s why we need forgiveness.

The pleas of people asking for forgiveness have become a form of public theater, and if the miscreant offers what is perceived as a heartfelt admission of regret, then the act is likely to be deemed credible and sincere, and the public figure considered rehabilitated. If not, more public entreaties for forgiveness will be needed. Unfortunately, many of those public apologies are of the “if” variety – if what I said offended you, then I am sorry.

While riveting theater, public apologies are often political in nature or are about public perception and popularity. But the nature of forgiveness that truly matters, the one that is key for personal growth and sustaining meaningful relationships, is really quite different.

According to the Jewish tradition and, I will add, SorryWatch, a good apology acknowledges and names the offense, because we have to be specific. It makes amends and expresses what will be done to make sure there isn’t a recurrence of the offense. And last, it is sincere, and most definitely, not self-aggrandizing or self-pitying.

Atonement is what this day is all about. The nature of this atonement is two-fold: we ask God for forgiveness and we ask people whom we have wronged. It is not enough to do all of the acts associated with Yom Kippur – prayer, study, fasting. Those acts are important, and they will atone for our sins against God, but all of these acts in synagogue will not make up for the wrongs we have done to other people. For that we have to ask the people we have wronged for forgiveness. We also have to forgive those who sincerely ask us for forgiveness.

And if done fully, when N’ilah ends tomorrow night, we will rise from our seats with lighter hearts and unburdened by past sins and resentments.

The first step on the road to forgiveness is recognition of where and when we go wrong and then repenting. There’s a story told about an angel who is sent down from heaven to bring back the most precious thing in the world. After two failed attempts to find that one thing, the angel saw a robber enter the home of a wealthy couple. The robber planned to enter the house and commit the crime. But just as he was about to enter the home, he noticed through the window that the woman was in their child’s bedroom, saying a bedtime prayer with a small child. Suddenly, the robber remembered how his mother used to say a bedtime prayer with him, and a tear fell from his eyes. He decided to walk away from the house.

It was this tear the angel brought back to heaven, and he was told, “Yes, that’s it, this tear is the most precious thing in the world, because there is no one greater than the one who repents.”

But there are no shortcuts. First, we have to come clean, really clean, before God. If we were to say, “God, if I have sinned, then I am sorry,” I doubt that we would merit a clean slate. And if we were to say, “God, if you are aware of anything I did for which I should be held accountable, I am sorry,” I don’t think that would cut it either.

We have to go to those dark and uncomfortable places in our minds and be specific about events that we need to revisit. It is interesting that the alphabetical litany of prayers in the prayerbook covers sins from A to Z, and each one of us may not have committed each of those, but the breadth of sins covered stimulates us, ideally, to think about the range of specific sins we have committed.

And the God we are coming clean to is a God of forgiveness. When God’s nature is revealed to Moses, it is God’s qualities of compassion and great forgiveness that are emphasized. And as the traditional Yom Kippur prayerbook teaches, God is rooting for us, delighting in the slightest movement toward repentance. The Gates of Repentance prayerbook had a great reading that moved me deeply:

This is your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. Lord, it is not the death of sinners you seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live. Until the last day, You wait for them welcoming them as soon as they turn to You.

And how do we indicate our return, or turning? By not only honestly acknowledging our misdeeds, but by committing ourselves to changing – resisting temptations going forward and trying to live in a more holy way.

And we have to come clean before the persons we have wronged. As a rabbi, I learned about this in a powerful conversation with my senior rabbi, about two months after my ordination. As I was putting on my shiny white robe, which was about to be worn for the first time for the Erev Rosh Hashanah service, Rabbi Don Berlin let me know it was time for us to walk into the sanctuary together. But before we did, he made sure to apologize to me for a time when he had not been at his best with me.

With a few heartfelt words, my mentor demonstrated for me the real spirit of the High Holy Days. I started to say that I was sorry a lot more frequently after that moment.

Remember, a few sincere words seeking forgiveness can truly affect the nature of our relationships. All too often, though, pride, vanity, or fear of losing face stop us from making amends. And yet we have to put our egos and hearts on the line in order to move forward and to deepen or sustain relationships. It’s not necessarily easy, or comfortable, but it’s how we grow in soul, and it’s how we grow toward God.

There is a beautiful little prayer book, called Where Healing Resides, edited by Rabbi Eric Weiss, and in it is a prayer that called out to me:

God, Holy One of Blessing, I come before You with many feelings. I have accomplished much and yet wanted more. My acts have given love to others. My words have given encouragement and comfort. Yet, there are actions I wish I had taken, words I wish I had spoken. Some I wish I could take back. There are accomplishments I wanted to achieve but did not. I have apologized for hurts I have caused. I have forgiven others.

I love the prayer, it is heartfelt, emotionally vulnerable and honest. But I expected a sentence about forgiving the self. The writer speaks of apologizing and forgiving others, but what about forgiving oneself?

In order to forgive oneself, one has to recognize the fullness of our natures, including our faults and weaknesses, our gifts and our baggage. Levi Meier, alav hashalom, was an ordained rabbi who was also a psychologist, and I had the pleasure to meet with him once. He was a man with deep insight into people. He wrote a book called Ancient Secrets, and in one chapter he writes these words that have special meaning for us on Yom Kippur:

You must recognize all the good things and all the bad things that are part of you: your abusive mother, your chronic illness, your bad first marriage, your exceptional memory, your love of nature, your love of children, your perfectionism, your artistic abilities – in other words, everything, whether bad or good, that makes you who you are. You must recognize these things. You must embrace them. You must accept who you are. You must respect yourself. Only then can you embrace, accept, and respect your neighbor in the same way.

How come we don’t hear more in our faith about self-forgiveness? Marjorie Ingall, answers this, with tongue firmly in cheek, in Tablet magazine:

First of all, self-forgiveness as a preoccupation isn’t very Jewish. We’re a people that do guilt. We don’t let go easily. We don’t forget. The notion of simply releasing your emotional burdens feels like a very modern-day American, hippie-dippy concept: Let it go. C’mon, man, lighten up. You gotta be kind to yourself. . . . Yeah, no.

But that’s not the right approach either. The whole purpose of atonement is to improve our character, to refine our souls, and that means admitting when we are wrong, apologizing, figuring out how not to make the same mistake or bad choice again, and then to feel more whole.

One of the reasons for the litany of sins in the Al Cheit prayer, besides drawing our attention to the goal of refining our character, is to relieve of us the guilt we may feel for not being perfect. It reminds, as Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins explains, to “purify our lives but also to let go of unnecessary guilt for the times we did not reach our highest goals and most noble aims.”

Moses saved the crumbled pieces of the set of the Ten Commandments that he smashed in anger, not to remind him of his mistakes. Rather, he saved them, and then the Israelites placed them in the Ark of the Covenant that they journeyed with in the desert, to remind them the they are the sum total of all of their experiences, not only the good, but not only the bad either.

Rabbi Meier concludes,

Fascinating idea, this: that our eternal quest to face ourselves, accept ourselves, improve ourselves, to see in ourselves the image of God, to reflect the divine element on earth, is there just so that, ultimately, we can love someone else.

Learning to forgive ourselves may just make it easier for us to forgive other people.

So, on this Yom Kippur, may we learn to forgive ourselves so that we can open our hearts to others, and in so doing, move closer to God.

Cain yehi ratzon, so may this be the will of God. Amen.