Atonement and Forgiveness: Another Perspective

The Jewish New Year is fast approaching.  In the Jewish calendar, the month before Rosh Hashanah is called Elul.  In Jewish thought and tradition, the month of Elul is considered to be a time when God is “in the field”.  He is to be found.  The veil is thin.  Draw near.  So, what is the deal with Rosh Hashanah? It leads up to Yom Kippur.  Why does that matter? Isn’t Yom Kippur a line in that Train song? “How could you leave on Yom Kippur….” Why does this even matter? Let’s talk about it.

The subject of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is vast, but, in very simple terms, Elul is a time of stocktaking and introspection.  “Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi likens the month of Elul to a time when “the king is in the field” and, in contrast to when he is in the royal palace, “everyone who so desires is permitted to meet him, and he receives them all with a cheerful countenance, showing a smiling face to them all.” (Chabad)  As a Jewish writer points out, “As the month of divine mercy and forgiveness, Elul is a most opportune time for teshuvah (“return” to G‑d), prayer, charity, and increased ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew), in the quest for self-improvement and coming closer to G‑d.” (Chabad)

Christianity has a similar tradition found in Lent which precedes Holy Week and Easter, and Muslims observe Ramadan (The Muslim Lent: Ramadan Explained)  So, the idea of engaging in contemplation for the sake of personal betterment, increasing one’s awareness of our neighbor, and increasing our intimacy with God is indeed common.  To what end do we engage in this? There is a reason to be sure.

Have you ever met a person of faith, regardless of whatever faith they followed, who seemed to represent that faith beautifully? You may not have believed what they believed, but, after you spent time with them, you thought to yourself, “That was a lovely human being.  I respect that person so much.”  Conversely, have you ever met a person who made you feel sick to your stomach just by being near you? What seemed to amplify their noxious personality was their proclamation of religion.  You left their presence thinking to yourself, “Whatever they believe I feel mandated to personally oppose for the sake of all that is integrous and good in the world!”

I have had both experiences, and, in terms of faith and personalities, there may be a reason for that.  Furthermore, it’s entirely redeemable albeit unpleasant.  From what I’ve observed, it comes down to what one believes about present accountability.

I’ve written before that I grew up within Christianity.  I almost went to seminary.  I am, however, Jewish.  I can trace my family back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  We fled as conversos and maintained a secret and not so secret Jewish practice for centuries.  The tradition was passed to me when I was around ten years-old.  It is very hard to be Jewish alone, however, as there is a lot that one can’t learn by oneself.  I have learned a lot in a year since “coming out” of the converso closet.  One of the more fascinating things that I have learned has centered around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur.

Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, as I have explained, is a time of contemplation in order to ponder how your year went.  How did you do? How did you treat others? Do you need to make anything right? What would you like to do better? It is a time to look to the immediate past, assess the present, and adjust one’s trajectory.  Rosh Hashanah is then the entry point into the new year complete with seder when one begins to ask to be the head and not the tail.  Victorious and not defeated.  The greeting on these two days is “L’shanah tovah” which is actually a shortening of “L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem” which means “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”  Rosh Hashanah begins a ten day period of time that ends with Yom Kippur; this period of time is known as the Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance:

“One of the ongoing themes of the Days of Awe is the concept that G-d has “books” that he writes our names in, writing down who will live and who will die, who will have a good life and who will have a bad life, for the next year. These books are written in on Rosh Hashanah, but our actions during the Days of Awe can alter G-d’s decree. The actions that change the decree are “teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah,” repentance, prayer, good deeds (usually, charity). These “books” are sealed on Yom Kippur. This concept of writing in books is the source of the common greeting during this time is “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

Among the customs of this time, it is common to seek reconciliation with people you may have wronged during the course of the year. The Talmud maintains that Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible.”  (Judaism 101)

This entire idea shocked me when I learned about it.  Growing up in a Christian environment, it was very foreign.  What kind of exacting accounting of my choices was this? My first response was fear.  I shared what I had learned with a friend who practiced Christianity, and their response was to dismiss it: “That’s nonsense.  Jesus covered all our sins.  We are free and forgiven.”  Is that true? Let’s look at Matthew 5.  Jesus explains very directly:

23-24 This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”

Yom Kippur is referred to as The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 23.  Leviticus was written between 1440 and 1400 BCE.  Jesus was born sometime around 7 BCE.  Jesus was a practicing Jew as we all know.  He would have observed Yom Kippur, and he would have taught those who listened to his teachings how he interpreted Torah.  What is Jesus saying then? What is the greater implication?

In the words of Rabbi Moshe Brennan, “Yom Kippur is primarily about asking for God’s forgiveness. Making amends with humans is a separate thing.”

That’s what Jesus was talking about.  We can’t go to God and expect him to forgive us for something that is between us and someone else.  We have to do the work of resolving that before we attempt to resolve our personal issues with God.  Furthermore, our refusal to engage in this has a direct effect on the coming year:

“One of the ways we can demonstrate that devotion (to God), says Germantown Jewish Centre’s Rabbi Annie Lewis, is to repair the relationships in our lives, to follow not just the spirit of the law, but the very letter of it. “ ‘Yom Kippur’ comes from kapporet, which means to cover over something,” she explains. To draw on God’s abounding compassion, she says, we have to cover over the holes in our lives caused by past failings. “God will not grant us forgiveness from something we have done to another person until we seek forgiveness ourselves from the person. Yom Kippur is a powerful time to work on these relationships.” (Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness)

Hence, the ten days that lie between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur exist to allow us to make amends and settle accounts not only with God but with everyone in our lives.  It is a time to do the hard things.

“Atoning and forgiving is only difficult if you are doing it right,” says Rabbi Eli Hirsch of Mekor Habracha, a Center City synagogue. “Offering quick and easy apologies means that you probably are not taking responsibility for the pain you’ve caused. And it’s interesting that we can sense when an apology is insincere…But God wants us to make amends because he cares about our relationships with each other. He demonstrates that by forgiving us again and again.” (Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness)

This is what was missing in my religious experiences growing up.  This is what has been missing in my religious experiences as an adult.  I would watch the people around me mistreat their fellow congregants in big and small ways with little remorse.  Sometimes quick apologies were offered, but when forgiveness was not easily granted for pain inflicted a judgmental insult was rendered, “How can you be a Christian then? God forgives me! I have grace.”  Actually, no, you don’t.  It’s very clear here that if we wrong another person, then we have to make amends.  God does not do the work of forgiving us on behalf of another person if we haven’t actually sincerely apologized to that person and asked how we can make amends for hurting them.  Going further, it’s inappropriate for us to even be in church or synagogue offering worship to God when we know someone has something against us particularly if the reason they are hurting is our fault! Even Jesus said that.  The grace of God is not unmerited favor.  The grace of God is an empowering presence that equips us to do the things in life required of us that we may never have been able to do without it.

It’s shocking, but it’s necessary to know.  We really are accountable for our actions towards other people.  In the now.  To love God well means to love others well.  In the New International Version translation of the New Testament, the word ‘sin’ is mentioned 127 times.  ‘Love’, on the other hand, is mentioned 232 times.  People matter.  You and I matter.  How we are treated matters, and how we engage others on a daily basis matters.  We cannot engage in all manner of bad behavior towards our fellow humans while engaging in religious traditions, and then expect forgiveness from God.  We actually have to find the people we hurt and do something about it.  That is exactly why we require grace.  Why? Because doing that kind of work is scary and extremely difficult.  We often find out in the reconciliation process that we might not be as awesome as we thought we were, and it can throw us for an existential loop.  Weighing our self-perception against other people’s experience of us can be quite painful, but it can often be the catalyst to immense personal growth.  This is the gift of the Days of Awe.  This tradition exists for our well-being and healing.  Not for God’s.

I want to stop for a moment and address something.  I have experienced abuse and trauma.  What if a former abuser approaches you and asks for forgiveness? I have experienced this; not only was I frightened by the experience but I was also confused.

“But some things seem impossible to forgive. As the founder of JSafe, a Jewish organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence and child abuse, Dratch should know. How could atonement be made for those crimes? How could forgiveness ever be granted?

“Repentance is the obligation of the perpetrator and forgiveness is the prerogative of the victim,” Dratch explains. “In many cases, abusers follow the same steps as those who have committed other wrongs: admitting guilt, taking steps to make sure that the behavior is not repeated and sincerely apologizing to the victim. Those three things can take a lifetime to accomplish. Many abusers will not even admit their crimes and so can never earn forgiveness.”

Whether or not the abuser asks for it, victims often try to forgive as part of their healing process. “Jewish law does not oblige a victim to forgive,” Dratch clarifies. “But when you hold on to hurt or anger, you hold on to the crime and allow it to define you. By forgiving, people who have been controlled by others take control over their minds, bodies and self-images. They say, ‘I will not allow your actions to influence me any more. I will be the person that I want to be.’ ”

Forgiveness is very different than consequence, Dratch says, and one of those consequences is punishment. “Someone may hurt you and you may forgive, but perhaps you don’t want that person in your life anymore, or perhaps not in the way they were before,” he says.

Lewis also believes that forgiving is the key to Yom Kippur, even if there can be no concomitant forgetting. “What happens in the past doesn’t go away,” she says, “but we find a way to integrate it into the new people we become through the work of teshuvah, seeking to repair our relationships with ourselves, with God, with other people.”

The cycle of forgiveness has been constant for thousands of years, and has applied to all Jews, regardless of their importance. God loved Moses completely and forgave his sins, but that forgiveness did not mean that Moses was allowed to go into the Promised Land. That exclusion was the result of the wrongs he committed.

That’s the other purpose of Yom Kippur, Hirsch believes. “It is a cautionary tale that we carry with us,” he says, “because when it comes to forgiveness, God has the final say.” (Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness)

It’s interesting, isn’t it? In the end, we are not intended to be victims.  We are supposed to be active in our lives.  We make choices.  We make amends.  We approach God.  We interact.  We engage with ourselves and others.  It makes sense.  We have options, and we exercise those options.  You don’t have to be Jewish to take advantage of the spirit behind Elul and the Days of Awe.  Doing a self-inventory, engaging in contemplation, engaging God, and checking in with the people in your life with humility and openness may be a practice you find rewarding and catalyzing.

Further Reading:



Living in Color…Again

I wrote this post six years ago on this very blog.  I woke up this morning and thought that it might be worth re-posting just in case someone needed to read it:

It is no secret that the past few weeks have been difficult.  Moving forward seems to require looking back sometimes, even going back.  Unresolved memories of past trauma surfaced recently, and I have been required to revisit old places.  It feels like touring an old battleground or an ancient ruin.  There was blood shed to be sure, and there was ruin.  There was a great fight, and something died there.  Good and evil were at work, and a life was at stake.  I’m not, however, visiting the site of another’s battle or ruin; I’m visiting mine.  I have, therefore, felt vulnerable, shaky, and a little needy as I have set forth on the healing journey once again.

I do not like to feel vulnerable and needy.  I do have some trusted allies; nonetheless, I prefer self-reliance even though that opposes my own creed and approach to community and friendship.  How can I process what I am going through with a trusted friend if I lock myself in my house? So, I ventured forth in spite of my own fears, and I had two distinct experiences.  My first experience thwarted me by only reaffirming my fears of vulnerability.  I allowed myself to be transparent with someone and came away feeling distinctly “broken”.  I cannot think of another word to describe my deep feelings of shame and regret.  Nothing was said overtly, but sometimes it isn’t what is said–it is what is not said.  It’s body language, a small criticism, an attitude, a look, a lack of empathy, a sigh.  At the end of the day, I regretted leaving the house.  I remember driving home, and I was talking to myself as I made my way home.  Actually, I was talking to God.  I said, “You know, I’m sick of feeling this way.  Broken.  Damaged.  I’m so tired of being “that woman”.  That woman with the problem.”  It isn’t often that God talks back to me.  Oh, I’m a big believer in God speaking to us through nature, other people, even bumper stickers, but when you hear that still, small voice so distinctly answer back in your mind (and you know undoubtedly that it’s not you answering back), it is very important to stop talking and listen.  This is what I heard–“You are not broken.  You are awesomely and wonderfully made.  I made you.  How could you break?”

Let me back up here for a moment.  I took a hiatus from the American church experience about five years ago for myriad reasons.  I left the church, but I did not leave my belief behind.  At the time of my exit, the use of the word “broken” was very popular among Christian Evangelicals.  To speak Christianese fluently, one had to use “broken” often.  It might look something like this: “Oh God, we want to be broken before you.” or “We bring our brokenness to you as an offering.” or “We are broken and weary people.”  You get the idea.  At times it seemed that the more “broken” a person felt, the holier and more sanctified he was.  What does it mean to be “broken”? has searched many online dictionaries for me, and this is a list of definitions for the adjective “broken”:

  • physically and forcibly separated into pieces or cracked or split
  • subdued or brought low in condition or status
  • (especially of promises or contracts) having been violated or disregarded
  • Sundered by divorce, separation, or desertion of a parent or parents
  • Intermittently stopping and starting; discontinuous
  • Incomplete
  • Weakened and infirm
  • Crushed by grief
  • Financially ruined; bankrupt
  • Not functioning; out of order

Obviously, there are a few definitions that apply to the spiritual life of a human being.  The church at large does not necessarily have it wrong.  We certainly want to bring crushing grief, financial ruin, spiritual lowliness, infirmities, broken promises, and physical brokenness to God.  We do not, however, want to wallow or label ourselves or others as “broken”.  When I said I felt “broken”, however, I meant the last definition on the list.  After all my life experiences, sometimes I just feel like I don’t work anymore.  Like I’m kaput.  What’s more, sometimes I have a feeling that other people think the same thing.  I feel this way when well-meaning people say things like, “How can you have been through so much and still be so normal?” To me, they are really saying, “You must be really screwed-up underneath your veneer of normalcy.”  Should I just have ‘Out of Order” tattooed on my forehead and call it a day? Can a person just go throughtoo much? So, when I heard that still, small voice tell me that I am awesomely and wonderfully made, I was forced to reconsider my own opinions.

Psalm 139:14 tells us that we are awesomely and wonderfully made.  I did not just fabricate that.  As I meditated on this new idea that I was not a broken person, but I was, on the contrary, a whole and working person, I began to wonder what that might mean.  This is what I’ve come up with, and I’m going to use images to explain it.

Look at the image above.  You can probably discern the subject.  Can you find the two bees? Can you see the complexity of patterns? Can you discern color? I have filtered this image, removed color, altered exposure, saturation, temperature, and contrast.  I have faded the image on the edges.  This image is a metaphor for how we view ourselves.  Our life experiences act as filters for how we view ourselves.  What might a stinging remark from your mother before prom night alter in your self-image? What about an absent father? What about a rape or an incestuous relationship? Think about my abduction experience? Think about any kind of sexual violence or trauma? Could they remove all color from your self-image leaving you with only a black and white picture of yourself? It’s very possible.  If we have been exposed to terrible events or events that left us feeling out of control and terrible about ourselves, then how might we “look” to ourselves? Overexposed, colorless, shadowed, and faded? It explains why I feel broken sometimes.  Even being in a fallen world has activated our filters.  We are surrounded by all forms of death, destruction, poverty, illness, and suffering.  If we are able to live in the world without deactivating our empathy, then we will no doubt have learned to view the world through filters.  We must if we are to survive.  It is often too painful otherwise.

This is the same image filtered differently.  I’ve filtered out the color red.  This image looks very different from the other.  The bees stand out, but the petals do not.  The complexity of the seeds have become more visible, and the play of the shadows is more interesting.  Your life with more color, more pattern, less filtering.  Some trauma has been resolved.  Forgiveness has been at work here.  Forward progress.  There is more balance between light and dark.  Less extremes.  More vulnerability means more safety.  Better boundaries and more peace.

This is the image in full color with very little filtering.  I took this photograph yesterday evening in my backyard.  This is the flower of the Russian Mammoth Sunflower.  Look at the complexity of the seeds in the fruiting body and their colors.  Do you see all the details and the shadows in the petals? Do you see how the light reflects off the bees’ wings? These details were impossible to see in the other images due to the effects of the filters.  It does not mean that these details were not there.  The nature of the flower existed.  The bees were doing their work.  They existed.  This flower is standing majestically at about 12 feet in my backyard at this very moment tracking the sun as it moves across the sky, but you could not know this because of how I filtered the two previous images.  You knew that you were looking at a flower.  You did not know the color.  You may not have known the genus or species.  You noted the bees, but you could not notice their gossamer wings or their black and yellow thoraces.  You only knew what was allowed to pass through the filters.

In the unseen or invisible world, the eternal world which will never pass away but surrounds us yet, in God’s heart and mind, we are much like this sunflower.  We exist in full color in rich complexity.  Remember–Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. (Psalm 139:14) We are not broken, out of order, lowly, violated, emotionally bankrupt, incomplete, separated, or crushed.  Our journey in the physical or visible world is to learn to bring forth, if you will, bit by bit the invisible reality of who we really are into the visible.  Essentially, step by step, we learn to see ourselves in full color and complexity rather than black and white, overexposed, and shadowy because that is who we really are regardless of what has happened to us or how we feel about ourselves. This process takes time, the help from very trustworthy allies, and an unwavering belief that you are so much more that what you currently see.  You are strong, beautiful, powerful, gifted, majestic, capable, talented, complex, and so valuable.

At the end of the famous 1 Corinthians 13 there is this verse:

For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection [of reality as in a riddle or enigma], but then [when perfection comes] we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood [by God].

This verse comes at the end of a chapter entirely devoted to the nature of God’s love.  That is the perspective you must take when you read 1 Corinthians 13.  This chapter is often read at weddings because we want to be able to love each other with the love that is described in this beloved chapter of the New Testament.  What is profound is that God loves us like this.  This chapter could end in any number of ways, but it comes to a close with the announcement that what we see is only a blurry and dim reflection, a cracked and tarnished image, of what exists in the perfect reality.  What’s more, as we are today, sometimes lost in the haze of an imperfect self-image often rooted in deep psychic pain, we are “fully and clearly known and understood by God”.  This statement was made after an entire chapter devoted to the nature of God’s ability to love us.  Human beings are never asked to do something which God Himself does not.  This chapter is all about the nature of God’s love towards us.  So, you see, we may not see ourselves clearly, but God does, and He loves us completely, entirely, thoroughly regardless of everything and with everything.  And, He understands you.  You are understood.  That means that you are not alone.

That is what I learned last week.  When I feel the temptation to feel “broken” or ashamed, I must think again.  This is not an easy choice, but the question comes down to ‘who am I going to believe?’  Am I going to believe my father, my mother, my perpetrator, or even my wounded self? Well, I’m not going to believe my father, my mother, or my perpetrator.  Hell, no.  And, my wounded self is…well, wounded.

It’s something worth pondering as we continue to heal.

What Matzo Can Teach Us

We are in the middle of celebrating Passover.  That means lots of matzo.  If you’ve ever eaten matzo, then you’ll notice that it gets on everything.  I have crumbs everywhere.  It is the perfect food for fairy tales and getting lost in the woods.  Someone is bound to find you if you leave a trail of matzo behind you.  There is no effort involved either.  Just eat it.  The crumbs will fall far and wide as you crunch and walk.  And the gluten-free matzo? It’s even worse!

It is a revered food during Passover.  In fact, for those not familiar with the customs of Passover, observant Jews do not eat any leavened products during Passover.  If you, for example, feel like eating a sandwich, then it’s a matzo sandwich.  No bread allowed.  Matzo only.  All leavened products (chametz) are removed from the house as well prior to the beginning of Passover.  Hello, matzo.

Some more interesting facts about matzo:

  • Matzo has holes to keep it from rising.
  • Shemurah (guarded) matzo is carefully watched from the time the wheat is cut until the matzo is finally baked so that no moisture causes it to be chametz (leavened).

There are people in the world whose job is to guard matzo.  I find this fascinating.

Matzo is the only Passover food with two meanings.  It is the bread of slavery and the bread of freedom.

Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about this duality of meaning.  Many a rabbi has tried to explain why matzo must mean both for us.  Here, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg explains it thusly:

Just as shunning chametz [leaven] is the symbolic statement of leaving slavery behind, so is eating matzah the classic expression of entering freedom. Matzah was the food the Israelites took with them on the Exodus. “They baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into unleavened cakes [matzot], for it was not leavened, since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared provisions for themselves.” (Exodus, 12:39.) According to this passage, matzah is the hard bread that Jews initially ate in the desert because they plunged into liberty without delaying.

However, matzah carries a more complex message than “Freedom now!” Made only of flour and water — with no shortening, yeast, or enriching ingredients — matzah recreates the “hard bread of affliction” (Deut. 16:3) and meager food given to the Hebrews in Egypt by their exploitative masters. Like the bitter herbs eaten at the seder, it represents the degradation and suffering of the Israelites.(The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays)

The Jews ate matzo daily while they were slaves in Egypt.  In a far less powerful metaphor, think of matzo like that awful cafeteria food you ate in middle and high school.  That one particular menu item that was particularly disgusting.  “What are they serving today? Oh that? Never mind.  I’ll wait until I get home to eat.”   And today, whenever you hear the words “mushroom hotdish”, you shudder just a little bit.  Not just because it looked like something from an alien autopsy, but also because, in a moment of sensory recall, you are transported back to adolescence.  You are able to keenly recall and feel your past insecurities and fears swell within you.  You remember what it was like to be 15 again.  You are 15 again.  Mushroom hotdish is your casserole of affliction.

What if, however, you were given mushroom hotdish while on the cusp of attaining everything you had ever hoped for? Bursting with anticipation and exhilaration! There is no time to prepare a real meal so you reach for what’s available.  You must eat.  Mushroom hotdish it is.  The power of this moment overrides everything and, suddenly, awash with exhilaration and endorphins, you hastily scarf down this once dreaded gelatinous concoction.  You are off to embrace something sizeable.  Much bigger than anything you could have ever dreamed.  That moment before you cross the threshold into the Promised Land, you take one last bite of mushroom hotdish.  The gates open, and you’re off and running.  The taste of the casserole of freedom still fresh in your mouth.

Same ingredients.  Different meanings altogether.  This is how it is with matzo and chametz.  Rabbi Greenberg goes on to explain:

Matzah is, therefore, both the bread of freedom and the erstwhile bread of slavery. It is not unusual for ex-slaves to invert the very symbols of slavery to express their rejection of the masters’ values. But there is a deeper meaning in the double-edged symbolism of matzah. It would have been easy to set up a stark dichotomy: matzah is the bread of the Exodus way, the bread of freedom; chametz (leaven) is the bread eaten in the house of bondage, in Egypt. Or vice versa: matzah is the hard ration, slave food; chametz is the rich, soft food to which free people treat themselves. That either/or would be too simplistic. Freedom is in the psyche, not in the bread. (The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays)

Here is the key point that I want to emphasize because matzo also means something else:

Matzo is a metaphor for our own lives.  It teaches us that if we want to achieve freedom, then we cannot just sit back and let nature take its course. 

The point is subtle but essential. To be fully realized, an Exodus must include an inner voyage, not just a march on the road out of Egypt. The difference between slavery and freedom is not that slaves endure hard conditions while free people enjoy ease. The bread remained equally hard in both states, but the psychology of the Israelites shifted totally. When the hard crust was given to them by tyrannical masters, the matzah they ate in passivity was the bread of slavery. But when the Jews willingly went from green fertile deltas into the desert because they were determined to be free, when they refused to delay freedom and opted to eat unleavened bread rather than wait for it to rise, the hard crust became the bread of freedom. (The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays)

Matzo was and will always be hard and dry.  Mushroom hotdish will always be disgusting.  What creates this dialectic then? The determination to be free.

Rabbi Dennis Ross explains it beautifully:

The Passover journey isn’t just a historical journey; it’s one we take every year of our lives. And it isn’t just an external journey; in order to have true meaning, it needs to change us on the inside, where freedom really matters. The difference between slavery and freedom, between constriction and expansion, is our state of mind. Eaten grudgingly in a state of oppression, matzah is the bread of affliction; eaten joyfully in a state of liberation, matzah is the bread of our freedom.

There is a connection, our rabbi taught today, between Purim and Pesach, the last holiday of the Jewish year and the first holiday of the Jewish year. Both holidays celebrate stories of how we were oppressed, and almost wiped out, but we survived and even flourished. In the Purim story, told in the Megillah of Esther, God’s name is never mentioned. In the Passover story, told in the traditional haggadah, Moses’ name is never mentioned. There’s something to be learned from this apparent disjunction.

Purim teaches us that redemption happens when people take their destinies into their own hands, and transform themselves. Passover teaches us that redemption happens when people trust completely in God, and allow themselves and their circumstances to be transformed. These narratives are mirror images of each other, but both are true — and the real truth of redemption lies in the dialectical tension between the human-focused Purim story and the God-focused Passover one.

Just like the real truth of matzah lies in the dialectical tension between the bread of slavery and the bread of freedom, and how we continue to be transformed by spending a week in the synthesis between them. (Velveteen Rabbi)

There is real tension between understanding our role of self-determination and dominion in our own lives and trusting God completely.  There is indeed a very real dialectic.  Nowhere in the Tanakh or even in the New Testament do we see a personality who was rewarded for lying back and doing nothing.  We see a lot of tentative, hesitant characters.  Gideon.  Even Moses in the beginning.  We also see characters who got it done.  Joshua.  Mordecai.  Esther.  Ruth. Naomi.  The point being that if you want something better, then you have to fight for it because leaving Egypt, be it real or metaphorical, is no easy feat.  You have to fight for what you want.  Be prepared to be uncomfortable.  Be prepared to face off with enemies.  Be ready to move fast.  Be ready to do things that you never thought you would.

Esther wasn’t sure that she would succeed.  Gideon was the smallest man from the weakest tribe.  Moses was a horrible public speaker.  And here we are today retelling their stories and seeing ourselves in them–attempting to see where God intervened and humanity acted to form this almost perfect collaboration.

What is one to do then? I think we can look at Abraham for that answer as described in Genesis 12:1: “And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  Essentially, Abraham packed up everything he had and headed…uh…due West? East? Huh.  Where exactly?  God did not tell him, but Abraham acted anyway with what he did know.  Was it risky? Yep.

But isn’t it riskier to do nothing and hope that someone comes along one day to rescue you? 

I’m thinking about it.  I’m looking to strike that balance.  I have seven days of matzo to eat.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.  Every Passover this very question arises to discuss again, but it’s a worthy topic because we all have our personal Egypts.  And we all long for freedom.  Discovering our role in that process might be the key to freeing us from that which masters us.


Prayer and Resiliency

Where does resiliency come from? I don’t know.  I’ve read that it comes from a sense of being loved.  Early in life, if a child senses that they are loved by at least one person, then they will have some kind of resiliency in the face of suffering.

What about in adulthood? What happens when our resources have run out? What happens when our parents have either died or are not available to us? What if our friends are nowhere to be found? What if we have friends, but our circumstances are too great? No friend could ever fix what is wrong.  What if our problem either lies within us or too close to us to adequately represent to another person without sacrificing what little self-respect we have left? How do you find your resiliency in circumstances like these? How do you start to gather momentum in order to change for the better?

I only know one way.  Prayer.  I know, I know, it sounds so passive.  Prayer? To a lot of people prayer might sound like the least effective thing to do.  Ever.

It’s not.  Prayer accomplishes a great deal in one act.  It centers you in on your emotions producing mindfulness.  It helps you stop judging yourself and your feelings as either good or bad.  Feelings are feelings.  They are neither good nor bad.  Prayer puts you in a position to ask for help which is often very challenging because so often the help available to us comes with conditions.  Prayer allows our inner man to inhale and exhale freely which is vital to physical health.  So often when we live in oppressive environments, our inner man is “corseted” and censored, always making his or her responses dependent upon how others react.  We are able to remove our bindings during prayer and find relief and release.  Prayer also connects us to God and energizes our soul.  We can express gratitude, grief, pain, fear, and any other emotion on the spectrum of human feeling during prayer.  We can lament.  We can scream.  We can laugh.  We can say nothing.  Simple acts can be prayers.  Groans.  Cries.  Tears.  Silence.  Even joyous smiles when directed upward.

Someone might say that they don’t know how to begin.  It feels awkward.  How do you pray?  Aren’t there rules? Don’t you have to begin with Thanksgiving? Isn’t there an acrostic? When do you confess? Aren’t you supposed to save “supplication” for last? To quote my Swedish grandfather, “P’shaw!” Throw it all out.  Prayer is your intimate time with God–when you are alone with Him.  This is a primary way that you develop your relationship with Him.  There are many books written on prayer, but, ultimately, you get to decide on how to be yourself with God.

Are there good books available? There are.  The best? The Book of Psalms in the Old Testament or Jewish Bible.  These are a collection of prayers, and they have been translated many, many times.  I am fond of this one:


click image for link

The most famous of the Psalms is Psalm 23, but there are so many more that are equally moving–150 to be exact.  They capture what it means to be fully human and fully flawed.  They portray us in all our human splendor before God, and God responds to us with compassion.  The writers of the Psalms cry out, rejoice, run from life, seek revenge, beat themselves up, wallow, plead, praise and worship, glorify, dream, hide, and rest.  We can see ourselves in every prayerful poem.  We can use their words to give voice to our hearts and minds.  Our circumstances no matter how delightful or terrible can be found in the Psalms.

This is where I turn when I’ve run out of fuel.  When I don’t know what to say.  When I don’t know how to put words to the contents of my heart.  When I feel like I don’t have permission to even try.  I allow King David to speak for me.  Ever so slowly, I find myself praying his words and my soul is quickened.  I feel hope again.  I feel renewed.  I remember that I can keep going, and that’s resiliency–knowing that you have what it takes to continue onward because you are not going it alone.

You are seen by Someone greater.  Someone greater than your pain.  Someone greater than your oppressors.  Someone greater than your circumstances.

Even if you can only keep going for today.  Pray again tomorrow.  Strength rises with the sun.

This is how prayer can help you renew your resiliency.

Three Days

What’s it like to read the same story over and over again and know the ending? Children seem to love this.  My daughters each had a favorite story that they insisted I read them repeatedly.  Each time I read it they were wide-eyed with wonder as if it were the first time they had ever heard it.

I feel like this about the movie “Somewhere in Time”.  I watch this movie repeatedly with hopes that it will end differently.  No, he won’t find that copper penny in his suit pocket.  No, he won’t be forced back in time! No, he won’t die of a broken heart! No, dammit, no! And, I weep every time I watch it.  I’m sorry, but it’s no comfort to me that Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve reunite in heaven! I’m heartbroken as the film ends.

Thinking on the beliefs that I have taken for granted, I have recently come to the story of the life of Jesus.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to make any bold proclamations, but I have been thinking about his life…and death.  I wonder if it’s easier to live life for a time with little theistic awareness.  Perhaps it’s not.  It’s just a question I have.  I have always asked questions of ontological significance, and I’ve always been a theist.  Since my earliest memories.  Since I was three.  At times it has felt quite burdensome.  Other times, it has sustained me.

When I was 13, I was forced to participate in confirmation classes at an orthodox Lutheran church.  I think my mother was performing penance by making me go.  It was there that I learned the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed. On Confirmation Day, I had to recite the creeds for the congregation.  I received my Book of Common Prayer and silver cross necklace.  Everyone looked upon the new “official” members of the church with such pride.  I was just glad to be done with the classes to be honest.

Knowing now the history of the Council of Nicaea, I find it easy to feel somewhat uncomfortable with the entire confirmation process and the Nicene Creed.  It is what is though, isn’t it? As I repeat the creed’s words in my mind, I stop short at the idea that Jesus was buried.

Jesus died.

Historically, we know that Jesus was a real person, and he died.  I’ve never really thought about that.  Sure, I know that he was crucified.  I’ve spent a great deal of time studying crucifixion in the past.  Mel Gibson even brought us The Passion of the Christ to allow us to experience that event in real time.  A lot has been discussed in terms of the manner of his death and even the reason for it.  But, I don’t think I ever just thought about the bottom line–he died.  Why? Well, I didn’t because everyone always skipped ahead to the next part–the empty tomb.

I stopped.  I am thinking about his death.  He was dead for three days.  What does that mean? More specifically, what does that mean for the people who loved and knew him? Or even followed him around? What do those three days mean for you or me? Why does it matter? You have to go back in time into the story to make sense of these three days.

Who was Jesus to the twelve disciples and Mary Magdalene? For John, he was a best friend.  For Peter, he was the long-awaited Messiah and close friend.  He was a leader.  He was a teacher and prophet.  He was The Dream.  And they all watched their dream die right in front of them.  It’s one thing to watch a beloved friend die which he was to them.  It’s another thing to helplessly watch a treasured mentor be tortured and finally expire which he did.  But, to watch your dream die? The symbol of everything that you’ve ever hoped for and loved? Just…die? Before your eyes and you are completely unable to do anything about it?

That’s what I’ve been thinking about.  Jesus died like that.  This is what happened to his best friends.  They watched their hope die, and for three days they lived in despair.  All was lost.  They didn’t know that it was only going to last for three days.  This is what I meant about reading the same story over and over again.  We know the story and the ending.  To them, however, this was the new reality.  Confusion.  Abandonment.  Questions.  Desolation.  Grief.  Profound emotional pain.  Fear.  It doesn’t matter what you believe about Jesus.  Was he the Messiah? Was he just some guy? The story is still poignant.

Many of us know this.  Life within the confines of The Three Days.  We have watched something beautiful die.  We have helplessly stood by while something that represented all our hopes withered away, and now we’re living in a weird purgatory of desolation, pain, and confusion.  “What just happened? Is there no way out of this? I don’t think I can make it through this.”

The death of a marriage.  Miscarriages.  The death of a child.  The onset of severe mental illness.  Loss of love in marriage and the onset of loneliness and alienation.  Debilitating illnesses.  Financial problems that eat away at security and options.  Unemployment.  Sexual abuse.  Domestic violence.  Or, just a life poorly lived due to a consecutive loss of opportunities.

This is life within The Three Days.  It feels like complete abandonment.  Did God leave? What happened?! Thoughts like, “I think I was abandoned.  Why do I feel so alone?” invade our mind, and hopelessness abounds.  It feels like the desert of despair.  I think of the Israelites in bondage to Pharaoh.  Joseph was in charge, and the Jews were prospering.  Suddenly, Pharaoh felt threatened by their numbers and wealth, and they were enslaved.  God seemed to abandon them.  It wasn’t until Moses and Aaron arrived to free them that their Three Days ended–almost 400 years later.

It seems that there is no knowing how long Three Days will be.  Biblically speaking, we have quite literally three days to almost 400 years in terms of length of time.  How’s that for uncertainty? I don’t feel comforted.  At the same time, this does feel like the way it is, doesn’t it? Life is hard.  When we get in there and really live life, we will get hurt.  I recall watching Bear Grylls in an interview a few years ago.  He said that he wanted to leave this life with scars.  He wanted to have broken bones.  It was a sign that he had truly lived and pushed the envelope.  What else was he here to do? Some would say that he’s stupid to possess such a point of view.  Others would call that courageous.  Honestly, I think it’s admirable because he’s got stories to tell.  He summited Mount Everest in his 20’s 18 months after breaking three vertebrae.  That takes guts and determination.

So, what does this all mean? Personally, I think that it means that we will all experience those Three Days in our lives in some way, but I think it’s very important to see that, however long the time lasted, it always ended.  This is, however, the way of life.  The religious fairy tale that so often prescribes Actions X and Y in order to avoid various kinds of misfortune that will ultimately lead you to the desirable Outcome Z is false.  Clearly, if the beloved friends of Jesus endured those Three Days, then who are we to suppose that we are exceptional? We will do it better and be exempted from suffering.  We won’t.  It’s in our pain that we are developed.  It’s within those Three Days that we often become the very people that we always dreamed we could be.  To bypass that process, that wilderness as it were, is to bypass the very journey that builds the road into the life we’ve always dreamed of having.  We can’t get there without traveling through the desert.

My Three Days have lasted for years.  There are days that I feel almost hopeless, but then I look back upon where I used to be, who I used to be, and I see purpose.  I see growth.  I see that I wasn’t alone, and when I draw a blank in times of immense pain I remember these words:

“So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the LORD your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

And, I don’t count the hours or days.  I just keep going remembering that God heard the cries of the Israelites and ended their slavery.  For Christians, the tomb was indeed empty.  He is with me on my journey even though it feels lonely on most days.

He is with you, too, as you make your way through your Three Days.

Magical Thinking

I have learned something about getting on with life.  There’s no easy way to do it, and there’s no good time to do it.  What’s more, there is absolutely no pain-free way to do it either.  Hollywood has played a bigger role in our view of building a life than any of us would have imagined, I think.  I think that Disney has most likely played an even bigger role.  There are no absolute happy endings.  Pain will always be mixed with happiness.  These Disney-efied enhanced versions of reality are constructed to trade on our hope so that we will spend money to  escape our own less than ideal realities.  I sound cynical, but I’m really not.  I am and have always been a hopeful realist.

I wonder, however, where people get some of their ideas.  Why do people believe that running to the side of a life-long abusive parent as she lay dying will result in a miraculous reconciliation? Where does that idea originate? It’s magical thinking.  A true personality change is not likely to occur in the last twenty minutes of a person’s life even as death looms.  Insisting that the victim of years of abuse be the one to build that bridge isn’t right either.  And yet, we see scenarios like these on the silver screen, don’t we? An adult child of some kind of abuse is weeping at the bedside of a dying parent.  The parent is resistant to reconciliation, hardened from a life of bad choices.  The adult child reaches out once again, “But I love you! Don’t you know that?” The parent’s lips quiver. Finally, in their last moments the dying parent utters, “I know.  I’m sorry.  I’ve always loved you…I just…couldn’t be what you needed.  I’m really sorry.”  End scene.

These scenes find their way into our subconscious, and, when bad things happen to us, we come to expect the happy ending.  Where’s my Hollywood ending? Where’s Prince Charming? When will my horrible stepmother be forced out of my life by my fairy godmother? In fact, where is my fairy godmother?

Why am I suffering so much? What did I do wrong?

And then the stage is set for magical thinking.  What is magical thinking? Essentially, magical thinking is the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation.  I see a lot of magical thinking in religious environments.  For example, I knew a woman whose car suddenly broke down.  It was an old car and needed replacing.  As her car was being towed to the repair shop, she cried, “I must not have given enough in the offering plate last Sunday.”  She correlated her own perceived lack of generosity with her offerings at church with her car breaking down.  God was, therefore, punishing her.  That’s magical thinking.

Another example of magical thinking is when a woman is blamed for her own rape based solely upon what she is wearing or, even better, due to her sexual history.  Her accusers are correlating her choice in skirt or even her past sexual partners with an attacker’s will to hurt her.  One has nothing to do with the other, but these are correlations made all the time.

I have seen magical thinking at work when Christians wear crosses and correlate the wearing of that cross with perceived favor in daily experiences: “I got such a good parking space downtown! Always wear your cross! God blesses you in the best ways!” Another example of this is seen after tragic natural disasters.  One house was skipped by a devastating tornado.  Amid hundreds of destroyed domiciles, the owners of the “spared” home are standing on their roof holding a sign that reads, “Thank you, God, for saving us!” So, God favored only one house amidst hundreds? The “Angel of Death” passed over that community, and only one family was spared? This is magical thinking.

Magical thinking works for humans because it’s much more comfortable to believe that your fate is somehow determined than that you’re a member of a group of intelligent beings who 1) are responsible for your actions and 2) chaos exists, and it affects all of us regardless of our faith or depth of character.

This is why the Disney-ification of important life experiences such as falling in love, coming of age, and childhood is so potent.  It reinforces our tendencies toward magical thinking rather than personal responsibility.  Let’s be honest.  Who wants to see that movie?

What if there are no Happy Ever Afters? That has to sink in for a moment.  What if, however, we were meant for something better than Hollywood or Disney’s idea of happiness? That’s a better question.

What does it really mean to be happy? This, to me, is a far better place to start.  If we look at the icons of our girlish fantasies, what might we find? Cinderella found her prince, and she was taken to the castle.  In reality, a princess has few choices.  She’ll live in a different sort of prison bound by allegiances, duty, and tradition.  Snow White ended up the same way.  In the Ivory Tower with the prince.  In fact, many of the stars of our beloved fairy tales were princesses, but to be a princess is to be bound.  Who really wants that job? You belong to the State.  You are never really yours again.  Your uterus will never be yours again.  That is for certain.  Your primary job is to carry on the bloodline.

What about the modern fairy tale “Pretty Woman”, a film I personally love? Again, how might that story continue? You know that she’ll end up in therapy, and he’ll have to go, too.  You can’t just walk away from a life of prostitution and abuse and simply call it good.

What I’m trying to say here, however awkwardly, is that there is no easy road no matter how beautiful or promising it all looks in the beginning.  Fairy tales are not real, and magical thinking gets us nowhere.  In religious environments, it can lead to shaming and blaming, and it alienates vulnerable people who need to be welcomed in to the fold.  In other spheres of life, it prevents us from taking action.  We simply say things like, “It will get better.”  How? How does anything get better without doing something? “Well, you know, time.”  Time? How does time do anything? It simply passes while we stay the same.  Attributing meaning or power to time is, once again, magical thinking.  Time does not heal much.  It does, however, give us opportunities to take steps towards achieving a goal whatever goal that might be.

I know something for certain.  Nothing gets better without our own diligent efforts.  We are fully responsible for ourselves.  We create our happiness.  In both Judaism and Christianity, one of the core beliefs is that we are created in the image of God.  Our introduction to God in the entirety of our sacred texts, the Bible, is as Creator.  We share in that nature.  We are creators.  We create our words by speaking them into existence.  We create our inner landscape and climate by creating belief in the thoughts that ebb and flow in our minds.  We create the atmosphere in our homes and relationships by creating the attitudes that emerge from within us.  We are creators all the time.  We create with every choice we make.  This is the path forward even if we are still carrying our pain.

It may feel like a blessing and a curse, but it is our responsibility as humans to learn how to do this so that we can ultimately experience the freedom–and happiness–for which we were made.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.  

Martin Luther King, Jr.


The Three Kinds of Forgiveness

We are right in the middle of the holiday season.  Hanukkah is here.  Christmas Eve is the day after tomorrow.  Kwanzaa begins on Friday.  These are holidays that involve gathering with communities and families.  Because of that, the holiday season can be a much anticipated season of joy or, conversely, pain for people.  It’s probably bittersweet for most.  No family is perfect, and no community is without its flaws.

But, what about those people who have found themselves in exile? I want to talk about that.  Sometimes I think I’ll be able to put this idea to rest, but I’m asked about it often enough that I think it will be a topic that is always discussed.  Ultimately, that topic is forgiveness.

So, what does forgiveness mean exactly? Let’s go back to what the Jewish rabbis taught keeping in mind that Jesus was a Jew, too.  He would have been aware of these ideas.  There are three kinds of forgiveness as explained by Rabbi Irwin Kula in his book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life:

  • selicha
  • mechila
  • kappara

Mechila, Rabbi Kula explains, is the only kind of forgiveness that we can ask for and expect to receive, and I suspect this is the forgiveness referenced in the Lord’s Prayer.  It is akin to a legal pardon.  It translates to simply saying, “You don’t owe me anything for what you have done.”  What’s more, it doesn’t have to register emotionally.  It’s an act of the will.  We engage in mechila daily whether we know it or not.  It’s not necessarily having the metaphorical slate wiped clean, but it’s enough.  It’s not what we yearn for, is it? It’s not transformative forgiveness in which we are cleansed as white as snow, but our debt is cancelled.

When does mechila apply? Well, I’d say that we engage in this type of forgiveness in all our relationships.

  • “Sorry I was late.”
  • “Sorry that I broke your favorite vase.”
  • “Sorry, Mom…”
  • “Sorry, Dad…”
  • “Sorry, Honey…”
  • “Sorry, Robert, that I interrupted you during your presentation.”

How many times do we owe someone an apology? How many times do we take a joke too far? How many times have we embarrassed someone or insulted someone or forgotten something important? How many times have we unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings? To err is human.  If we have relationships, then we will be engaging in mechila almost daily.  Here is the problem.  Many well-meaning, or sometimes not so well-meaning, people expect others to apply the principles behind mechila to extreme circumstances where mechila no longer applies.

This is where selicha becomes relevant. As Rabbi Kula explains, selicha is a process rather than a moment in time, and it’s not something we can ever expect or ask for.  It’s a forgiveness born of a heartfelt empathy for the transgressor, and an ability to see the widest possible context, even the positive outcome of the conflict.  Selicha takes time particularly if the hurt is great.  It often unfolds in the course of living and growing together.  Kula goes on to say that pain can coexist with healing and forgiveness, becoming softer and less central over time.  “Often we emerge stronger, clearer, and wiser when we wrestle with forgiveness, no matter the outcome…Even if reconciliation occurs, it doesn’t mean the relationship continues where it left off.”

Clearly, selicha is not mechila.  What a refreshment and relief to see a religious leader finally differentiate between types of forgiveness.  It is healing because there are those of us who have been browbeaten, judged, and alienated by people in religious circles for committing to the process of sechila while being told that we were, in fact, unforgiving and wrong.  The truth of the matter is that not everyone can be lived with.  There are abusers who will continue to abuse.  There are unsafe people in the world who, given an inch, will take a life.  And, there are those of us who do wrestle with forgiveness with great commitment.  It’s just that our process and life may not look like someone else’s.  Perhaps that makes others uncomfortable.  Not everyone’s family looks the same.  Not every child has a grandparent, and not every man and woman has a relationship with a mom or dad.  We all must make our way and create a good life.  We all must wrestle at some point.  Rabbi Kula states this clearly:

Forgiveness so often comes into play in bold relief when it comes to our mothers and fathers.  Everyone has to come to terms with negative or conflicted feelings about their parents, no matter how loving the relationship.  What makes it so difficult is that we have three sets of parents: the ones who raised us and with whom we actively struggled; those who live in our memory today; and our living parents (assuming they are still alive).  The parents in our memory have larger-than-life dimensions.  They are the ones who adored us and ignored us, whom we idealized and demonized.  Our parents today are people like us, with fears and flaws, trials and conflicts.  And they likely will never live up to our childhood expectations and hopes, which are often still with us in adulthood, whether we’re aware of them or not.  Our job is to separate these three manifestations and work as best we can toward reconciliation, trying not to carry too much baggage of the past into the present, while always engaging with it.  Our first great shock is when we realize that our parents are not God, and our next shock is when realize that God is not our parent.  This realization is the beginning of forgiveness for our parents and for God. (168 Kula)

The principles of mechila cannot be applied here.  Selicha is a process rather than an event.  Sometimes it’s a lifelong process.  Sometimes relational reconciliation is not possible.  Nonetheless, selicha is still vital to our healing.  Wrestling with forgiveness is still part of healing for our own well-being regardless of whether we will ever be able to return to a relationship with the person or group that harmed us.

The final form of forgiveness is kappara, and, according to Rabbi Kula, it is the forgiveness that we all yearn for.  Kappara can only be granted by God.  It can’t be earned or asked for.  According to Kula, it comes after asking and all the work.  It can’t be predicted or expected.  It is the kind of forgiveness that wipes the slate clean.  It cancels out the offense.  Rabbi Kula wrote, “In Christian language, it is grace.”  He goes on to write, “In psychological language, it’s an inner experience of return, of feeling whole again.  We are able to integrate our transgressions into a more expanded self.  And we likely have a sense of expansion, of tremendous relief and elevation.”  I have had this experience just as I have experienced mechila and continue to experience selicha.

What does this mean for us? Well, I want to emphasize that there is more than one way to forgive.  That’s plain to see.  So, if you have ever been judged or condemned because you have not been able to quickly bounce back from a painful situation and easily attain “relationship re-entry”, then I encourage you to let yourself off the hook.  Secondly, if the holiday season amplifies feelings of pain or heartbrokenness in you due to difficult circumstances, then I offer an opportunity to reframe:

There’s a story about the Israelites receiving the second set of Ten Commandments on Yom Kippur…After forty days atop Mt. Sinai, Moses came down with the tablets.  What could be more holy? But contrary to popular belief, these are not the set the Israelites received.  When Moses saw the people worshipping the golden calf (a blatant defiance of the first three commandments), he did the unthinkable.  He smashed the tablets in rage.  Then he returned to the mountain for another forty days, during which time he managed to convince an even more enraged God not to destroy the people.  When Moses returned to the Israelites he brought new tablets that he himself had created.  These were the commandments the people received, and this is the event Yom Kippur remembers.

There is no great moment of healing or repair in this story.  Yes, of course, the people showed regret but, as in our own lives, the slate is not wiped clean.  Something even more amazing happens.  Moses places the old, smashed tablets in the Holy Ark along with the new, intact ones.  The relationship continues; the covenant is renewed with the brokenness on the inside.  There is no perfect reconciliation, no permanent forgiveness, nor forgetting.  But betrayal is not the last word.  There is a larger context.  Love and betrayal can merge into and out of one another in astonishing ways.  There is always a more enveloping pattern–and forgiveness is the most enveloping of all.

The mistakes we make and the wrongs that are done to us need not imprison us in some dark place.  Rather we should always remember that wholeness and brokenness can be held together in a sacred place.  The tradition teaches that in the days of the ancient Temple, the Ark resided in the innermost chamber called the Holy of Holies.  This place was so powerful that only the High Priest could enter the room, and then, only on Yom Kippur.  On this day we are meant to remember our brokenness; and this alone is healing.  As the Hasidic Master Menachem Mendel of Kotsk taught, “Nothing is as whole as a broken heart.” (179 Kula)

Life is messy.  People make mistakes.  Sometimes they make horrible mistakes–repeatedly.  Seemingly irreparable mistakes.  As the tradition teaches, however, brokenness and wholeness are woven together.  There is no magical moment when this happens.  I do believe this.  Pain does indeed coexist with healing, but the existence of pain doesn’t negate the healing attained.  It just means that you’re human.  You’ve lived.  You’ve got life experience.  With that life experience comes wisdom.

With that, I wish you all, dear readers, a blessed holiday.


Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Rabbi Irwin Kula