Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



This summer, as Cheryl and I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, we saw a video of a survivor telling a story from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The Nazis made the inmates work in a salt mine and many died under the crushing burden of hard work with little food and the crack of the whip. One night the lights went out and the mine was suddenly dark. All of a sudden a man began humming the melody of Kol Nidre. Soon another one who knew the words joined in. Pretty soon even those who didn’t know either the words or the melody joined in. It was the night of Yom Kippur and they felt that Gd had given them—even if only briefly—a period of rest. Their chanting Kol Nidre was a crying plea to Gd to forgive them and to save them.

Why has Kol Nidre such a powerful influence over us that we rush to shule to be there on time and be part of the holy moment as Kol Nidre is chanted? Perhaps the answer is that Kol Nidre is a formula for absolution. We promised not to sin last year. We meant it, but we slipped. We need to be released from that promise. That’s why immediately after Kol Nidre we recite the verse, V’nislach l’chol adat B’ney Yisrael ki l’chol ha-am bishgaga, “May Gd forgive the whole congregation of the Children of Israel for they sinned mistakenly.”

It’s like saying, we didn’t want to sin again, but we did; please forgive us. Kol Nidre is the beginning of our being forgiven on Yom Kippur. And our Machzor reassures us: Ki vaYom Hazeh y’chapeyr aleychem, “That on this day, Gd will grant us forgiveness.” But there is a big “but” in this process. Gd will not forgive us of our sins unless and until we forgive each other. Forgiving each other, however, is not so simple. It’s complicated and scary. Perhaps the greatest power that we humans possess may be the power to forgive, equaled only by the power not to forgive. Yes there are times when forgiveness can be denied, when certain actions become, in effect, unforgivable.

Simon Wiesenthal, in his book, The Sunflower, gives a powerful example. He tells of the time he was taken to the bedside of a mortally wounded SS officer who asked to speak to a Jew. He writes: The Nazi confessed that he shot a Jewish father and his young child…

The Nazi…wanted the Jew, me, to forgive him, so that he, the Nazi, could die in peace. He sat up and put his hands together as if to pray. “I want to die in peace, and so I need…” I saw that he could not get the words past his lips. But I was in no mood to help him. I kept silent.

Wiesenthal then writes: Here lay a man in bed who wished to die in peace, but he could not, because the memory of his terrible crime gave him no rest. And by him sat a man also doomed to die. I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands and at last, I made up my mind, and without a word I left the room.

Elie Wiesel often says: “Only the dead can forgive.” And so there cannot be forgiveness for Nazi murderers. Who can forgive on behalf of the 6 million Jews they viciously slaughtered? We Jews believe that there are those whose evil acts take them beyond the pale of forgiveness. There is a time to forgive and there is also a time not to forgive.

Maybe that’s why, on Yom Kippur day, we recite the Eyleh Ezk’ra, the Martyrology, remembering the martyrs of the vicious Roman persecutions and by extension all the martyrs throughout the ages. Why remember these unforgivable atrocities, on this day of forgiveness? Perhaps to be reminded that just as there are wrongs that can never be forgiven, there are others that must be forgiven. Knowing the difference between them is our challenge tonight.

Thankfully most of us are not victims of such evil. Most of us are called upon to forgive minor transgressions and slights. Most of us are called upon to forgive those who have insulted us, who have hurt us in non-critical ways. Maybe an invitation that we thought was forthcoming never arrived; or somebody said not nice things about us; or someone betrayed a confidence or cheated us. We all know how much these can hurt.

But if our history—which too often, has confronted us with the truly unforgivable—is to teach us anything, it is that not to forgive these kinds of things is to minimize that which is really unforgivable, by in effect, equating them. No, those unspeakable deeds must stand on their own. They, and only they, remain unforgivable.

But let’s be honest: Doesn’t Judaism ask the impossible of us when it commands us to forgive each other? After all, I’m no saint. I’m a human being and therefore, if you spit in my face, I will not say that it is raining. And if you hit me, I might hit you back. And if you hurt me, I might hurt you back. So how can the Torah tell me that I have to forgive? Why should I? And how can I?

If it’s any consolation, history is filled with people who couldn’t bring themselves to forgive. Michelangelo was surely one of the greatest artists who ever lived—a genius. His sculptures and paintings fill our hearts with amazement hundreds of years later. There was one fatal flaw in Michelangelo’s character. He could not forgive anyone who ever hurt him. A friend of his once dared to criticize one of his works of art. Do you know what Michelangelo then did? When he painted the Sistine Chapel, he painted that man’s face as the devil. 

Dante was, unquestionably, one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages. And yet, he could not forgive anyone who crossed him. And so when he wrote his masterpiece, The Inferno, which describes the terrible torment that those who suffer in Hell will endure, he used the names of his enemies as the examples.

If these inspired geniuses couldn’t bring themselves to forgive, how could we? And yet, we are commanded to forgive—especially on Yom Kippur.

The last Mishnah in the Talmudic tractate for Yom Kippur (Yoma 8:9) contains a crucial lesson that we all know but need to hear again and again: Aveyrot sheh-beyn adam l’chaveyro, eyn Yom HaKippurim mechapeyr ad sheh-yiratzeh et chaveyro, “Sins between a human being and his fellow, Yom Kippur does not atone for until he appeases his fellow.”

Okay, Yom Kippur absolves us for sins against Gd, teaches the Mishnah—like the treif food we ate, the davening we skipped, the opportunities to bring Gd into our lives we neglected. As long as our prayer is sincere, as long as our teshuva is heart-felt and earnest, as long as we don’t spend our day fasting in shule contemplating our next MacDonald’s excursion…these things are forgivable and forgiven. It’s the stuff between us that complicates things. Here, fasting and praying mean nothing unless we personally seek forgiveness from those we have wronged.

Maimonides (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:9) offers us some examples. Let’s say we took liberties with our friend’s money—even to the point of stealing from him. 1st we have to pay back the money and then, we can seek forgiveness. So 1st there must be restitution, 2nd an apology and 3rd, a request for forgiveness.  And if the friend is really upset and accepts the restitution, but refuses to accept the apology, you can send a panel of 3 friends to intercede on your behalf. If that doesn’t work, you send a 2nd panel, then a 3rd. And still, if your friend is unwilling to forgive you after being fully compensated, and after you and 9 friends have asked for his forgiveness, then he becomes a guilty party…because it’s a sin to be so unforgiving.

Why should we expect him to forgive? Doesn’t he have the right to nurse his anger like Michelangelo and Dante? Why say that he becomes a sinner if he refuses to forgive? Isn’t it human to stay angry and not release one from guilt? Perhaps the Jewish approach is not so much about the one who wronged you but about what your refusal to forgive does to yourself. 

Some think forgiveness is impossible. But it’s only impossible if you think you’re required to accept the offensive behavior in order to forgive. People wrongly think forgiveness means letting the offender off the hook, condoning his behavior. Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending everything is fine. Forgiving isn’t forgetting. Forgiveness has nothing to do with deserving.

That’s why a crucial step toward forgiveness, is accepting the fact that there’s nothing you can do to change the people who hurt you. There’s no way that you can shame, manipulate, humiliate, subtly torture, punish or hate them enough to force them to make up for what they did to you.

So why forgive? Because the single most important lesson to learn about forgiveness is that forgiveness is for the forgiver, not the forgiven! In the act of forgiving another, we free ourselves from the debilitating effects of chronic anger and resentment. In fact, the word, “resentment,” comes from the French ressentir, “to feel strongly and to feel again.”

When we feel resentful, we feel strongly the pain of the past again and again and again. Not only does this take a dramatic toll on our emotional well-being, it can have a powerful negative impact on our physical health. It’s been proven that anger and resentment can literally kill you! Arthritis, high blood pressure, cancer, strokes and migraines are just some of the ailments linked to resentment and anger.

A colleague of mine from NJ told me a story about a congregant of his that exquisitely makes this point. Some years ago, back when this congregant was a young man just starting out in business, he was cheated in a business deal. Someone took advantage of him, and he lost a lot of money—money that he didn’t have to spare. And so he became really angry—and rightly so.

This man lived in New Jersey, but commuted to work in New York. And so every single day—5 days a week for more than 20 years—he drove to and from work on the NJ Turnpike. And every time he had to pass exit 9, the New Brunswick exit—which was the exit where the man who had cheated him lived—he would think of this man, and of what he had done to him, and he would curse him. He would let out a string of profanity as he slammed his fist onto the steering wheel—ranting and raving until his face turned red. He did this every morning and evening as he passed exit 9.

It got to the point where his wife began to worry about his health, because she could see how agitated and how aggravated he became. She was afraid that he was going to have a stroke. But there was nothing she could do that would stop him from blowing a gut every time he passed Exit 9.

          Then, one day, he happened to meet someone who knew the man who had cheated him, and so he asked him, “Do you remember so and so? Do you happen to know whatever became of him?” And the man said, “Sure I remember him. He died about 15 years ago.”

          That was the day this man realized that he had been working himself up into a frenzy—risking his health, ranting and raving for 15 years—for a man who was long since dead. That was the day that he realized that there must be a statute of limitations on carrying a grudge, because who was he hurting with his ranting and raving?

That is why the cardinal rule of forgiveness is: “No matter what someone else has done to you, the only person hurt by your anger and resentment, is you.” You become ready for the healing power of forgiveness when you decide that life is too short, too precious to waste by simply giving it away to someone who hurt you. Don’t give them that power over you. Instead, choose to spend your time on that which gives you joy, health, fulfillment and love.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes of the following incident:

A woman once came to me and poured out her anger against her husband. “Do you know what he did to me? I got him through medical school and then he left me and married that no good floozie of a secretary?” And she went on and on and on and on, telling me in gory detail how he had mistreated her and how he had neglected the children and how he had to be chased to pay the children’s tuition.

          Finally I interrupted her, and said, “I think you should let it go.” 

 “What???” she said, “I should let it go, after what he did to me?”

“Yes, “I said, “you should let it go, not for his sake, but for yours. Because for 10 years now you have been holding a hot coal in your hand, waiting for your ex to walk by so that you could throw it at him. And for 10 years now, he has been living a happy life with his new wife and you have been burning your hand…If you wouldn’t let him live in your house, rent free, why on earth do you let him live in your mind rent free? Isn’t it time that you put the coal down, and got on with your life?”

Kushner’s example is interesting, because, here, a strong case could be made for her not forgiving “ex” because he has not done teshuva, apologized nor done anything to rectify his despicable behavior. So he suggested that if she can’t bring herself to forgive him, that at least she should let it go and not to fixate on her anger.

I think Rabbi Kushner is on to something. Perhaps some of the thrust of our tradition in teaching us to forgive those who have hurt us—whether they deserve our forgiveness or not—may be in order to help us rid ourselves of the bitterness, the resentment, the hatred, that can paralyze us—giving those who have hurt us an undeserved victory. Perhaps it’s for our sake that we forgive others…more than it is for their sake. Besides, being hurt by others might just be a lesson, a test of sorts that life challenges us with. So let it go and pass the test.

There’s a beautiful tradition for Jews before and on Yom Kippur to ask everyone you know to forgive you if you ever caused them any slight or pain and to say that you forgive them. It can be a powerful exercise, even though it can seem a bit awkward. I did it with you a few years ago and tonight I’d like to do it again in order to get us started in the work of Yom Kippur. When I tell you, I want everyone to rise and turn to the person on your right and then on your left—even if you are not close to them—and simply read the Teshuva Dialogue found on the back page of your Yom Kippur Bulletin—and read it like you mean it. 1st I’ll say it to you:

I forgive you if you have ever hurt me in the year that has past and I ask you to forgive me if I have hurt you. I want you in my life this coming year. You are important to me, and so I pray that Gd will grant you a year of health and happiness.

OK, now you do it now. Please rise.

Please be seated. And there is one more reason why we should try to forgive. The truth is—although we don’t like to admit it—that we probably have slandered just as much as we have been slandered; that we probably have undercut as much as we have been undercut; that we probably have insulted, just as much as we have been insulted. The only difference is that when we do it, we justify it and forgive ourselves. But when it is done to us, we blow up, demanding retribution.

Let me prove it to you. It’s a very simple test. If I were to ask you how many times during this past year has someone done you wrong, could you think of one? Can you think of 2 times that someone has insulted you or betrayed your trust or gossiped about you or let you down? Can you think of 3 or 4?  I bet you could.

Now, comes the harder part of this test. If I were to ask you to think of one time when you have done wrong to someone else during this last year, could you think of one? Perhaps, but I bet you would have a tough time thinking of 2. It’s much easier to think of times when we’ve been hurt than it is to think of times when we have hurt.

An old joke has one man saying to his friend, “Whenever my wife and I argue, she gets historical.”

          “No,” the friend says, “You mean hysterical.”

          “No,” he says, “I mean historical. She recounts everything I did wrong for the past 25 years!”

As a couples therapist I can tell you indisputably, that does no one any good.

And so I pray that you and I may develop, not only a good memory to remember the good things in this New Year, but also—as Rabbi Hillel Silverman used to say—a good “forgettery” as well. Because without a good forgettery you really cannot live. If you hold on to every insult, and every harsh word, and every misdeed that has ever been done to you, you’ll become so weighed down by this burden that you can barely walk or breathe or live.

So let’s forgive each other, because we need each other so much. And let’s forgive each other, so that, when our lives have to have tzores in them—and evidently that is the way the world is made—let it at least not be tzores that we inflict upon each other.

Let me finish with 4 lines that I love—4 lines that I think summarize all that I have been trying to say to you tonight. They come from the poet, Peter Himmelman, who is Bob Dylan’s son-in-law. He writes:

I have believed in money, and all I got was greed.

I have believed in vengeance, and all I did was bleed.

I have believed in fame, and fame turned its back on me.  If I had only learned to love, I would have been set free.

May we learn how to let go of the anger and the bile that we carry around inside us that chokes us and that keeps us from love. And let’s forgive and let go so that we may live. May this New Year be a good year, a peaceful year, a year in which we give and get forgiveness, both from our Father in heaven, and to and from the people with whom we live and love here on earth. And to this, let us all say: Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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