Here we are again, joining together to celebrate the new year, start diets, and resolve to accomplish what we didn’t manage to do in the past year. For some of us, this may be the one time of the year that we come to synagogue to check in and count ourselves as Jews. At the same time we may briefly ponder what exactly gets us to return each year. Is it a desire for connection to our roots, or is it simply to see people we haven’t seen for a while?
So the High Holidays can be sweet and easy, or, if you do it right, they can be deeply uncomfortable as they awaken us to hidden questions, like, “How am I doing? What have I done this year that was such a big deal I need to say I’m sorry?” Whatever our grandparents shook and cried about we have no idea. And if self-examination weren’t daunting enough, don’t we question, especially when the sermon gets too long, why we bother being Jews? And who are all these prayers directed to, this all-powerful, albeit invisible ruler who makes us feel like ants? The liturgy in our lengthy service, whether in Hebrew or English, often leaves us puzzled at best, maybe even irritated.
Last year we focused on one path to God, the path of love and delight. The Sabbath was our subject, and we expanded our knowledge and experience by immersing ourselves in it. This year we take another path, the path of shaking, quaking, awe that stops us from misdeed and turns us toward heaven. If last year the question was, “How can being Jewish help me to enjoy life more, and how can I enjoy being Jewish more?”, this year’s questions are a little deeper: What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to live? What does God want of me? How do we know what the right thing is? When do we rebuke and when do we embrace?
Maybe the way to approach Judaism is not to be so in the head, so worried about belief. Maybe it’s less about believing in God than behaving in God. Like the Nike ad, “Just do it.” We don’t light candles when we’re in the mood, we light them when the sun goes down on Friday. And we are not here just because we feel like examining and judging ourselves, but because we are commanded.
Why do we need the nudge? Because as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “It is so embarrassing to live. While the sky provides wondrous shapes and colors and the birds sing joyfully, we hunt, hate, and hurt.” The world is amazing, full of wonder and daily miracle, including our birth. Yet most of the time we walk around preoccupied with our own stuff, planning the day, remembering past hurts and disappointments, or feeling very proud of ourselves when things are going well. The whole purpose of our Jewish practice is to remind us how to live as conscious, interconnected beings.
Self-examination hits a nerve. Last Saturday night, at Selichot services, we talked about forgiveness, which is what selichot means. After looking at our behavior in the past year, we ask each other forgiveness and we offer it. This is basic Judaism. Judge yourself and forgive others.
But forgiveness goes against so much of what we know. Part of who I am is what I think is unforgivable! There is such a thing as righteous indignation, yes? What’s wrong with appropriate anger? Should everyone be forgiven? No. This is not unconditional forgiveness. Only when one asks for it do we offer it. What we may not do is, when we are asked to forgive, to think, he’ll just do it again. We are asked to think the best of each other, to believe that we can change, yet we fear offering forgiveness to others, even to ourselves.
The High Holidays invite us to do something very hard, to look at ourselves and endeavor to do better. For those of us striving for perfection, this is impossible. We’re afraid that contemplation will lead to contempt, that a glimpse at our true selves will drown us in self-hatred as we remember how we have spoken to each other, the corners we’ve cut, and the shortcuts we’ve taken. Our lives aren’t embarrassing but contrition and apology is. Apologies become impossible to say, even in a whisper to ourselves.
The Chasidim tell us that we should carry two truths, one in each pocket. One says, “I am but dust and ashes.” The other says, “For my sake was the world created.” We are not supposed to be diminished to the point of paralysis by self-examination. Rather, it should make us feel great that we have the capacity to do better. We have more power than we know what to do with! Our forgiveness of each other can be balms, shelters of belonging and inclusion.
What we ask in our prayers is one humble petition. Forgive us! For what we have done knowingly and unknowingly. And by Yom Kippur we are forgiven. If we are in the image of God, should we do less with each other? To behave in God is to forgive. We may need to be angry first, we may need time to lick our wounds of imperfection, yet in the end we are asked to find forgiveness.
Tomer Devorah, a kabbalistic book written by Moses Cordovero in the thirteenth century, teaches us that we should be like God. “You shall go in God’s ways,” means that if God is compassionate, so should we be. Throughout the High Holiday services, we sing, “Adonai, Adonai, el rahum v’hanun…” God, God, of compassion and grace, slow to anger, generous in love and truth, showing love to thousands,forgiving sin, wrong and failure; who pardons.” In this passage from Exodus are thirteen qualities of God, and they all have to do with mercy.
During the High Holidays, we study this ethical treatise to learn how to behave in God. What is so compelling here is that the holiday is also called Yom ha Din, the Day of Judgment. And what we remind ourselves of constantly is the compassion that metes the justice. Here is the Judge who is slow to anger, endlessly patient, and tolerant. Here is the Judge who bears insult beyond human understanding. Over and over we stumble and fall, and always God waits patiently. We are hardwired for flaw, for sin, if you will. It’s how we learn. That we sin is our salvation, because only through repentance can we gain a new heart and become better people.
We are imperfect, the world is imperfect, God made the world this way, who are we not to forgive? The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, says, “The one whose forgiveness is sought should forgive with a perfect heart and not be cruel, for such is not the characteristic of a Jew. Even if you have been grievously wronged, do not seek vengeance, nor bear a grudge against the other. Even if the offender does not arouse himself to come to you for forgiveness, you should present yourself to the offender in order that the latter may beg your pardon. If you are magnanimous and forgive, all your own sins are forgiven.”
God never gives up on us, always waiting for us to return. So too should we be tolerant until the sinner changes. All of us are God’s children, and each other’s. In Torah, there is a verse: “When you see the donkey of your hated enemy struggling under his load you shall surely help him. Even if you hate him, you should abandon the anger in your heart.” It is a commandment to draw the person closer with love, because maybe this is what he needs to change. This is what endless patience means.
Who is most harmed by our unwillingness to forgive? The offender or ourselves? Of course it can be one and the same. But it can also be what keeps us from love and friendship. Harold Kushner says, “The essence of marital love is not romance but forgiveness.” We seek perfect partners to perfect ourselves. If our partner, our parents, our children are not perfect, we’re angry, because we so need to be perfect we need them to be perfect. Alanon meetings abound with people who know, that their perpetual anger and judgment of the addict is not only hurting the other, but themselves. They are as enslaved by their victimization and anger as the one who craves the drug.
My disappointment in my children not only diminishes them, it doesn’t teach them how to live with others. If I hold myself up as perfect and always scolding, then they come to believe in the illusion of perfection. Only God is perfect, and even God changes. The angry God who throws Adam and Eve out of Eden first makes them clothes to wear in the world. The severe God who wants to kill all the people in Sodom and Gomorrah is reminded by Abraham to be fair, to look for those who are good. And that is the whole thrust of behaving in God, to look for the good. Chesed, mercy, is endless patience and tolerance, and remaining full of hope. If you don’t give up on me, if you accept my apology, I have a reason to keep on trying. We Jews stand for a simple belief: people can change, goodness will win. As long as we never forget to practice forgiveness with each other, always keeping the job of loving as our sovereign principle, we can restore God to the world by remembering our Creator of love. When we are kind to each other, always giving the benefit of doubt, never taking God’s job of judgment, then we draw near to God. When we choose to feel loving patience rather than righteousness, then we will know how to behave in God.