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Forgivess: Sermon from Erev (Eve of) Rosh Hashannah

As we approach and immerse ourselves in this High Holiday Season, we focus on repentance and t’shuva. As humans, we are flawed and imperfect and we come into this life with a purpose to overcome the challenges we face as we travel from birth to death. One of those challenges is forgiveness.

I have a strong background in mental health, having a few degrees and many years of working on the floor of a psychiatric hospital. It seemed that forgiveness was a recurring theme. One of my roles, that of a counselor, was to facilitate steps towards resolution for people who were dealing with, among other things, emotional abuse. The psychologists and social workers on staff would ultimately, at some point, discuss how engaging in forgiveness frees up the tortured soul and allows people to move on emotionally and not be tied down by chains of resentment.

As much as I participated in this process, I never quite got the concept. I still don’t.

Merriam-Webster defines “forgiveness” “to give up resentment of” and “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender) or pardon (Definition of Forgiveness). In Psychology Today, they state that “{M}ost psychologists recommend mustering up genuine compassion for those who have wronged us, and moving on from the past, instead of allowing bitterness and anger toward others eat away at us” (Basics of Forgiveness). The goal is to put the offense behind us, we can probably all agree on that.

The problem I have always had with the concept of forgiveness is the mechanism. While just about everyone will agree that the goal is to put it behind us and move us, no one seems to have an answer as to how. It probably goes without having to say that people who carry around resentment for past wrongs by others continue to be plagued by those wrongs. It’s unfinished business. We want to finish it. More important we want vindication.

The other side of the equation is a similar challenge. When someone does you wrong, what do people say? “Learn to forgive them and move on”, right? The people who give this wisdom, of course, mean well. They see our pain and truly want to help us in the most sincere way be at peace. Again, how?

The message I’m hearing in all this just forget about it. Or what’s that joke? Fawgeddaboutit!

In my quest to find a resolution to this dilemma, I found that Judaism does indeed have an answer. It’s not what you might think. Judaism tends to look at things differently than the rest of the world does.

First of all, Dr. Solomon Schimmel, Professor of Jewish Education and Psychology at Hebrew College, talks about the idea of forgiveness from a Jewish point of view (How can I Forgive). He first talks about dignity. When a person feels injured, their dignity is injured. Your self-esteem is compromised.

What makes it worse is that the offending person doesn’t show remorse or even bother to ask forgiveness. So now we’re asking ourselves, “why should I forgive this person”. On the other hand we’re back to that same question, what do I do with my anger?

Dr. Schimmel quotes what he calls a Jewish Kabbalistic prayer that is actually part of the Bedtime Shema from the Artscroll Siddur. This is from the Bedtime Shema which we say as we’re going to sleep at night: "Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or sinned against me, whether against

my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine, whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely, whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion, whether in this transmigration or another transmigration". So the sages recognized the necessity for forgiveness in alleviating emotional pain, and the benefit of forgiving before bedtime so we can sleep peaceably. The purpose, then, is to lay there and declare our forgiveness as an affirmation, and throw away this negativity that disrupts our soul.

Let’s now talk about the reverse. We’ve wronged people. The sages looked at the purpose of the High Holidays and saw that it was a time that HaShem wrote us in the book of life for yet another year. Rosh Hashannah was the start of the process of Satan, HaShem’s prosecuting attorney, making the case against us. Naturally, we want to be on our best behavior so Satan has nothing on us to cause HaShem to make this our final year. So the sages decreed that these next ten days, the Days of Awe as they are called, should be spent in our repentance. Of course we should seek forgiveness from HaShem from any wrongs we may or may not have committed, but then again, HaShem—being omniscient—knows whether or not we’re truly sincere. HaShem tempering mercy with justice, will decide with equity what will be our fate.

Interestingly enough, in Judaism, we are only forgiven if we truly and sincerely repent. During the weekday Amidah, the order of prayers tells us how it is. In the fifth prayer of repentance in the “Shemona Esrei”, we ask G-d to bring us back (t’shuva) to His Torah, His Law, His moral teaching. Only after that can we recite the next prayer, to forgive us for we have erred, and pardon us for we have sinned. Repentance before forgiveness.

The real test of character is in our relationships with our fellow Jews and humans. This is where we go to people that we feel we may have wronged, and up to three times, seek their forgiveness (after that it’s on them). This can be tough as we swallow our pride, take our proverbial hats in our hands, and emotionally prostrate ourselves; is there anything else so humbling and humiliating? How about if I give you a choice of doing that or bungee jumping? This is what makes this ritual so powerful and Judaism such an effective moral philosophy—it asks a lot. But you know what they say: no pain, no gain.

So back to forgiveness. The Torah tells us to love our fellows as ourselves. This is another powerful commandment. By doing so, we rise above pettiness. We practice developing higher states of moral turpitude. In so doing, we develop our own self-esteem as we prove to ourselves that our respect for ourselves overshadows any feelings others have for us. And forgiving empowers us because we rise above the petty hatred in which primitive people engage.

Three times a day, as we come to the end of the Shemona Esrei (silent standing prayer), we recite another powerful affirmation: To those who curse me let my soul be silent. As we walk in the path of righteousness of G-d, we know that he demands a lot of us and our reward in a better life lived in peace and tranquility. We know the G-d will deliver divine justice. It may not be according to our schedule or timetable, but we know that in the end, it will all somehow work out.

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