Forgiving, seeking forgiveness, in a wounded world… Between gassings in Syria, rape, mutilation and murder in India and recall elections by folks who can’t stand that the majority voted against gun slinging in Colorado last November, I get angry and lose faith in human decency sometimes. Add to that the news tidbit that one third of the world’s food is wasted due to ‘consumer mishandling’ and I get annoyed at myself too. The human condition is ever what it was and always will be, that’s for sure. Still we are duty bound to work on self improvement. Jesus says as much when he says the poor will always be with us, and the Jewish sages who wrote that even though we can never complete the task of repairing the world’s ills, we are never free to walk away (Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of the Fathers).
For Jews, this time of year is the time of repentance and forgiving. By sundown on Yom Kippur Jews must make up to three attempts to seek forgiveness for any personal harm done to anyone in the past year. Once a year, jews have this helpful deadline to kick them into ethical action if they managed to deny, suppress or forget how easily we can do harm. And often, we do it willingly. How painful and humbling to recognize this, and how great an opportunity to repair what we can. How tragic if we give up our chance.
If you’ve ever sought forgiveness from someone you know the pain to your pride and the lightness in your step afterwards. It takes a lot to find the one I’ve harmed, apologize without adding excuses, and to ask forgiveness. And I am not in control of their response. It is not my business if they refuse to see me and refuse to forgive me. Jewish ethics teach we must approach the person up to three times, and only then, if refused, we can place our request before God for divine forgiveness. Judaism is a religion of attempting to grow into relationship: God is like our moms who make us go work it out with the other kid first, only intervening if that fails. And then both kids get a swat, right?
Another aspect about “three” and forgiveness in Judaism is the three ways we are forgiven. Select lanu means ‘pardon me, I’m sorry, I regret it and won’t do it again.’ In this case the other person is required to pardon us.
Mechal lanu asks for the aggrieved to “wipe away my wrongdoing,” as if it never happened, it’s been forgotten as well as forgiven, and we’re good with each other again. This is tougher on the person we harmed, but with God’s help he or she can do it and is obligated to try. Believe me, I’d need God’s help forgiving some of the big things I’ve suffered, and a chocolate martini as well in order to ask forgiveness for the bigger offenses I’ve inflicted. It takes real humility to attempt it.
Kapper lanu is the height of ‘atonement.’ This is the big one. It means, ‘I can’t live with myself for what I did to you. I hurt over it. Please heal me by forgiving me.’ Who can have this much power over me? What mortal can reach into my heart and transform my suffering? Of course, only God can accomplish some healings, for it is sometimes too much to ask of another. Not every breach between two people can be repaired, but God can heal our separate suffering.
My favorite thing about Yom Kippur is the Kabbalistic idea that on this day, the soul is inclined closest to God, just as planets are closest to the Sun in a certain time of their year’s journey around it. On this “good day” we are most open to and aided by that grace. It is our opportunity to rejoin ourselves to each other and to God.