“To Err is Human; to Forgive, Divine” A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5779 Rabbi Renni S. Altman

About twelve years ago, Chris Williams was taking his family for ice cream one evening, when his car was hit by an underage drunk driver. The crash killed Chris’ nine-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son, and his pregnant wife. Though Chris lost his family instantly, his immediate thought before he had even been rescued from his car was forgiveness. “Whoever has done this to us, I forgive them. I don’t care what the circumstances were, I forgive them,” remembers Chris.[1]

 

Three summers ago, a troubled young man named Dylan Roof, with the hope of igniting a race war, walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC and, after studying Bible with a small group of congregants, opened fire, killing nine people, including their pastor.

 

While we have become numb to such shootings, I still carry with me the responses of the families of the victims to this murderer.  Despite their shock and anger, they overcame any human desire for vengeance and, instead, offered words of forgiveness to Roof, just two days after the murders, at his bond hearing:

 

“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never ever hold her again,” said the daughter of one victim.  “You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you and I forgive you.”[2]

 

“Emanuel does not harbor hate in her heart,” said the sister of another victim.  “That’s not the God we serve. It’s important for us to know that the young man is a mother’s son, a father’s son. If he can earnestly repent, God will hear him.”[3]

 

I am awestruck by such words and thoughts of forgiveness, by the strength of these people whose very faith was at the core of their humanity, and by the comfort that this act of forgiveness brought to them.  These people who lost so much for no reason were able to forgive the one who took their loved ones away and leave the retribution in “God’s hands.”  I can only stand in humble, silent tribute to their grace and to bear witness to the very depths of their faith.  Who could offer forgiveness – without any offer of apology or expression of remorse on the part of Roof or the drunk driver?

 

To be sure, in both cases, their offers of forgiveness did not mean that they absolved either the driver or Roof of their crimes nor does it imply that they did not want them punished to the full extent of the law.  Rather, it means that they were able to open up some small space in their hearts, in the midst of their overwhelming pain, to offer the forgiveness that would enable them to take the first steps in their own healing.

 

The Rev. Norvel Goff, interim pastor succeeding the pastor who was murdered, said that “self-preservation was also a motive in the [families’] offer of forgiveness, that forgiving does more for the person who is hurting than the one who caused the pain.  ‘We’re not in control of those who may commit evil acts,’ he said, ‘but we are in control of how we respond to it.’”[4]
Ten years after the accident, Chris Williams is motivational speaker, sharing his story with others about the power of forgiveness.  He teaches a similar lesson as the pastor: “Forgive for your sake, not the other person’s. Forgive because if you don’t, your bitterness will consume you.”

 

This approach to forgiveness is challenging for me as a Jew; perhaps that is one reason why I found it so overwhelming and unfathomable.

 

Judaism teaches us that someone who commits a sin must go through a process of teshuvah, repentance, in order to be forgiven (hence the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).  The steps to true repentance include first regretting one’s actions, then immediately stopping that behavior, committing never to repeat it again, making restitution to the person wronged and, only then, asking for forgiveness.

 

We learn in the Mishnah that “For transgressions that are between a person and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement; but for transgressions that are between one person and another, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only after you have appeased the other person.”[5]

 

In this past year of “me too,” we have seen many public apologies.  Not that public admissions of guilt are easy, but unless they are accompanied by other acts of repentance and, most especially by a direct apology to the person who was wronged (which may well have happened) they are meaningless.  Public Mea Culpas without the rest cheapen the very meaning of an apology.

 

However, when a person comes to us in sincere repentance, meaning that they have at least taken steps to make up for the wrong, then the power rests with us. That person’s soul is in our hands.

 

Thus Maimonides taught in his Mishneh Torah:  When the person who wronged [you] asks for forgiveness, [you] should forgive him with a complete heart and willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged [you] severely, [you] should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.[6] Not only must we forgive, but according to Maimonides, we must be kind and generous of spirit about it.

 

We know that that is not so easy.  For victims of hateful, harmful acts like the families in Charleston or of the senseless loss of life like in the case of Chris, forgiveness, even following sincere repentance, takes great courage and compassion.  For most of us who have been hurt in ways far less significant, forgiveness is still a tremendous challenge.  At first glance it certainly seems as though forgiveness should be more natural.   Wouldn’t we all feel better putting whatever it is behind us?  Yet, the act of forgiving raises so many emotional issues and often brings up hurt and anger that may have even been buried for decades.  We run away from accepting that apology, rather than re-open those wounds and come to terms with that past.

 

And, sometimes, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we actually thrive on being the wronged party and we carry that sense of having been wronged like a badge of honor.  We are wounded:  our pride has been hurt and we are not able to let go of that and move on.

 

No wonder that Alexander Pope’s words, “To err is human; to forgive, divine” have struck such a chord within the human soul and continue to resound some two centuries after he uttered them.  Forgiving is hard; making mistakes is easy.  But is forgiveness really limited to the realm of the Divine and out of our reach?

Judaism teaches us that as beings created in the Divine image, we are, in fact, each a reflection of the Divine and have within us the potential to imitate the Divine.  Imitating the Divine is the basis for Jewish morality, as we learn in the Talmud:  As God clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe the naked; as God visited the sick, visiting Abraham after his circumcision, so should we visit the sick; as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death, so should we comfort mourners … [7] So, too, should we imitate God by acting with compassion and forgiving those who turn to us in teshuvah, as we now turn to God.

Perhaps you might it comforting to know that just as we struggle with forgiveness, so, too, did our sages.  Even more, they envisioned God struggling with forgiveness as well.  Thus, in the Talmudic debates about prayer, they imagined God praying daily, and this is the prayer they imagined God uttering:

 

“May it be My will that My mercy suppress my anger so that it may prevail over My attributes of justice and judgment; and that I may deal with My children according to the attribute of compassion, and that I may not act toward them according to the strict line of justice.”[8]

 

God seeks to overcome Divine anger by acting with Divine compassion.

 

The prophets envisioned a God who wants to forgive.  God offers us every opportunity to change and seek forgiveness.  The words of Isaiah still call out to us:

 

“Seek Adonai while God can be found.

Call to God while God is near.

Let the wicked give up his ways,

The sinful man his plans;

Let him turn back to Adonai,

And God will pardon him;

To our God,

For God freely forgives.  (Is. 55:6-7)

 

God’s offer of forgiveness is guaranteed.

 

Our worship this evening began with the stirring melody of Kol Nidrei.  Its origins are unclear.  Many attribute it to the Morranos who had to live their Judaism in secrecy, pledging their outer lives to the Church; others say it dates to a much earlier time.  Regardless of the timing of its development, Kol Nidrei has a firm place in the heart of the Jewish people, even as its placement in our worship this day has been heavily debated throughout the ages.

 

How can we make this public disclaimer to vows we might offer?  Wouldn’t that make them – and our word – meaningless?  One interpretive translation of Kol Nidrei in our mahzor addresses this question:  we declare our vows null and void, “should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them.”   In response, with words taken from the Book of Numbers when Moses, once again, pleads with God on the Israelites behalf – in this case, when they spurned the call of Joshua and Caleb to enter the Promised Land – God promises, “I have forgiven in response to your plea.”

 

Here we are, admitting our failings, and God promises forgiveness because we have asked.  Would that we could be that generous in our forgiveness of others!   How often do we find ourselves in situations where we are hesitant to apologize, so fearful that the person we wronged will not forgive us? We fear making ourselves vulnerable, lest our outreach be rejected.  But, if we could feel certain that if we do the work of teshuvah, we will be forgiven, wouldn’t we be far more likely to try?

 

God will accept our sincere efforts to change without demanding perfection.  God recognizes our humanity and is more concerned with our desire to change than with our ability to get all the way there.  In that way, God encourages us in this process; “Return unto Me, and I will return to you,” promised the prophet Malachi.  The sages expanded upon this teaching with a parable about a prince who goes far away from his father – a hundred days’ journey away.  His friends said to him: “Return to your father.” He replied, “I cannot; I have not the strength.”  Thereupon his father sent back the following message: “Come back as far as you can, according to your strength, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you.”[9]

 

In his book, How Good Do We have to be?, Rabbi Harold Kushner offers a very helpful perspective on guilt and forgiveness that is premised upon an acceptance of our human limitations which then allows us to take ownership of our mistakes.  At one point, Kushner talks about the number of people he encountered on his book tour who shared their positive experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous or other support groups.  Kushner reflects on his conversation with one man and how accepted that man felt in the program:

 

“The church-sponsored group was not offering forgiveness for his deeds.  It was offering acceptance, forgiveness for his being a flawed, incomplete, imperfect person.   It was offering what the synagogue offers its worshippers on the Day of Atonement:  the reassurance that if you drop your pretensions and excuses and stand before God naked and vulnerable, if you admit your failures as the first step toward doing something about them, God will not reject you as a flawed specimen.  You will still be acceptable in His [sic] site.” [10]

 

What a challenge that is for us. Can we learn to accept another person’s limitations and flaws so that we can then recognize their sincere attempts to change, appreciating whatever steps they take even when they may not make it all the way to where we think they need to be – or even where they may want to be?

 

Acting with compassion, letting go of anger; not demanding perfection, asking only sincere effort; meeting someone halfway.  If we can find it in our hearts to act in these ways, then “forgiveness will, indeed, be Divine,” because we will be emulating the Divine and through our actions inviting God’s presence into our lives and our world.  Moreover, such actions not only enable the wrong doer to move through the process of teshuva and make real change in her life, they also let the one who has been wronged move forward in her life by offering forgiveness and letting go of that past.

 

If we can act that way towards others, how much the more so should we strive to forgive the one who is often the most difficult for us to forgive:  ourselves.  Too often we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards of perfection and we blame ourselves for our failure to reach them.  When we set unrealistic goals for ourselves, we cannot hope to succeed and will most likely fail to reach the potential that we do have within.

 

One of my favorite lessons in this area comes from a Hassidic sage of the 18th century, Rabbi Zusya of Hannipol who taught:  In the world to come, they will not ask me “Why were you not Moses?”  They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya?”

 

As we consider the power of and potential for forgiveness, let us turn back to Chris and those gracious people of Charleston and ask, “Are there limits to forgiveness? “As we’ve seen, the Jewish understanding of forgiveness does not seem to be in concert with the gracious acts of these individuals.  The Jewish notion of forgiveness demands some level of repentance on the part of the sinner.   Even if we strive to be compassionate, understanding of limitations, and as open as we can, if the person makes no effort to take steps towards teshuvah, Judaism teaches that we have no obligation to forgive.

 

Having said that, where does that leave us?  This is where the example of the Charleston families is so powerful.   Their faith compelled them to forgive.  And, in doing so, their actions brought them a sense of comfort as well, a lifting of a heavy burden of hate and anger that might have held back their own process of healing.

 

In such cases, perhaps we can think of forgiveness in a different way.  Kushner offers us another view: “Forgiving happens inside us.  It represents a letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps most importantly a letting go of the role of victim.”[11]

 

In How Good Do We Have to Be?, Kushner recounts the story of a young woman who comes to see him, explaining that she just found out her father is dying.   He expects her to talk with him about the funeral; instead, she reveals that her father abandoned her and her mother when she was 9, had numerous affairs during the marriage and had virtually nothing to do with them.  She hadn’t spoken to him or heard from him in the past 10 years.  “Rabbi,” she asks, “can you give me any reason why I should mourn for a man like that, why I should go to the funeral or say kaddish for him?”  Kushner does encourage her to go to the funeral, but to see it as an opportunity to grieve for the father that she never had, to cry for the father that her father could not be and to mourn the loss of the father she certainly deserved to have. In the end, the young woman did attend the funeral, admittedly with very confused feelings, but she later told Rabbi Kushner that much to her surprise she did not feel angry. She attended services for a while to say Kaddish and then moved on.[12]

 

The ability to recognize the limitations of those who disappoint or hurt us, and to grieve the loss of that which couldn’t be, while not exactly forgiveness, may help us achieve the peace that forgiveness provides.

 

Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, of IM Wise Temple in Cincinnati, wrote one of the beautiful mediations that is at the beginning of our mahzor; his words express so beautifully the power of forgiveness:

 

What an extraordinary gift is is—what a blessing, what a miracle

To have been raised by imperfect parents who did their very best;

To share our life with a partner no more flawed than we are;

To count as a friend one who understands and accepts us most of the time.

How brave, how hard it is to be “good enough” in our ties to one another:

To give, even when we’re exhausted; to love faithfully;

To receive with grace the love imperfectly offered to us.

 

Can this night set us free from the tyranny of expectations?

Can this night release us from fantasies impossible to fulfill?

 

We resolve this night to embrace the practice of forgiveness:

To forgive others who fail to be all we hoped they would be;

To forgive ourselves when we fall short of what others hoped we would be.

We declare this night that we will cherish goodness wherever it is found,

And open ourselves to the gifts that are before us.[13]

 

Four months ago we celebrated the Festival of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Soon after hearing the Ten Commandments, the Israelites grew frightened during Moses absence and committed a grievous sin by building a Golden Calf to worship.  Moses came down the mountain bearing the two tablets with the commandments only to encounter the people dancing around the Golden Calf.  Embodying God’s anger, Moses smashed the tablets.  The people were punished and repented; Moses pleased for God to continue to lead this people to the Promised Land.  God agreed and commanded Moses to carve two new tablets and return to the mountain top.  The day on which Moses brought down the newly inscribed second set of tablets was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  This was the day on which God’s forgiveness was sealed with the tablets, the covenant affirmed and the relationship renewed.

 

So may this Yom Kippur be for us a day of forgiveness and renewal, a day of promise and hope for a new year of reconciliation and understanding.

 

 

[1] https://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/m_features/epic-stories-of-forgiveness

[2] New York Times, June 19, 2015

[3] Ibid.

[4] New York Times, July 4, 2015

[5] Mishna Yoma 8:9

[6] Mishnah Torah:  Hilchot Teshuvah 2:10

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a

[8] Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 7a

[9] Pesikta Rabbati 44:9

[10] Harold S. Kushner, How Good Do we Have to Be? P. 52-53

[11] Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, p. 176

[12] Kushner, p. 85-6

[13] Lewis Kamrass,  Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur (CCAR Press), p.6

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