Forgiveness is a trait that is hard to receive and equally difficult to dispense. Thus it is always a problem – theological and practical – how forgiveness is to be achieved. Personal hurts and wrongs burn deeply into our psyches and souls.
Resentments at wrongs – real or imagined – done to us by others fester within us and are deeply attached to our attitudes and behavior.
Thus the Torah requirement for us to forgive others before Yom Kippur
for their transgressions against us is a most difficult task to
accomplish. And yet in the paradoxical way that human beings operate, we
fully expect others to overlook our trespasses against them. And if
they do not do so kindly and quickly, we are prone to treat them as poor
losers. “Aw, come on, get over it” is our motto.
The greatness of Yom Kippur is that it comes to counteract this attitude
and behavior. We cannot expect God “to get over it” if we are ourselves
unwilling to do so. The psalmist teaches us that God is our shadow at
our right hand. Just as a shadow moves and reacts to the movement of the
particular person, so too does God move and react according to our
movements and attitudes. Tolerance of others’ foibles and errors is the
beginning of forgiveness of others.
A reduced sense of ego, an acceptance of the fact the world is populated
by imperfect people and that frictions and misunderstandings are the
stuff of normal daily life and developing a heightened sense of inner
security and self-confidence – who cares what he said? – all are the
building blocks of forgiveness of others. And with that attitude our
divine shadow also shifts into the forgiving mode of Yom Kippur.
There is opinion in the Talmud that Yom Kippur by itself cleanses a
person of past sins. Even though this opinion is not accepted as Halacha
– true repentance for past sins must accompany Yom Kippur for the slate
to be wiped clean – it nevertheless highlights the special holy quality
of this most wondrous day. The one day in the year that we are granted a
new beginning, a time that we close past books and issues and begin our
lives anew – that is the special quality of Yom Kippur.
How many times in our lives have we thought to ourselves, “If I could
only start over again, I would be wiser and better.” Yom Kippur provides
us with that opportunity. However, like all opportunities in life, it
must be grasped and taken advantage of. Thus, the day by itself is
special and unique, but what we do with it depends upon us and our
attitudes and behavior on that day and on all the other days of the
year. The fasting and privations of that holy day are meant to afford us
the opportunity to change ourselves without having to face the ordinary
mundane concerns of life for at least 25 hours. And that is part of the
blessing of that day to those who observe it.
I remember that as a child I noticed in the synagogue in Chicago where
my father was the rabbi two men who arrived early on Yom Kippur day and
sat down and promptly fell asleep. They slept for most of the day and
awoke only at the end of the services to hear the sounding of the final
blast of the shofar. I remarked to my father that I did not understand
their behavior. He told me in his gentle way: “Listen, my son, they did
not violate any of the legal requirements of Yom Kippur. But tragically
they did not have a Yom Kippur either. The opportunities that Yom Kippur
presents passed them by.”
As a child I did not quite understand my father’s statement. But over
time I am beginning to understand the profundity of his simple words.
Yom Kippur carries with it many restrictions. These need to be observed.
But the day also brings with it myriad opportunities for contemplation,
rededication and self-improvement. Those opportunities have to be
snatched and brought within us – within our inner selves when we are
able to do so, and that time is Yom Kippur. The holiness of the day is
palpable, and it is a time for education and renewal of values.
Frittering it away on skateboards will not help the future generation
rise to the challenges and problems that it will surely face. This is
not a matter of religious dogma. It is just pure common sense.