Yom Kippur and Forgiveness

I meant to share this great piece on forgiveness last week–Yom Kippur began on sundown, September 15th–but after reading it again today, I decided that “better late than never” definitely applies in this case.

For those who don’t know, Yom Kippur is one of the holiest [some would say the holiest] days in the Jewish calendar. It is the day of atonement, and the focus is on repentance; the entire day is spent fasting and praying, with much of the time being spent in services in the synagogue. It is the day to do the hard work of reconciliation with others and with God, and of both seeking and offering forgiveness.

Here is the Yom Kippur Op-Ed by Rabbi David Wolpe; it is on “making amends and letting those grudges go”: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/12/opinion/yom-kippur-forgiveness.html?campaign_id=39&emc=edit_ty_20210913&instance_id=40274&nl=opinion-today&regi_id=60300063&segment_id=68789&te=1&user_id=9a36fc5cd8849e98271ae73896ba1277

And here are the paragraphs in the piece that I want to share:

It’s also worth noting that anger at others, even when merited, can be personally destructive. In the Bible, the words “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) are preceded by “you shall not bear a grudge.” As has been aptly said, to bear a grudge is to drink poison hoping the other person will die. It gnaws away at us, embittering the life of the hater. Forgiving your neighbors is one way of loving them, and learning to love yourself.

Public shame is a powerful and sometimes necessary punishment. In the case of my friend, it made him realize that the trigger for his anger was in him, not in the conduct of others. But it can also be brutal, and I believe that too often, lifetimes are remembered by their worst moments, and complex personalities reduced to their basest elements.

In my experience, Christians don’t always talk about forgiveness very well; there can be lots of pressure to “forgive and forget,” before sufficient healing has occurred, or even in the midst of a toxic and dangerous relationship. The message is conveyed that if you are a “good” Christian, you will forgive, period, without any nuance or acknowledgment of what is needed for one’s own ongoing mental health and even physical safety. To say that is unhelpful is an understatement.

But, at the same time, I appreciate the focus of Rabbi Wolpe’s words: how forgiveness is a practice of self-love, not only love of neighbor, and how the hard work of forgiveness [and the power of forgiveness we receive from God] directly relates to one’s own personal health and growth, and creates in us new capacities for life and love.

Finally, I also think his point about not being judged by the worst moments in our lives is powerful as well. I think for many of us, our mistakes and wrong-doings–and the words of critique and judgment that accompany them [delivered from within and without]–stay with us much longer than our successes and praise; and it is all to easy to have our self-worth eroded by endlessly stewing over criticisms, and endlessly reliving our most painful experiences.

In those situations, forgiveness–self-forgiveness, the forgiveness of others, and most importantly, God’s forgiveness–is received as a precious gift, a gift that enables us to go forward in hope, looking toward future possibilities, rather than being held back by the past. It enables us to be daring: if you know that you won’t be defined by a mistake, you aren’t afraid to risk making one; it enables us to be generous: even if a friend or family member does something selfish, unkind or annoying, we can give them the benefit of the doubt, and keep our hearts and minds open to the possibility that they are more than what they appear in that moment. And it enables us to keep reaching out to the stranger and the neighbor: even if we have been burned before, we don’t give up on the possibility that the next new person we meet will be great.

At any given moment, most of us are juggling lots of different responsibilities at work and at home; who has room in her hands or her heart to hold onto grudges?

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