September 22, 2015: Kol Nidre Sermon (Forgiveness)

I float in shallow waters. Puffy clouds drift lazily against the deep sky’s backdrop. Blue herons and Canadian geese fly low overhead. Egrets graze among the reeds. I withdraw the paddle, let the kayak drift, and inhale deeply. Somewhere out of sight a chain saw starts up. The buzzing seems to enter my brain. “How long is this going to go on? Stop already!” Then I think: “These are only sound waves. It’s my judgment, that’s all, that breaks the peace.” And I let it go.

Atonement is letting go. “At-one-ment:” to feel at one, to be at peace. Atonement means accepting who we are, as we are—including all our imperfections. In her book There Is Nothing Wrong With You, Zen teacher Cheri Huber, writes: “If a voice—your internal critic or another person’s remark—is speaking from a place of judgment, it has nothing worthwhile to tell you. Everything you need to know will come to you in compassion.” This perspective may be Buddhist, but it also comes close to the basic meaning in Judaism of kippur, or kapparah, “atonement.”

The great twentieth century theologian, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, defines kapparah as the removal of past transgression. He quotes Rashi, who says: “whenever the term refers to sin, kapparah connotes erasing or wiping away.” King David, after committing adultery by sleeping with Bathsheba, begs God to restore him to his former state of innocence, before his degradation. “Be gracious to me, God. Blot out my willfulness, and wash me clean of my iniquities. Purge till I am whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51) This is the very psalm we read at the Tashlich ceremony, when we symbolically cast our transgressions into the water in the form of bread morsels and watch the stream carry them off, out of sight.

God grants atonement as an expression of boundless love. Justice demands that King David remain a marked man for life on account of his sexual misconduct, like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, or like registered sex offenders today. Instead, divine love wipes away his immorality, so much so that the very progeny of the illicit union, Solomon, inherits the throne after him. This is exactly the side of God’s nature over which the prophet Jonah takes God to task. Jonah is enraged by God’s unreasonable compassion, in pardoning the people of Ninevah. “I knew you would renounce punishment,” he cries, “because you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness”— hurling God’s own epithet back at God as if it were an insult! Jonah is correct to take umbrage. Forgiveness is antithetical to truth, justice, and common sense.

There is another aspect to repentance besides the obliteration of transgression. There is another dimension to Yom Kippur in addition to atonement, as indicated in the verse from Torah: “On this very day shall atonement be made for you, in order to cleanse you of all your sins; before God you shall be cleansed.” (Leviticus 16:30) Apparently, repentance consists of two separate steps: atonement, and cleansing. What is the distinction? According to Rav Soloveitchik, only God can grant atonement, but human beings must cleanse themselves through the hard work of psychological and moral self-examination. Atonement is a spiritual experience, whereas cleansing is a rational process that entails analyzing our behavior and our motives, admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, making amends to those we have harmed, and paying the penalties for our misconduct.

To achieve teshuvah gemurah, complete repentance, atonement and cleansing are both necessary. Transgressions don’t occur singly in a vacuum, but pile up into patterns of misbehavior. Our misconduct eats away at us little by little from the inside, until we cannot be free of it, even if we want to, even if we feel tremendous shame and express remorse for what we have done. Beset with debts, a person might go to one friend to pay off another. He soon finds himself unable to repay either of them. He moves away to another town, where we can look people in the eye again and start over. He cannot see—or won’t admit—that “wherever he goes, there he is.” It is not enough to regret particular actions. We must also renounce the pathway and the lifestyle that led to them in the first place.

Cleansing goes further than atonement. When we ask God to pardon us, we seek to leave our sins behind us and move on. When we engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, a thorough and honest moral inventory, we take hold of our sins, incorporate them, and embrace every facet of ourselves, virtues as well as shortcomings. The Rav writes: “cleansing is a springboard for increased inspiration. It does not entail reinstating the individual to her former status. It must activate a new one, or else the misdeed itself serves no purpose and is superfluous. It must energize an ever-ascending spiral in her spiritual state.”

Life without lapses is not only impossible but undesirable. We ought not to lament our missteps but appreciate them for the lessons they teach us. In fact, Cheri Huber goes so far as to say that on the path to moral improvement, there’s no such thing as failure. “She compares our journey to that of an infant learning to walk. “At one point should he have condemned himself?” she asks. “All of the times he pitched over on his head or fell back on his bottom? They may have been unsuccessful attempts according to the definition of walking, but they were an inevitable part of the process of learning to walk.” (There Is Nothing Wrong, page 160)

The perspective that sees the potential benefit of wrongdoing—and, remember, the Hebrew word cheit, for sin, simply means “missing the mark”—explains the paradoxical Talmudic statement: “in the place where the fully repentant person stands, the completely righteous person cannot stand.” (bBerachot 34b) That’s right! The one who learns from her mistake ends up with greater self-awareness and more maturity than if she had never stumbled to begin with. Imagine for a moment that you were perfect, whatever that could possibly mean. You never offended anybody. You never did anything you regretted. Nothing and no one ever annoyed you. You would probably be dead! So, the next time something or someone agitates you, take a deep breath and ask yourself: what am I supposed to learn from this?

We have been considering two necessary sides to repentance: forgiveness versus judgment, acceptance versus improvement, or, in Rav Soloveitchik’s vocabulary, atonement versus cleansing. One entails eradicating our transgressions and reversing our status to an original stage of innocence. The other calls for transforming our transgressions into assets, which catapults us to a higher level of self-awareness and moral maturity. Which comes first? The Rav seems to regard atonement as the starting point from which to mount the real objective, which is cleansing. For him, the goal of repentance is to change our ways.

Perhaps, though, it’s the other way around. Perhaps self-scrutiny is merely a precursor to self-acceptance. After all, the work of self-improvement is endless. A lifetime in therapy is only enough to scratch the surface of our inner drives and motivations. At a certain point, we reach the limit of our capacity to understand ourselves, and we must yield to the unfathomable mystery of the psyche. That is the point of forgiveness.

Humans are ultimately enigmatic beings. “Who can ever know the depth of her own errors?” exclaims the Psalmist. “Therefore, God, cleanse me from all invisible faults.” I never understood that line: how can we repent of faults we don’t even know we have? But the other day hearing the psalm at services, with this sermon already swimming around in my head, I realized that the lesser part of forgiveness is for the behavior we comprehend, and the greater part of forgiveness is for everything we cannot know. Imagine that someone offends you with a rude remark. Later, you learn he had just received devastating personal news. In an instant, your anger dissolves into compassion. But what if you never were to find out the hidden information? That is the point of forgiveness.

I want to stray from my prepared remarks for reasons that will become obvious. I decided at the 11th hour to subject this sermon to my mother’s red pen… My mother has always been my best editor going back to reports for 5th grade Social Studies… She turns to me and says “it’s confusing… I can’t follow it…” Well, this was just a few hours ago, she must have seen the distress on my face, and so she immediately reversed herself and said: “You know, leave it be, it’s just fine.” That is the point of forgiveness. When turn to someone and say: it’s okay, you’ve done enough now, you can let it rest, that’s the very definition of forgiveness.

A Christian colleague asked me last week: “so what do Jews think about perfection—is it something that you strive for, or is it hopelessly out of reach?” I thought for a moment. We have Shabbat, of course, when we cease all creative activity, but we cannot stay there forever. Heschel beautifully describes the dialectic: “Six days a week, we wrestle with the earth, but on the Sabbath, we care especially for the seed of eternity planted within the soul.” (The Sabbath, p. 13) So, I replied to my friend: “Both, actually. God did not complete the work of Creation, but left us with the task of perfecting it. Every other commandment buttresses Tikkun Olam, Judaism’s supreme injunction to repair the world. But at the moment of candlelighting on Friday evening, we let it all go. On Shabbat, nothing needs improvement, because the world is already perfect, just as it is.”

Since only one day out of seven is spent at rest, you might conclude that Tikkun Olam takes precedence over Shabbat. Not necessarily. Even when the Jew is working, she keeps Shabbat ever present in her mind. As Heschel puts it: “The Sabbath is not for the purpose of recovering one’s strength in order to become fit for the forthcoming labor. It’s the other way around. Labor is the means to an end, and that end is the Sabbath.”

The same principle applies to teshuvah as Tikkun Olam. Just as the struggle to right the injustices of society has no endpoint, so too we will be engaged in the work of rectifying our relationships till the day we die. Nevertheless, there comes a point in both endeavors where we must pause, and say: “everything is okay, right here, right now.” Or, in the words of Cheri Huber: “There is nothing wrong with you. You are good, exactly as you are.”

Yom Kippur is such a time. If Shabbat is a weekly day of wholeness and contentment, then Yom Kippur all the more so, for it is called “the Sabbath of Sabbaths.” Rosh Hashanah, last week, was the Day of Judgment, but today, Yom Kippur, is the Day of “At-one-ment.” The period for judgment, criticism and blame is over and done. Now is the time for, compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness. All the ways that you disappoint yourself—let them go. All the ways you fail to live up to others’ expectations—let them go. The grudge you are nursing because someone wronged you in the past—for goodness sake, let it go already! With every confession you recite this evening—tap gently on your heart. Remember: the soul within you is pure.

I float along, reveling in the sensuous warmth of sunlight on my arms, even as a soft breeze caresses my face. A faint buzzing comes from beyond the shoreline trees, but it merely mingles with the song of the birds and rustle of the leaves. I am at one.