My Yom Kippur sermon on Forgiveness

Here is my sermon on Forgiveness from Yom Kippur. It should be pretty clear, but it is more in outline form than a formal essay.

Great English poet, Bernard John Taupin wrote

It’s sad, so sad

It’s a sad, sad situation

And it’s getting more and more absurd

It’s sad, so sad

Why can’t we talk it over

Oh it seems to me

That sorry seems to be the hardest word

These words were later set to music by Sir Reginald Dwight (Elton John).

I think they are mostly true. The only thing harder is giving forgiveness.

Most other holidays, you can just enjoy the holiday, and you are not obligated to work on the relationship or talk about painful things. Passover even comes with a script. The script does not say, “Oh, another matzaball? Do you really need it?”.  Stick with the script, and no one gets their feelings hurt.

This is what makes Yom Kippur the hardest holiday. Not the fasting. It is the honest and open thoughts and feelings  that must be shared with love and compassion, with others and ourselves.

I want to talk about the barriers to asking for forgiveness, and for giving it.

First, benefits of forgiveness.

No promises or guarantees, but there are definite benefits.

According to Duke University, Univ. of Tennessee, and Stanford University, “Holding onto hurts, grudges, annoyances, pet peeves or old wounds hurts the body, especially when the memories are triggered by current life events.”

Rabbi David Teutsch said,  “We might be willing to forgive for the sake of others, but if not, we should be willing to do it for our own. Resentment, grudge-bearing and antique anger contaminate our lives. Forgiving those who have wronged me allows me to jettison the pollutants of my soul.”

Let me define the Hebrew words for forgiveness.

Mechilah means that you are sorry for whatever harm you may have caused someone even if neither one of you are particularly aware of what happened, because being in a relationship with someone else guarantees that at some point you are going to aggravate each other, often without intending to. If it is with intention to you have larger issues. Mechilah is to help us through the normal day to day parts of a relationship.

Selicha- you know what you did, and you ask for forgiveness for that specific thing. Or you found out what you did, and you ask forgiveness.

Each of these still contain some lingering resentment. It is hard to forget completely, nor is it a good idea sometimes to forget.

The third type of forgiveness is only available to God. Kappara, complete absolution. Yom Kippur. Only God does not have lingering hurts. God knows us and judges us as individuals, not as the ideal we sometime judge those around us. Kappara here only refers to issues in the relationship with God, not with others.

I want to focus today on issues of forgiveness between peope.

What are the barriers to asking for forgiveness?

1-you might not want to, because you think the other person owes you an apology, too.

2-it might be rejected

3-you can’t stop the destructive thing you are doing-whether it is abusing a loved one, or gambling or substance abuse.

4-you do not want to admit that you are not perfect, or that your relationships are not perfect.

5- You do not feel you did anything wrong, and that the person is oversensitive, or that it was an accident. “What did I say so bad?”

6-you do not feel you are worthy of forgiveness.

7-you don’t know where they are anymore.

8-they are no longer here, because of dementia and would not understand you.

9-they have passed away.

Asking for forgiveness takes tremendous courage and willingness to lower our defenses and be vulnerable.

If you feel the other person has wronged you, too, then say so, but extend yourself first and acknowledge that the person has harmed you, too. This may not go the way you wanted, but at least you tried to do the right thing.

If you are doing harmful behaviors and are acting in abusive manner, whether physically or verbally, and cannot stop on your own, you have a moral obligation to get help. There is are a large number of resources in the community. Call Jewish Family Services. Everything is anonymous and they can point you in the right direction.

We also have to let go of our fantasies about what a relationship is supposed to be. As Jack Kornfield said, “The past is over. Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.”

All relationships are messy and imperfect. Asking for forgiveness destroys the illusion of perfection, which is a good, and allows us to live in the real world with each other, which is ultimately healthier and happier.

What do you do if you feel unworthy of forgiveness? Make sure you are not causing harm anymore. Recognize that you still have a soul that is pure and that you can always become a better person. That is the point of Yom Kippur.

The Prophet Ezekiel said, “Cast away from you all your transgressions, in which you have transgressed; and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit;  therefore turn, and live.”

The person you harmed may not forgive at first, maybe not every, but you can still live a valuable life, just not the one you thought.

What to do when the person is not there, in any sense of the word? There is no completely satisfying solution, but we can do more acts of kindness and charity in honor of their memory, and that if they knew how sincere we were about changing and doing better, they would have forgiven us. Acknowledge we are doing the best you can, and that we cannot undo history. You can only create a better present. Otherwise, we will never get on with our lives, and will probably continue destructive behaviors.

This is all part of forgiving ourselves, as well. As Jack Kornfield said,

“Finding a way to extend forgiveness to ourselves is one of our most essential tasks. Just as others have been caught in suffering, so have we. If we look honestly at our life, we can see the sorrows and pain that have led to our own wrongdoing. In this we can finally extend forgiveness to ourselves; we can hold the pain we have caused in compassion. Without such mercy, we will live our own life in exile.”

As hard as it is to ask for forgiveness, giving it is harder.

Here are some of the barriers

1-The person is continuing to hurt you. You do not have to forgive this person even if they ask for forgiveness and then continue to hurt you.

Mishnah, Yoma 85b, indicates,

If one says, “I shall sin and repent, sin and repent,” no opportunity will be given to him to repent. [If one says], “I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will procure atonement for me,” the Day of Atonement procures for him no atonement.

2-Forgiving says the behavior was okay or that we are okay.

3-the person does not want forgiveness. There is no obligation to give it, but we will talk about what to do about some of the bitterness.

It is critical to remember,  that Forgiving is not condoning. It is not getting over it. The damage was real. The pain was real. Forgiveness is about freeing us to live our own lives and not to be controlled by the pain caused us.

There is no obligation to continue the relationship. Forgiveness might be the perfect way to end the relationship. You caused me harm, I believe you regret it and are taking real steps to change. “I wish you well in your life, but will no longer be a part of it.”

4-we don’t want to admit some responsibility. This is not about blaming the victim, but taking a look within ourselves if we did something to hurt the person who is now hurting us.

5-The person who you are angry at may not be the person who caused you harm. I see so many people in relationships who are angry and disappointed with each other, but the real problems may be unresolved issues from childhood. We are mad at a spouse for not being the parent or sibling we wanted. The problem can only be solved by looking into our past and trying to reconcile what happened. Even just an awareness that we are still suffering from hurts of the past can help us with the people in our lives today.

5-The person did something unforgivable. There may be some behaviors that cannot be forgiven, not at least anytime soon.

What do you do? Instead of forgiveness, you could try a form of compassion that says that people who harm tend to be in great pain. Not to excuse, but to understand, and to hope they can live without the pain that is causing them to do destructive things. It is a way of giving up the anger and hatred that is within you that is probably harming other relationships.You still have to defend yourself and take care of yourself, but you will make your decisions with more compassion and less harm, usually leading to a better decision.

I think that the ability to let go of hatred toward those who have harmed us is critical to the survival of the Jewish people and the state of israel. If we held a grudge against everyone who insulted us or harmed us we would not have time in the day for anything else.

We would be right, but we would be irrelevant, maybe even absent from history.

Just look at Israel’s relationship with Germany. No country ever insulted us more, or did more damage or got people to harm us. Today, Germany is Israel’s number two trade partner after America, and has been important in advocating for Israel in Europe. It might be guilt, but it also might be the Jewish people’s ability to go on after tragedy. If someone had hurt me that terribly, and I had an army and an air force, I am not sure my thought would have been trade.

There will only be peace when each people gets past its own hurt, its own feeling of pain, and look at the other as also being created in God’s image.

Israel has its flaws, such as any other country, but it does try to make up with those it has harmed both within and outside its borders. Israel’s process is not perfect, but it is the best one in the area. I hope we are seeing the birth pangs of that process coming to the region. That is why the national anthem of Israel is called Hope, hatikvah, not current reality.

Let me say one word about forgiveness and the holocaust. You cannot forgive those who did not harm you. Only the victims can forgive. Also, the Nazis never asked for forgiveness, so none was necessary to give to them. Anyone alive today, with a few exceptions, had nothing to do with it, and therefore do not need to apologize on behalf of their ancestors. They do have an obligation to make sure it never happens again.

The Jewish day starts with gratitude, but it ends with forgiveness. This is from the bed time shema.

I hereby forgive everyone and everything, Let no one suffer because of me.

(Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion. May no one be punished because of me. May it will be Your will,  my God and the God of my ancestors, that I cause no more harm. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor.”

When we find a way to genuinely seek forgiveness, when we forgive ourselves and all those who genuinely want our forgiveness, we cause our hearts to lighten from their burden and to live more freely and openly. Our relationships with everyone will be better because we do not live with bitterness or anger. As Ezekiel said, we can have a new heart and a new spirit. We can be free to live our lives fully in happiness and ease.

My Rosh Hashana Sermon on Happiness

These are the notes from my sermon on Rosh Hashana on happiness. They are not really in essay form, because I like to talk instead of speak, which is a little more formal. I think they might be useful and give the main ideas. Please feel free to share them.

If you have any questions please let me know.

Last November I attended Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management seminar for Jewish non-profits.

Most of the Professors were not Jewish. One asked what Jews want from Judaism. I offered an answer. I said people want to be happy. Most colleagues disagreed strongly. I was surprised, but knew I had a rosh hashana sermon.

Best reason to live Jewishly is because it can make you happy. Or at least happier. Otherwise there is really no point.

Rabbi Nachman said, -Mitzvah gedola lhiyot bsimcha. It is a great precept to find a way to be in a state of happiness.

Psalm 100 says that we connect most spirituality when we approach life in happiness.

Word for happiness is in Hebrew is simcha, which means happiness despite what is going on, not because of. It is an inner sense of well being not dependent on anything else. Not about fun or the pursuit of pleasure, though Judaism believes these things are important, too. It is not about getting what you want when you want it. It is about understanding that the world is what it is, and though we can try to make it better, we cannot fix or change everything.

It is about finding something to celebrate everyday, no matter how small a thing that may be.

Judaism cares more about the small everyday thing, than the big occasional event.

Reasons for people not being happy

1-knein a hora, poo poo poo theory. “Keep away the evil eye.” We are so afraid of losing what we have, we do not enjoy life as full as we could. Instead, when you have something good in your lifetry to think good thoughts about others, and that good should come to them.

2-Pain, sometimes physical and chronic pain. Pain of loss. Pain of not getting things to be exactly the way you want them to be. The pain of getting what you want, but not being able to hold on to it or keep it from changing.

3-Hollowness and emptiness- a whole in our heart, lack of self worth. The feeling of being ignored.

Being unhappy can have devastating consequences for ourselves, our loved ones and the people around us. These feelings cause us to be angry and judgmental, and when we are we cannot be happy.

No one who is happy and feeling in balance says to themselves, how can I mess this up for myself and my family.

We do very destructive things to end the pain or fill the hollowness.

Alcohol, drugs, gambling. I was lucky that I never found substances appealing, and I lost a week’s salary in 3 card monte game in high school, so I don’t find gambling appealing. But Food. Food. It’s everywhere. They sell it to kids. Even in school.

Before I continue, Let me say a word about others in our lives who may be unhappy. There is not much you can do. They are not unhappy about anything, they are just unhappy and looking for excuses. This is important to remember during time of family simchas, like weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Obligation of guest to make celebrants happy, not obligation of celebrants to make guests happy. Unhappy people will have plenty of chances to be unhappy. Each simcha is once in a life time for the person.

You might be pleasantly surprised how much nicer people are when you act a little happier.

Judaism provides a way to approach life in a happier and better way. This happiness is a fundamental and indispensable part of Judaism and can help with the pain and the loneliness.

I think it is the only reason God created us. Parents don’t have children to make them miserable. At least not at first. God is our parent and has given us the potential to be happy. Whether we choose to is up to us.

I am going to take you through a Jewish day and to the end of the week to show that Jewish living is structured to make us happier and feel better about our lives, no matter what.

The rituals and ideas were created when the world was just as terrible place as it is today. Our sages were not naïve, but refused to give in to the misery around. They believed their joy could change the world for the better. We are descended from them.

Modeh ani- I thank, therefor I am. Grateful for being alive, with the opportunity to do good during the day. Amazing that we get to be a person. If grandpa misses the boat to ellis island, or a caveman had a bad day with a saber tooth tiger, maybe some of you are not here.

Asher yatzer-awareness of our body, and how much goes right even when things are not perfect or are starting to fall apart. It is not just the spirit that starts to sag a little. It is also an acknowledgement of new normals in our life and how we can adjust to them, not easily or comfortably, but often well.

A woman with cancer when she started really paying attention to her body realized all the places that she was not sick, that she was well. She was not sick. There was sickness in her body.

We may have to let others take care of us, and be happy that we are giving them a chance to do a mitzvah. This is very hard when we are used to being the helper, but it may help us handle these things in a better way.

Elohai neshama, The soul within me is pure. There is no such thing as a tainted our impure soul, only bad actions. No accidental souls. No one is an accident. Maybe a surprise, but indispensable.

Torah blessings. Laasok bdivrei torah. To involve ourselves in living a deep and spiritual life.

Uniting physical and spiritual, making body and soul friends.  Reminder that we are here to do good things for others, which means we are always needed. The purpose of a mitzvah is a reminder of how much the world needs our unique abilities and gifts. That is why our tradition says, schar mitzvah mitzvah, the reward of having done a good thing is the opportunity to do another. We always have value no matter what.

One of the biggest causes of depression outside of clinical causes is a sense that we are not needed. The concept of mitzvah means we are always needed, and just for who we are. We only need to be ourselves to be of infinite worth.

Shema-If you stop and listen, you will hear that all things are connected and you are part of that connection. We feel alienated and disconnected from the world. Shema says if we pay attention, we will realize we are part of the infinite potential of the universe, and that we have a place in it. We are not strangers in a strange world, but full citizens of it.

First paragraph of shema says, anochi mitzavcha hayom. It is not that I command you on this day, but that the command itself is TODAY! Live your life fully today. The past is gone and the future is unknown. Living in either of those states is guaranteed to make you unhappy. Happiness is only possible if you are living today.

Amidah-private prayer. We are thankful for our gifts and abilities, and think about how we can bring peace and well being to others. All others in the world, not just people we like, but people we do not know, or do not like.

We should always include something personal, not just the words in the book.

Sylvia Boorstein said her prayer is may I meet each moment fully and may I meet it as a friend.

Enough prayer. Let’s talk about food.

Blessings over food. Pretty specific. It is to get away from same old same old. You may have had a tuna sandwich for lunch a million times, and maybe you will a million more, but the blessing is the realization that you never had that specific one, and never will again. Realizing the uniqueness of the moment will make it a much happier experience. A reminder to pay attention as we eat. We will eat more slowly, enjoy it more and maybe make better decisions.

This fall at the synagogue we are introducing the Lchayim project. Becoming better friends with our bodies and what we eat.

Thoughts for the workday. The chassidic rabbis said that serving others as best we could was something we should feel happy about. No matter what we do, we can make someone’s day better. Even if we think kind thoughts toward them, we can make them a little happier.

Driving to work-think compassionate thoughts. Probably not true, but you will be less angry and aggravated.

Six days a week, we are happy because of the great things we can do for others in making the world better. This is called the joy of the mitzvah. Doing these precepts makes us happier, even if we just do one.

Shabbat though, is simcha shel chelek. The joy that comes from who we are right now, and what we have in our lives right now. As a great master said, there is  no where to go, nothing to do, no one to be. For twenty five hours we and the world are perfect and whole. Those we love are perfect and whole. They don’t need advice or to be changed. We are simply happy in our perfection. Shabbat shalom, the peaceful feeling that comes from wholeness.

End of shabbat is maybe the most important part. We take that feeling of wholeness into the week.

Symbolized by havdallah. We hold our hands to the light to remind us that we are made of light, that the light of our souls is our true self, and that soul is pure. Midrash about light and skin.

At havdallah, we say, lyehudim hayata ora vimcha. That we had light and joy. We say this at the end of shabbat to remind us that happiness and joy is what God wants for us all the time, if we just allowed it to happen.

I know there are people going through very difficult times, and there are times when we must mourn, or be angry in our grief. But most of life is an opportunity for happiness.

Rabbi Alan Lew in his book Be Still and Get Going talked about a teaching of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. We often now talk about the good old days as though they really weren’t that great, and that we are just nostalgic.

Soloveitchik said that those days really were that great, but that we just do not notice them until they have passed.

Study at Alyn hospital about happiness. It turns out that the patients in the hospital had about the same level of happiness as their care givers. The single determining factor  is whether the person felt valued.

I believe the purpose of Judaism is to make us realize that all of us have great value, and that every day we live can be that great and that we can be happy if we pay attention to the endless opportunities we have to help others, and the endless moments of joy we can have in what we have when we pay attention.

There will never be a better day than today. Until tomorrow. I wish us all a year of joyous and happy todays.

hamkOhm-A Place to “Be” Returns, 9/23 at Adat Shalom






The Place to


 Reconnect and


 Recharge your




hamakohm is an hour filled with new and old approaches to Jewish spirituality and meditation.

This program is for anyone who is seeking to enrich their soul and inner peace within the context of a wonderful community. No knowledge of Hebrew is required, just an open heart and mind.


hamakOhm will meet on Sunday mornings at Adat Shalom Synagogue at 10 am. Sessions will be facilitated by Rabbi Aaron Bergman and last an hour.


September and October sessions are 9/23 10/28.

 There is no charge. Everyone is welcome.

New Program for parents who want to remember they are people, too

Parents are People, Too!


Have you forgotten what it feels like just to be human?


you do so much for others, but what do you do for yourself?


Rabbi Aaron Bergman is leading a program for parents who want to be happier people.


Spend a little time learning to relax and reduce stress.



The first session is 9/23 at 11:15 at Adat Shalom. We will end in time for Pickup.


There is no charge. Just show up.

Our lives are the material of great art.

In 1913 Marcel Duchamp attached a bicycle wheel to a stool. He was not making a new kind of unicycle, but a piece of art, one the first classics of Modern art. He saw something interesting in everyday items and put them together as they were and created something new. What he did is still kind of controversial idea. Is it real art?

The history of art until that point was to take materials and completely transform them into the artist’s vision. A sculpture was judged on how much it looked like a person, not a piece of marble. Duchamp and others, like Picasso, said that a thing in and of itself can be beautiful, especially when combined with other things that are also just themselves.

God in the Torah starts as a traditional artist, and creates human beings out the earth and molds them into a specific vision.

If you have read the rest of the book, God’s attempt at molding does not go well. God cannot even get people to eat from the right tree, or to not throw each other in pits when they get jealous and angry. Things are going to be what they are, no matter how hard you try to change them.

Toward the end of the Torah, God becomes a modern artist.

The people are told that when they cross the river into the Promised land they are to build an altar of thanksgiving out of the stones they find. They are not allowed to carve or transform the stones, but put them together in a way that all the different shapes will fit together and create something even greater than they were by themselves.

I think this means that God wants us to appreciate each other for who we are, and to help each other find our place in the world that makes sense for ourselves as individuals but also allows each person to be a part of the community and support all the other individuals.

So much stress in the world comes from people molding and bending each other in ways that are wrong or painful for them. The model of so many approaches to religion has been to force conformity through threats of violence, or expulsion from the community.

Bad for the person. Worse for religion. Destroys creativity and critical thinking. Crushes healthy diversity of thought. Leads to tremendous hatred.
We do not have to look any further than 9/11 for an example of people trying to mold the world into their own exclusive image.

One of the underlying tensions and challenges is creating a community that is not based on coercion, but one that is not jut based on whatever an individual wants to do. Essentially, how do we create a genuine community of individuals. When people feel rejected for who they are in their essence they feel hated, regardless of intention. They are then in danger of causing great harm, mostly to themselves, but sometimes to others.

I think this is the challenge for all religions and philosophies, meaning it is a challenge for us. For most of our history, every day Jews did not have a say in their religious lives. If they did not conform to the communal standards they could be literally forced out, but if they molded their behavior to fit someone else, they would become exiles from their own souls.

I have faith in the beauty and power of our traditions and I have faith in the goodwill of our people, including those who come to radically different ideas about Judaism that I might have, in either direction, more liberal or more conservative. Some ideas will be great. Some will be terrible.

If we are open minded, new ideas will emerge that will become the traditions of tomorrow. That is how tradition starts, and it is the only way to remain eternally relevant. It is the only path to a peaceful world.

This is an important idea in how we look to each other. We want so badly for our loved ones to succeed that we push them in certain directions, or pull them away from others. We think we are sculpting something beautiful, but we might just be chipping away their identity and sense of security and worth.

The Torah is telling us that each person is perfect the way they are, they just need to be in a situation where they are appreciated, and what they have to offer can be used for the good of the whole community.

My goal is to help you find your place in the Jewish world, in a way that makes sense for who you are right now. I won’t try to mold you into something that you are not, but I can help you figure out where you fit. I would love to talk to you about it.

If we can all help each other, then we create the work of art that God wants for us.

Be Here Now for the Holidays

We say a special psalm everyday in the month before Rosh hashanah and through the last days of Sukkot, Psalm 27.  The whole Psalm is very powerful and beautiful, but there is one intriguing line that I would like to focus on, toward the end.
“Lulei heemanti lirot btov hasham beretz chaim.”-
“I believe I will see God’s goodness in the land of the living.””
  What other land is there? We do not think of the afterlife as a land. Only this world has a land. I think it means that we live, but we are rarely really alive. We go through the motions of our lives, and then feel that everything is kind of unsatisfactory. We have missed so much even though we were supposedly there.
Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg had a great saying. He said, “You have done it, but you haven’t been there.”  The entire purpose of the high holidays is to make us alive to the world we live in, and the way to do that is take away our barriers that prevent us from living happy lives and having good relationships with other
We often think that the reason we are supposed to take care of our relationships and the difficult things we do to each other before the High Holidays is because we want God to forgive us for our transgressions to God. I think this is actually backwards. We cannot hurt God, so we really cannot sin against God.
I think what God is saying is that if God did not hold out the promise of forgiving our alleged spiritual sins, then we would not heal our relationships with other people in the way that we should.
In many ways, preparing for the holidays is more important than the holidays.
This of course is not easy, but it is worthwhile. The process can start with some quuestions. Ask yourself if there is even one good thing about the person we are not too happy with. Ask the sameabout ourselves. What did we do last year that we really did not pay attention to, but if we had, we would have really liked it?
What were the things we thought were terrible, outside of tragedies, that turned out to be not so bad? Can we approach these things differently? These sounds like relatively small things, but can make a huge difference.
I do not write a lot about politics, not just because discussions about politics are so angry, contentious and unreasonable, and that no one is listening to the other, but because I believe that the more we create happier individuals, families and communities, we will create a more compassionate and healthy world.
We may not be able to change the world to be exactly the way we want, but maybe we can make our own place in the world an eretz chaim, a land of those who are truly alive, and bring some joy and appreciation into the rest of a world that really needs it. That is what God is waiting for. 


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