Once, on the Eve of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhansk told his students, “If you want to know how a Jew should make atonement on the eve of Yom Kippur, go observe the tailor who lives at the edge of town.”
So his disciples traipsed over to the tailor’s house and stood outside the window. They watched the tailor and his sons recite the afternoon prayer with simplicity. When they had finished the afternoon prayers, the family put on their best, albeit simple clothes, set food on the table for the pre‐fast meal, and sat down joyously to eat it. When the meal was complete, and the dishes cleared, the tailor went to the closet and took out a notebook.
“Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe,” he said, “now the time has come for You and me to reckon up our sins for the past year.”
He began to list the sins he had committed, all of which were written down in the notebook. Then he went back to the closet, took out a thicker and heavier notebook, and said, “Dear God, first I listed my sins and now I will list Yours.”
And with that, he began to enumerate all the suffering, sorrow, troubles, illnesses, disappointments, and financial worries that he, his family and community had experienced during the year. When he was finished, he said, “Ribono Shel Olam, to tell you the truth, You owe me more than I owe You. You know what though? I’d just as soon not keep a strict account with You, because it’s the eve of Yom Kippur, and we are commanded to forgive the wrong that’s been done to us. Why don’t I just forgive You for all Your sins against me and You forgive me all my sins against You?”
With that, the tailor poured a cup of wine, blessed it, and said in a loud voice, “L’chaim, Ribono Shel Olam! All is forgiven and forgotten between us!”
Do you ever feel like you need to keep track of these sins by God? Do you count God’s sins with the same intensity you keep track of your own? How about your family? Your friends? Your boss or your employees or the parents of your kids’ friends? How many of us expect that our behavior will always be what we think it SHOULD be and are disappointed with ourselves, when we find out, yet again, we are human and we too stray?
How many of us know how to forgive all these people, let alone ourselves, or especially God?
The primary role of Yom Kippur is for us to identify where we’ve gone wrong, off the true path, where we’ve felt that gap between who we are right now and who we believe we ought to be. But another key aspect of this holiest of holy days is forgiveness. Indeed, according to classics scholar David Konstan, forgiveness did not even exist before Judaism! Just as we are asking God and the people in our lives to forgive us, so are we to forgive – ourselves and those who have harmed us.
Even if they haven’t asked for it, or even thought they need it. Even if we don’t condone what they’ve done to us. Even if we aren’t ready to reconcile with them. Even if we doubt we will ever be able to trust them again. Because forgiveness is at least as much about finding a way for us to stop feeling like a victim, for us to choose life and become whole, as it is restoring the damaged relationship.
We Jews have a long history of holding grudges – remember to forget Amalek, God tells Moses, remember! (Ex. 17:14, Deut. 25:19) Amalek and his followers attacked our weakest while we were in the wilderness; they came to embody all the evil we have ever faced: Haman was descended from Amalek, and we relate Hitler to Amalek… This tendency to hold grudges is addressed in the Holiness Code that we read tomorrow afternoon: in the same verse we are admonished to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are told not to bear a grudge or take vengeance upon the children of our people (Lev. 19:18). If it’s in the Torah, it’s likely we needed it. Rashi offers a couple of examples: if you ask your neighbor to borrow their hammer, and they say no, and then the next day they ask to borrow your saw, if you say no to them, you are bearing a grudge. If, instead, you agree to lend it, but only after telling them, “I’m not mean like you. I lend things to people, even including you,” then according to Rashi, you are being vengeful.
How many of us have done this? And regret it now?
I myself am no expert at forgiveness: I come from generations of people who have never been very good at it. What may have been important survival skills when my family left Russia and Eastern Europe two and three generations ago, have long since stopped working. My sisters and I have very up and down relationships, and I am sad that they have been mostly down for a long time. Here I am your rabbi, trying to speak about forgiveness and wholeness, and I have this family situation: who am I to speak? But after all, I descend from the people who were told to remember to forget Amalek…
What I think of as our Jewish generational post traumatic stress disorder isn’t confined to my family or New York Jews, or Russian Jews. I have heard from some of you that your families share similarities with my family: this person doesn’t talk to that person, and hasn’t for years. Aunt Sophie won’t talk to Uncle Jimmy because he did something 20 years ago, no one can remember what. Or we DO remember, and we repeat the story of our grievance over and over and over. We have trouble being in the same room with each other.
All this tsuris is not good for the soul, nor, it seems, for the heart, or the nervous system. Studies cited by Professor Frederic Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Project show that
- People who are more forgiving report fewer health problems
- Forgiveness leads to less stress, including fewer physical symptoms of stress.
- Failure to forgive may be more important than hostility as a risk factor for heart disease.
- People who blame others for their own troubles also have a higher incidence of heart disease.
- People who imagine forgiving their offender note immediate improvement in their cardiovascular, muscular and nervous systems.
This connection between heart, soul and body seems to come up over and over. If we reduce our stress, our physical health improves, and finding a way to forgive will reduce stress… Even imagining forgiveness can help.
Luskin defines forgiveness as
the experience of peace and understanding that can be felt in the present moment. You forgive by challenging the rigid rules you have for other people’s behavior and by focusing your attention on the good things in your life as opposed to the bad. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or denying that painful things occurred. Forgiveness is the powerful assertion that bad things will not ruin your today even though they may have spoiled your past.
You’ll notice one important thing: his definition does not include the relationship with the person who has hurt you. Even if someone has murdered your child, he can—and has—taught people to forgive, according to his definition, including parents of children killed in the violence in Northern Ireland and Bosnia.
While the ideal situation is to achieve reconciliation, to renew intimacy, sometimes that is not possible, and what is left is for us to let go. But before we can do this, we must explore what is causing the hurt we experience in the present. Luskin describes three components to creating that hurt:
- The exaggerated taking of personal offense
- The blaming of the offender for how you feel and
- The creation of a grievance story.
Then he offers what he calls “simple steps” to forgiveness. Fortunately, he follows such a blithe statement with the comment that they are much easier said than done. But what struck me most strongly is how very Jewish it is, and how his advice, his self-help, echoes Jewish praxis over the centuries.
Let’s look at the three components:
First, an exaggerated taking of personal offense: It took me a very long time to recognize that my sisters’ behavior toward me often had little to do with me, as opposed to our family history, and their own projections onto me. [And likely the same in reverse.] How often do we take personally what is not meant that way? Sometimes it’s so hard not to, but generally, it’s really a lot less personal than we think. Even when we haven’t been well-parented: it could be depression, or drugs, or narcissism, or being a victim of domestic violence; it might actually have nothing to do with us…
The blaming of others for how you feel… How many of us think, “If only that person hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t be miserable”? If only my parents had let me go to that party, or my friend had invited me to that party, or my boss had been more reasonable, or my wife hadn’t cheated, I would be happier, we think… Rather than acknowledge that we are the ones obsessing about this situation, which could have taken place 10 minutes ago or 10 years ago, we blame other people. No one is forcing us to obsess.
Before forgiveness could enter the world when Jews introduced it, another world-changing idea had to come into being: the idea of human freedom and choice, teaches R. Jonathan Sacks. The Greeks, like most of the peoples before us, believed everything was ordained. We Jews believe that we have free will. Or as Italian Renaissance philosopher Pico Della Mirandola put it, humans are the only being in creation that is neither angel nor beast, but can be either depending on our choice.
Judaism teaches that we always have a choice: about how we act, about how we respond and about how we feel. That burst of anger, or that fear that my daughter might be dead on the road if she’s late: that might be involuntary. But the next emotion, the next response, the next action: that’s entirely on us. As human beings, we have a choice at each moment whether to feel sorry for ourselves, to blame someone else, to do the right thing or do the wrong thing. It is always on us.
Indeed, the kabbalists, the mystics in Israel in the 16th century, thought that each of our actions was so profoundly a matter of choice that each one would tilt the universe a little more on the side of good or the side of evil. Each decision, each choice, each step could tilt the universe one way or the other. If you thought your actions had such a cosmic effect, would you behave differently?
Would you behave differently if you truly believed the study results that you would be happier, healthier and more at peace, if you learned to forgive the people whom you believe harmed you? If you truly believed that?
The creation of a grievance story: there are two components of this: that you have your own version, generally in which you are the victim, and that you keep repeating your version, over and over. Have any of you seen the Kurosawa film, Rashomon? It tells the same story three times, by each of the people involved in the event. The movie is the perfect example of why we do better when we try to figure out the facts of the matter, rather than see only our interpretation and experience. We might recognize that we don’t have to take things quite so personally, and we might see our own responsibility.
Just last week, our own Pam Dickerman related the perfect example of this: 10-year old Jacob came home from school, very very grumpy. When Dan finally put him and his 8 year old brother Tyler in separate rooms to see if he could find out the cause, each boy related the tale of a fight they had had on the bus. The stories had several striking differences. Dan directed the two boys to chairs facing each other in their kitchen and told them they could not stir from them until they had aligned their stories and worked out their disagreement.
After a few minutes of back and forth, they did modify and align their stories, apologies were heard from both sides and then shortly, laughter could be heard from their seats, and soon they were off playing. But first they had to get their stories straight.
Rabbi Alan Lew taught: “Forgiveness, it has been said, means giving up our hopes for a better past. This may sound like a joke, but how many of us refuse to give up our version of the past, and so find it impossible to forgive ourselves or others, impossible to act in the present?”
The other key aspect of this grievance story is whether you are spending too much of your time and emotional energy on something that makes you miserable – when you could choose to spend your time on something that brings you peace? At our house, we sometimes ask, “In the scheme of things, how important is this” thing someone is obsessing about? Usually not so much. And once we can acknowledge that reality, we calm down.
This wasted time and energy can apply to big things and little ones. A woman once told me that she was angry with ex-husband every single day of her life, nine years after the divorce. She was clearly renting way too much space in her head to him, who had moved on and was happily remarried. On the other hand, how many of us find sitting in the line of cars during construction season a calamity? Some of us would rather drive 30 miles out of our way than sit there, while others bring reading material or books on tape, while others curse the situation.
Luskin’s self-help recommendations read like a Jewish guide to change. Each of his remedies are embedded deep within our tradition, since we have been working on the whole forgiveness concept for a few thousand years. What sounds easier said than done requires that we be mindful all the time. That we train ourselves, that we take seriously the desire to forgive, to bring ourselves some peace of mind and some resilience to medical problems and pain. It’s not easy, especially if you’ve lived with the grudge or grievance a long time.
He teaches us that rather than rent out so much space to our grievances, we should spend time noticing the things we are grateful for. Our Talmudic dictum to say 100 blessings a day, is to make us mindful at least 100 times each day of the blessings that surround us, from the moment we wake up until the moment we lay our head on our pillow at the end of the days. See how many you can manage in a day.
He suggests, as I did on erev Rosh Hashanah and what I know so many of you do: take the time to appreciate the beauty around you. Immerse yourselves in awe. Psalm 16:8 tells us sh’viti Adonai l’negdi tamid: I keep God before me or next to me always: I am always aware of the divine presence. When we keep God’s essence before us, we don’t have time to obsess about the hurts we’ve experienced.
He suggests that we achieve this awareness through breathing and guided visualization. One way of understanding our liturgy and prayer practices is exactly that. When I suggest we take some breaths in and out before the Shema, that’s what I’m trying to lead us toward… If we remember how we are connected to each other, to the wonder in the universe, we can diminish the time we spend on the anger, on the hurt, on the grievances.
Be aware of your choices: recognize that your current suffering comes not from the past hurt, but from your choice to let it take over your present thoughts. But please don’t blame yourself any more than you should blame anyone else… You’ve been hurt, you’ve been in pain, and you are looking for a way to cope. Find ways to forgive yourself for not being exactly who you imagine you SHOULD be. You can start anew, and move toward becoming that person, especially when you have let go of the anguish of carrying your grievance story…
Indeed, the whole push for forgiveness rings of the prayer Unetaneh Tokef—who by fire, who by water, which reminds us that bad things happen whether we want them to, whether we have done anything to so called deserve them, but it is how we choose to live with the lot we have that allows us to cope. If we don’t take it too personally, if we choose to see the good, we might live in peace. If we are willing to forgive God for what God has done, like the tailor, then we might find forgiveness ourselves.
I pray that each of us finds a way to rewrite or retell our story so that it stops plaguing us, that we recognize that usually it’s not personal no matter how personal it feels, and that we remember that the choice is ours to tilt the universe – and our own peace – toward the good or toward the evil…
G’mar chatimah tovah – may you be inscribed for all good things.
 Luskin, Forgive for Good, loc 166-172, Kindle edition.
 Luskin, loc. 125.
 Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Yom Kippur Machzor. Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2012, p. xviii.
 Alan, Lew. This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.