The Gift of Forgiveness

[Yom Kippur morning, 5777]

A friend recently told me about his 95-year-old grandmother, who is friends with 3 women who are sisters, living in her building. The sisters are 99, 102 and 105 – kinna hurra! The 99-year-old and the 105-year-old live together in one apartment; the 102-year-old sister lives alone, in the same building, one floor above them. The two sisters live apart from the third one, because they don’t get along with her – they find her irritating, they talk behind her back ……. It may reflect a long-standing pattern among them, stemming from some long-lost, perhaps long-forgotten history, leaving now only the pattern of isolation and disconnect. I wonder, what could possibly have happened, that after almost 100 years, it couldn’t be put to rest?

Merriam-Webster defines forgiveness as the capacity to stop feeling anger or to stop blaming someone. It comes from the Greek, meaning ‘to let go’. Psychology teaches that forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision to release resentment or vengeance, whether they deserve forgiveness or not.

The ability to forgive is what sets us apart from all the other creatures of the Earth. From the first words in Torah, we are reminded that we are created, b’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image. We know that isn’t about what we look like, the color of eyes or hair or skin, our height or our facial expressions. Scientists once thought that our capacity for language distinguished us from all other living beings, but now we know animals clearly have a capacity of emotion, to a degree– picture the loving nuzzle of any mother, animal or human, for her offspring. Even plants communicate with one another. But Forgiveness – the ability through what we say and what we do to transform ourselves, to transform a relationship, is the divine gift to us. This is one of the qualities that our tradition ascribes to God, labeling it mercy.

The struggle of forgiveness – between mercy and justice – is not ours alone. A midrash on the creation story explains that when God created the world, God said, “If I create the world with the attribute of mercy alone, its sins will be too many; if with justice alone, how could the world be expected to endure? So I will create it with both justice and mercy, that it may endure!”[1] The Talmud goes on to ask “What does God pray?” The answer given is: “May it be My will that My mercy conquer My anger. . . that I behave towards My children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake I go beyond the boundary of judgment.”[2] Even God must pray that the mercy to grant forgiveness will prevail above judgement. If this prayer is good enough for God, isn’t it more than good enough for us?

I admit that I struggle with forgiveness in certain situations. This is especially true when the transaction is not two-sided. I know I am not alone in this. We are troubled and confused about how respond to harm when the other person does no repair or restitution, or we do not feel we can do the repair or restitution ourselves.

Reconciliation doesn’t always require forgiveness, and forgiveness doesn’t always require reconciliation. We can forgive someone and not want to be reconciled. It is all too easy to get caught up in the rights and wrongs of what our actions should be.

So why do we continue to carry anger for wrongs done to us? We are here today, in part at least, because we want to begin, continue or resume the work of putting ourselves back together. How can we find wholeness in the midst of this anger?

What is anger, really? The word “anger” is from Old Norse and means: grief. Anger is grief. When we have been hurt, we are grieving the realization of an imperfect relationship. Grief arises from loss; if we can recognize that it is grief that underlies our rage, then perhaps we can begin to get unstuck, and become open to finding a way out. Usually, when we think of grief, we think of death and mourning. For a mourner, their loss and grief is apparent; while the path is unique for each mourner, the destination is same: toward healing and wholeness. I would like to apply here the same steps from the mourner’s path toward healing the grief that is anger – which is forgiveness. Those three steps are: getting unstuck, letting go, moving ahead.

Most often when we cannot forgive, we are stuck in anger. We are out of balance on the mercy-justice scale. The idea of forgiveness gets stuck in our throats, like a dried old crumb of bread. To move through grief, we do not have to excuse the hurt done to us, but we can refuse to be consumed with anger. We can choose to get unstuck from our angry place. That is where the healing process actually begins: with a choice not to be stuck. We have to want to move from our stuck place. To begin, we have to turn away from the facts. Even when we know all the facts – who to forgive, what to forgive, why to forgive – we still struggle with how to forgive. We want to figure out how to deal with the emotional residue, the scars of our grief– a lack of trust, lingering feelings of guilt, of shame, of inadequacy – it is not about litigating the facts. To get unstuck we have to ask: we can we give ourselves the permission to let go of destructive feelings, regardless of facts?

Being right does not release us from punishing ourselves or holding onto a narrative that no longer serves us, or even hinders becoming our best selves. Rather, we should ask ourselves the question: “what gets in our way of forgiving?” The answers help us to get unstuck, to begin to be able to move out of the quicksand in which we find ourselves.

The second step therefore comes in the awareness that healing from losses does not change them; forgiveness begins with letting go of the resentments that we hold, righteous or not. Being freed from the notion that we can change the past. The open heart we seek requires letting go of the anger that suffocates the heart and soul.

We often think of forgiveness as a blessing extended to the transgressor, easing the conscience of the wrong-doer. In this view, the person who does the forgiving is seen as engaged in gallant self-sacrifice, while the person who is forgiven finds benefit. With further observation, can we see that forgiveness is just as important for the person who forgives – perhaps even more so – as for the person forgiven? Could we be better off when we forgive? While it may take some deep work to remove the angry fire from long-held resentments, this step of letting go can happen in an instant, propelling us right into step three – moving ahead.

Imagine a tree swing, one of those old rope ones, suspended from a tree branch high up over the edge of a river bank. Sit down, grab the rope, swing back and forth, gather some momentum.….is it nerve-wracking? What will happen if we let go? Will the river be deep enough? Our tense grasp on the rope is keeping us on the swing, afraid. But, it also keeps us from soaring. If we let go of the swing, if we take a ‘leap of faith’, we might just soar above that river in graceful flight, landing in the water- safe, wet, and changed – for having taken the risk. When we think about letting go, we are afraid. We think we know what will happen if we let go, but really we do not. We imagine – we have whole stories we tell ourselves of everything that will happen when we let go. But we still are holding the rope. To let go, means to accept that we cannot predict what happens next. That is when we move on.

That moving ahead is the third step. The riskiest step yet – this whole day of Yom Kippur is one big gamble. The liturgy illuminates the unconditional atonement embodied in this day. Our prayer ‘al cheit shechatanu – for the sin that we have committed’, acknowledges that we atone and we forgive; but it does not say what happens next. Yom Kippur isn’t about neat and tidy apologies between people. Human relationships are complicated; they don’t always resolve, but they do move on.

Recognizing the good in ourselves can help us to judge that our own well-being is more worthy than continuing to hold our resentments. Finding the good within ourselves enables us to move on to find worthiness in others. One of my favorite Chasidic masters, 18th Century Reb Nachman of Bratzlav says this is the key to our own spiritual wholeness. He urges us to seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in the person who has wronged us, some place where he or she is not evil. When we find that bit of goodness, he says, we can raise that person up to goodness, allowing them to be restored. He writes: “The first little dot of goodness will be hardest one to find, or the hardest one to admit you find! The next ones will come a little easier, each one following another……these little dots of goodness in become your own melody. You sing them, and you then rescue your own good spirit as well.”[3] For Reb Nachman, forgiveness is the song of the soul.

Forgiveness then becomes about entering into these three stages of a grieving process: getting unstuck, letting go and moving on. These three things enable us to see ourselves and others in a new light, one that no longer weighs heavily on the heart. They enable a changed perspective that we can choose. Studies show forgiveness is essential to happiness. Experiencing anger or hatred only causes us to descend into misery and resentment, giving the person who wronged us even more power. We suffer from the original transgression and the burden of anger and grief.  Getting unstuck, letting go and moving on lifts the burden that we all carry.

This is hard. We need help. Just because we should be doing something, even something that is good for us, we all know that does not mean that we will actually do it. Habits are hard to build and hard to break. So we build time in as a community, filled with the ritual and symbolism of these Holy Days, to bring us together and to knock on the deep recesses of our souls.

Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook) that we will use beginning next year is filled to the brim with awesome and powerful words to help us along this journey. Here is a beautiful example by poet Marge Piercy, who exquisitely unwraps the murkiness of forgiveness in the last stanza of her poem, How Divine Is Forgiving,

We forgive mostly not from strength

But through imperfections,

For memory wears transparent as a glass with the pattern washed off,

‘til we stare past what injured us.

We forgive because we, too,

have done the same to others

easy as a mudslide;

or because anger is a fire that must be fed

and we are too tired to rise and haul a log.

The poet paints for us the exhausting burden of carrying anger, a load that scars us. We churn over all we cannot control. And that is why forgiveness is so hard. We can’t control what has already happened to us, how we were wronged, or how the other person behaved. Living in that turmoil, we suffer.

Through this perspective of forgiveness – getting unstuck, letting go, moving onward – we can reinterpret our own experiences. The truth is that we don’t live with the facts of our lives, but rather, we live with the conclusions that we make about the facts of our lives. Forgiveness allows injuries and injustices from our past to transform from building blocks of our persona, to being ‘just a part’ of our life; a part of who we are, and not our entire being. Our grudges and resentments, hatred or self-pity are no longer needed. We can accept the things over which we have limited or no control, or rage against them – that is our choice. We can make peace with how we have been wronged, with incomplete or imperfect relationships – and doing so allows us to receive the present and the future with an open heart.

I am thinking still of those three sisters. After 100 years, is there anything that cannot be forgiven, that we must still hold on to? Do we have to wait that long? And if not, what are we waiting for?

[1] B’reishit Rabbah, 12:15

[2] B’rachot 7a.

[3] Likkutei MoHaRa’N 282


Society pressures us to be creative individuals. We earn attention for being innovative, original, and outstanding. I watch so many parents worrying about the extra-curricular activities of their 4 year old, thinking about the impact it will have for upon their college application status. Striving to stand out, to be unique is all but demanded in our society today; however, this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we find a different take on that idea.

We discover that the leaders of the 12 Israelite tribes are each to bring God an identical offering at the dedication of the Mishkan. We are treated to an extensive description of each leader giving the same gift as was brought by the previous tribal leader. Torah seems redundant here; why is the scene written out for us in its detailed repetition? Does God really want the same thing brought over and over again? The Torah takes the time here to give each leader his moment in the spotlight. God said, “One Nasi [leader] each day, one Nasi each day, shall bring near his offering for the dedication of the altar.” All of these offerings, each the same, could have been brought all at once, on one single day. Instead, God displays attentiveness to and an appreciation of each individual leader by allowing him his own day. Think about how you feel when you have a moment in the spotlight, a moment of appreciation for the regular person that you are, for a glimmer of acknowledgment from the world. This serves only to remind us to make the time to give that same appreciation and attention to the ordinary and extraordinary gifts of being from those we love – our friends, families, coworkers, and all those with whom our lives intersect in some way. Every one of us craves gratitude, just like the n’si’im who received their individual recognition from God.

If that is the case, then, it is not difficult to consider that the offerings themselves were not the distinguishing feature of the ritual. The offerings brought by the Israelites did not need to be unique or extravagant; the quality and uniqueness of the offering existed in the message of bringing something of value to connect with what is holy in this world. Each Nasi had to enter into the presence of God in the Mishkan on his own, not en masse. By each bringing the same gift, there were no distractions among the n’si’im around the ego of who brought what. It reminds my of something my CPE supervisor at UCLA used to say, that when we were in a patient’s room, our job was to represent the holiness in that space, to be a presence. With this read of Torah, I can say that the lesson is not about presents – what you bring – but, presence – who and how you are in this world. This Shabbat, let’s be present.

Snowy thoughts

Early Tuesday morning – the sun was just coming up. It was perfectly quiet, save for the chirping of one bird.  The snow blanketed the street, the driveway, the walkways, the grass – a smooth, silky, silent covering.  I am dressed in the ritual garb of shoveling – hat, gloves, boots, warm jacket – and for a moment, before the scrape, scrape, scrape of the shovel, I listened to the vibrations of the world beginning to awaken after a storm.  I do not look forward to shoveling snow; however, it is part of a world that also permits me to appreciate that moment of pure white, pure peace and tranquility.

Of course, this is as my family and friends are posting pictures of themselves this week at the beaches in southern California, complaining about how hot it is.  There I was, bundled up, shovel in hand… to find tranquility, how to quiet that inner chatter, how to be present to the beauty in front of me, even when friends and family sometimes get in the way?

In Torah this week, there is a moment of pure peace and tranquility.  The chaos of leaving Egypt, of escaping the pursuit of the Egyptians, of the masses of our people frantic in the desert is, for a moment, halted.  The plans for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are introduced. Moses begins to quietly take up a collection for the materials.  God gives Israel the plans to build this Mishkan – the layout, the materials, the size, the contents…. its purpose? A holy dwelling place.

I don’t know about you, but having lived through a number of construction projects and school projects (often designed more for parents than students!), I would describe them more as chaotic and stressful rather than as peaceful or tranquil moments, more like a volcanic eruption than like a butterfly’s emergence from a cocoon.  Yet, this Torah portion is filled with details that read like a shopping list for either Home Depot or Michaels: poles and rings, knobs and clasps, wood and fabric, shiny baubles, figures and measurements.

As you may surmise, this is about more than a synagogue master plan.  Our first clue: God said: “Let them make for me a Mishkan, and I will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.8)  The Midrash teaches: Moses’ mouth dropped!  He said, “I don’t understand. You taught me in your Torah that `God’s glory fills the heavens and the earth.’ [Jeremiah 23:2].  How can that which fills the heavens and the earth fit into this small tent that we are going to build?”  God said, “I don’t even need then whole Mishkan.  I can even fit myself in tiny space between the faces of the two Cherubim that sit on the Ark of the Covenant.  After all, I am God.  I can be everywhere in the world at once.  I can be just with each of you at the same time.” [Exodus Rabbah 34a].  The Mishkan is about recognizing God’s presence, God’s fingerprint in all of creation; it is a physical reminder of it – when we see it, we remember that God is in fact not contained, but that we have to build a place inside ourselves to be open to God’s presence in our lives.

Second clue: knowing there is actually no Home Depot in the wilderness of Sinai, God instructs that these materials are to be brought by every person ‘whose heart is inspired in generosity, you shall take My offering.’ These are details for a blueprint to create a spiritual community, where one can find peace and tranquility, support and caring.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk teaches one of my favorite pieces of wisdom about God’s presence in our lives.  He once asked a number of learned men who were visiting with him: “Where is the dwelling of God?” They laughed at him, saying, “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory?” Then the Kotzker Rebbe answered his own question: “God dwells wherever [and whenever] we let God in.”  So, while I am once again fielding many comments about how cold it is here, and conclusions about how much I must miss California right now (and believe me, it would be nice to be a bit warmer!), these words are a reminder to me that holiness resides in all places, whenever we open ourselves to it.  Even in the snow, even in the shopping and building lists, maybe even especially in those details.



It has been a while since last posting – I have posted periodically on the synagogue blog, but have yet to figure out how to link the two blogs….

This week, in this second parashah of the Book of Exodus, God has heard the groans, the suffering, and the pain of the Israelites, and is determined to set them free. However, the people are so short-sighted and constrained by their slave mentality that they cannot get out of their own way. Moses comes bearing the Divine message, but the people “…would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by hard slavery” (Exodus 6:9). From this, we infer that listening is a key step in the process of liberation. The importance of listening mindfully is embedded in our tradition; Shema (Listen) is at the center of our prayers.

When Moses tells the people what God has said to him, they cannot ‘hear’ it; it is beyond their comprehension. Their inability to hear and respond to God’s promise of freedom is attributed in the text to the people having a ‘short spirit’ and being in ‘hard slavery’. Shortness of spirit—also translated as impatience—illustrates that the process of liberation requires great patience and discipline to take small, necessary steps, even if our pain is not immediately relieved. Full acceptance of what is awakens the power of listening. It is a paradox: one must patiently be… in order to become.

‘Hard slavery’—being in constrained bondage—is another challenge to mindful listening. To really hear and attend to life is possible only with spiritual stillness and spaciousness. Too often, we become tied to work and responsibilities so that our business, our busy-ness, becomes the driving force of our identity. This mindset keeps us from stopping long enough to listen to life. The barrage of stresses prevents us from receiving what we need to move out of our virtual bondage. The hatred and violence of recent days in France and beyond, the crisis and immediate suffering may wrench open our hearts for a moment. But, when that immediate danger is past and we have recovered from the initial shock, complacency too often allows our hearts to close again. We become impervious to the world’s imbalances, narrow our focus, deaden our senses, and deny feelings that threaten the status quo. This ‘hardening of the heart’ closes off any ability to attend to the beautiful melodies of freedom.

The challenge is somehow to remain mindfully in the present, even as we face our own anguish and the world’s suffering, listening for the call of spiritual freedom. May our call to action be opened through a mindful attention to beauty, tenderness and compassion flowing through our hearts.

Endings and beginnings

V’Zot Habracha – ‘This is the blessing.’ the last verses of Torah, Moses’ blessing of each tribe, as his time comes to an end.  It is not a regular weekly portion for Shabbat, but read only during the gossamer threads of time left after Sukkot, in the transitional moment of Simchat Torah, as we end and right away begin again our cyclical reading of Torah.

this opening line could also be read: ‘This is the blessing.’  The Midrash teaches that the gates of prayer are sometimes closed and sometimes open, but that the gates of repentance are always open.  From the awesomeness of the New Year and the spirit of community and repentance on Yom Kippur, to the celebration and gratitude of Sukkot, we conclude this period of holy days with absolute joy – celebrating Torah in our lives. That is the blessing.

I see yet another reading: ‘This is the blessing.’  This moment.  At the end and beginning of Torah, at the end of any significant period of time, at the end of any event, at the end of someone’s life – we just want to hold on to it, we don’t want to let go of the joy, the elevation, the soaring emotions.  Having just finished Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with my wonderful community, on a high and exhausted all at the same time, I just want to hang on to that exhilaration, the fullness in my heart.  Continuing through the last week, I am filled with emotions of the days: of Sukkot – joyful, Simchat Torah – amazing, Yizkor – contemplative. My mindfulness practice reminds me to notice that desire to hang on, to honor it, and to know that too will pass.

V’zot Habracha – Each liminal moment, each year, each time around again; it is not about what ‘was’, but rather only about ‘this’ – now.

‘This is the blessing’ –  It is our blessing that we have these sacred words with which to engage, to look at life, to see life through.

Now back to beginning once again.


As the month of Elul comes to a close,

As the moon disappears from view,

The call of the shofar beckons.

Come close, it says; listen carefully.

Erase all distractions – the tiny details of preparation, the hugeness of the responsibilities.

God is calling for my return, for yours – calling us to remember, calling us up from the darkness of missed opportunities to days and life renewed.

I stand here, before the gates of the New Year,

My heart open, my voice trembling,

Filled with gratitude and joy.

Elul reflections

Today, I wrote on our synagogue blog, so please join me there –

The Scrolls of our Days.

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