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S'lichot: Forgiveness Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

S’lichot—Saturday, August 31, 2013

When the German government issued a formal apology for the Holocaust, delivered at the Knesset in the year 2000 by then German President Johannes Rau, it was quite controversial. Some members of the Knesset boycotted the speech, objecting both to being addressed in the German language and to the idea that an apology could be offered. Israel’s acceptance of German reparations in the 1950’s had deeply divided Israeli society even though the reparations came at a time when they were sorely needed to help provide for the new immigrants who had flocked to the country.

Rau spoke with great humility, not only about regret for the past, but also making commitments for the future including educating German young people and building a Holocaust Memorial and Museum in the heart of unified Berlin. He did not mince words about German responsibility, but he also pointed to the changes that had taken place in German government and society to insure that this would never be repeated.

It was in many ways everything that an apology should be – but accepting it was difficult. Those who should have received that apology, were of course gone. The survivors were reluctant to offer forgiveness on their behalf. Yet it had been Elie Wiesel who had urged this apology seeing it as a vital step in German society’s coming to terms with the Holocaust and as a model to the world community. The apology did lead to new relationships between Israelis sand Germans born after the war and Germany being an important ally of the Jewish state.

An apology cannot undo what was done. It doesn’t diminish the wrongness of an act, and offering forgiveness does not mean that we are minimizing what has happened. But apology and forgiveness can go far in diminishing pain and in rebuilding relationships.

The documentary, “The Power of Forgiveness”, that some of us saw this evening, stresses that forgiveness is not a feeling that comes over us, but instead it is a choice that we make. It means rewriting the story that we have been telling ourselves over and over about the injustice done to us. Rewriting that story not only helps repair our relationships with others, but is also beneficial to our own emotional well being and, as significantly, to our physical health.

Most of our issues are about much more minor things than President Rau’s. They are not played out on the stage of world diplomacy, but in the intimacy of our relations with family, friends and co-workers. Yet they often seem as difficult and the barriers as insurmountable.

It is a Jewish custom before the holidays to go to family and friends and say:

“If I have offended you in the past year in any way, I am sorry, truly sorry, and I ask your forgiveness”

And if someone comes to you in this way, our tradition encourages you to extend forgiveness. It’s a ritual, a formula, it may seem to some insignificant, but I think it’s an excellent first step.

Yes, it would be better to speak directly to the bumps in the relationship, the things said that perhaps should have been unsaid, the times we acted or didn’t act in ways that were not as kind or compassionate as we aspire to be. But just looking someone in the eye and acknowledging in spoken words that we recognize our own wrongdoing and that we are willing to risk talking to you about it, is an amazing step. In our traditiona asking forgiveness is not a disgrace but an act of courage.

The time is not always right for an apology- the Mishnah teaches that we should not approach someone in the heat of their anger, or in the face of their immediate bereavement. There may also be circumstances where further discussion is more likely to inflame rather than calm down a situation. But on the whole I think we err more commonly in the other direction. While we let sleeping dogs lie, precious time goes by and our estrangements continue.

There are times when we aren’t ready to ask for forgiveness until the person we need to apologize to is gone. Just as we seem to become more interested in the stories of the old days, after those who could tell them are no longer around, the absence of a loved one may trigger in us, regret about the conversations we did not have. Jewish tradition, gives us opportunities through yizkor and yarzheits as well as during visits to the cemetery, to continue to work on what was difficult in our relationship.

There is one other person we have to forgive who is often forgotten. Let me give you a hint. There was once a certain Yankel, who was very kind and forgiving with all his neighbors. He seemed to live by the Biblical teaching, “love your neighbor as yourself”. Yet when the rabbi gave his pre-High Holiday sermon on forgiveness it seemed to Yankel that the rabbi was looking right at him and wagging his finger in his direction. After the service Yankel went up to the rabbi, “Rabbi, I just wanted to let you know, I have forgiven Shlomo for not returning my hoe and for ruining my shovel”. “Good,” said the rabbi, but he didn’t sound satisfied. “And I have made up with my brother-in-law over his wife taking mother’s ring, the one that was promised to my daughter.” “Wonderful”, said the rabbi, but he didn’t sound wonderful. “Rabbi, “ Yankel asked, “who else do I need to forgive? “I am sure by now it is obvious, that the person the rabbi wanted Yankel to forgive was himself.

We are sometimes much harder on ourselves than we would be on someone else in the same situation. To someone else we might say: “don’t be such a harsh taskmaster”, but we don’t necessarily say that to ourselves. One test of whether we are being fair to ourselves, is to ask, if my friend did this under these circumstances, and repented and changed their ways, would I find them worthy of forgiveness?

There is a lot about forgiveness that the Bible doesn’t tell us – does Eve ever talk to Cain, does Noah forgive Ham, what about Leah and Rachel-- but we do have one story in which a family is reconciled, that is the story of Joseph. Interestingly, there is evidence from the book of Jubilees that this was the earliest Torah reading for Yom Kippur, and the editors of the Reform movement’s new prayer book are considering reinstating it as a High Holy Day reading.

What could be more perfect for this time of year. Surely whatever someone has done to us this year, it is not worse than what the brothers did to Joseph, yet he manages to develop a different understanding of what has happened, one which allows him to be reconciled with his family. Retelling the story of our own hurts, can we tell a story that is more compassionate and nuanced? Offering forgiveness to others and finding it for ourselves allows us to begin a sweet new year.

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