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.

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