The Essence of Forgiveness

Rabbi Dr. Zalman Kossowsky

Morai v'rabotai,

It is indeed a pleasure to write to you, and share in your Service (Avoda), for the Day of Judgement. Unlike the Shalosh Regalim -- the Pilgrimage Festivals -- even in the Holy Land Rosh Hashana is celebrated as a 2-day Festival. Tradition refers to it as a yoma arichta -- a long day -- a 48-hour day. Usually we have somewhat of a deja vue feeling on the second day, because it seems to be merely a repeat of the first. This year we are blessed that, because the First Day fell on Shabbat, we will have something new on the Second Day, namely the sounding of the Shofar.

Our Tradition tells us that one of the functions of the Shofar is to awaken us and to shake us out of our lethargy. These are the days that are special in our calendar. These are the days when, if we try, we can overcome the negativities of the past year.

I would like, in my message to you, to focus on a phrase that echoes all through these days. In fact, from the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, from Selichot on - through Rosh Hashana - and till the end of Yom Kippur -- in some form or another, we cry out:- "s'lach lanu, m'chal lanu, ka'per lanu -which we translate as forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement." Over and over, we are going to ask G'd -- s'lach lanu, m'chal lanu, ka'per lanu

What exactly are we asking for? While it would be logically possible for the three requests to be identical - one could after all say three times -- "forgive us, forgive us, forgive us" - our Rabbis did not interpret it that way. They understand each phrase to be a separate and different request.

My teachers used to explain the difference using the following analogy: Imagine if one day, in a fit of anger against one's partner, or one's friend, a person proceeded to hammer a number of big nails down the length of the top of the dinning room table which the other person had received as a heirloom. Obviously when one's anger cooled down, one regretted those actions and one tried to fix the wrongdoing. This, my teachers said, is the starting point at which one begins to ask s'lach li, m'chal li, ka'per li - forgive me, pardon me, grant me atonement.

Forgiveness is analogous to the process of taking a pair of pliers and pulling the nails out of the tabletop. Now the table is again usable in the sense that the nails are gone, but the damage is very visible. One would not be able to invite others to the table unless one put a cloth over the table. However, even this is difficult because the edges of the holes are rough with splinters. If one was to put a tablecloth on the table, these splinters could not only snag and damage the fabric of the cloth, but the uneven surface could also cause wineglasses to tip over.

So a higher level of correction and repair is required, namely to remove the splinters and to smooth down the wood surface, so that one can safely put a tablecloth, even a precious one, on the table without risk of damage. This is akin to the process of m'chila -- pardon. This is a significant level of repair and correction, however, one still cannot use the table in public without a tablecloth because of the holes that mar the tabletop.

There remains therefore the need for a further process of repair in which the holes are filled in and the surface treated so as to mask the original damage. This, my teachers said, is what happens at the level of kapara - atonement.

That is the theoretical explanation of these three concepts. It is also possible to transfer this analogy to our own personal lives. Thankfully, most of us could not imagine ever doing something as malicious as putting nails in our partner's precious furniture, however, when we expand our focus beyond our immediate families, then there are very few of us who can honestly claim that we have never committed even the emotional equivalent of putting a nail in someone else's tabletop.

So this process is something that should interest all of us. In Chassidic thought there is a perspective that says that every individual can experience three different levels of golus -- of exile, each one more painful than the previous. The first is when Jews are in exile among the nations. The second is when Jews are in exile among Jews. And the third is when a Jew is exiled within his family, within himself.


I would like, this morning, to look at the second and third levels. I am convinced that most of our communal, and even personal problems occur at these levels.

For instance, we all know of families whose members are in exile; alienated from each other, families whose members do not speak to each other. My friends, there are indeed parents who do not speak to their children and children who do not speak to their parents. There are siblings who do not speak to each other. There are long time friends who are estranged from each other.

What makes the situation even sadder is that often when one asks, "How did it start? When did it start?" one discovers that no one in the family remembers exactly what caused the impasse. No one knows its genesis, but the deadlock continues without end.

On these Days of Awe, we come to ask forgiveness from G'd. Our tradition knows that we are not perfect. The Jewish view of human nature is expressed in the Bible in the book of Ecclesiastes 7:20. "There is no human being on earth who has done good and has not sinned."

On Yom Kippur we will hold up a mirror to our inner soul. We will recite the Al Chet at each of the services not only in public aloud, but also in private, in silence when no one can hear our confession except we ourselves and G'd. Each time we will call out - "s'lach lanu, m'chal lanu, ka'per lanu forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement .

And we expect G'd to do just that, at least to forgive us, if not pardon us but hopefully also grant us atonement. My friends, have you ever asked yourself why G'd should do that? After all, for all those who have, in our opinion, wronged us, have hammered nails into our tabletops, have we forgiven them? And if we have already forgiven, whom have we pardoned? But even more importantly, how many people have we allowed the opportunity to atone? How many times have we opened ourselves up to others so that the damaged relationship can not only be repaired, but also rebuilt?

In Judaism we understand that the goal of human existence is d'vekut -- coming close to G'd. However, given that G'd is Infinite, and thus has no form this closeness can only express itself in the emulation of G'd's ways. G'd is the ideal, the model to be emulated by us in our relationships in life, between us and our family and friends. The rabbis spelled out the moral correlation, "As G'd is merciful, be thou merciful. As G'd is compassionate, be thou compassionate. As G'd forgives, you, forgive."

My friends, eight days after Rosh Hashana we will observe Yom Kippur. What are we going to do over this next week? And even more importantly, what are we going to do over the rest of the coming year?

I would like to end with two short stories. The first is a Yiddish folk anecdote that illustrates some of the difficulties that we might face when we attempt reconciliation. It is the story of Yankel who meets his former business partner Hershel in the foyer of the synagogue after such an inspiring drosha and says, "Hershel, I bear you no grudge. For this coming New Year, I wish you what you wish me." To which Hershel's immediate reaction is:- "So Yankel, shame on you. Why are you starting to fight with me again?"

The second is the Chassidic story of a man we will call Moshe, who came to visit his Rebbe for a Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, as was the custom in the olden days. On Friday night he had a dream. He dreamed that he was walking with the Rebbe when he saw a house that was giving off a great deal of light. When they walked into the house, he saw that it was filled with many different lamps. Some of the lamps were burning bright, some were dim, and some were almost flickering out. He turned to the Rebbe and asked, "What is this?"

The Rebbe replied, "Each lamp is a different soul living in the Shtetl. The ones burning bright are in the prime of life. The ones low on oil and flickering are people who are dying. When the lamp goes out, the person dies."

They continued to walk through the house. Suddenly he saw a lamp with his name flickering in the corner. It looked as if it was about to be extinguished. Moshe panicked, and looked around for some more oil to pour into his lamp so it would burn brighter. He started to take oil from another brightly burning lamp. But a hand stopped him. "That is not how it works here. Your lamp does not burn brighter when you take oil from someone else. On the contrary, your lamp burns brighter when you give oil to someone else." Moshe picked up his flickering lamp and poured oil into several other lamps. When he put it down, the flame started burning brighter. And then he woke up.

Dear Friends -- in this coming week and year there are numerous choices which we are each going to face. At each of these crossroads I would like to suggest to you that you pause and reflect on these two stories. My blessing to all of us is that we choose well.

Shana tova -- u'ketiva vachatima tova.