Here we are, gathered together in the holy of holies of Jewish time. And the central theme of this time is forgiveness. So what is forgiveness? What, if anything, is unforgivable?
Yom Kippur is the day on which Moses descended Mt Sinai with the second set of tablets and the Jewish people were forgiven for the sin of worshiping the golden calf. Debbie Masel said, “Today Jews throughout the world stand together, barefooted, as their collective act of repentance opens the gates of heaven to flood the world with the light of forgiveness.”
The thoughts that I am going to share are largely based on ideas from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.
He cites Maimonides who rules that if a person does not apologise one is still “free to forgive.”
It is interesting to me to frame forgiveness as a human freedom. Because even though one might have been personally assaulted, violated or hurt, he can still choose to transcend passive victimhood and become an autonomous agent of forgiveness and positive change.
Forgiveness is the radical circuit breaker of violence. When a cycle of violence or hatred has been enduring, forgiveness can be the unexpected human response which has the potential to be transformative of a culture of conflict. As Rabbi Sacks says: “Because of forgiveness we are not condemned endlessly to replay the conflicts of the past. And that is why forgiveness is logically and psychologically related to hope.”
This magnanimous human decision to forgive requires the forgiver to be moved to prioritise the future over the past. To place relationship at the centre.
When you are facing the future you can forgive, because what matters to you is not what happened but what can be re-built. Being unable to forgive is being tied to a strong sense of reverence to the past and maybe even a loyalty to our own pain. R Sacks says: “We should not ask what happened to our grandparents, we should ask what kind of world do we want to create for our grandchildren?”
I am not saying that we should be expected to pursue close relationships with those who have wronged us, but thatforgiveness allows the forgiver to discharge a heavy burden and contemplate another reality. It frees us up.
Forgiving does not mean forgetting. It means living with the past but not living in the past, and if this is the case, is there anything that is unforgiveable?
Let me quote from one of the world’s greatest forgivers, Nelson Mandela, who said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
We have a chance today to put to bed our old burdens. May we all travel lighter and redirect our energy towards today’s palace of time and tomorrow’s spiritual opportunity.