Yom Kippur is known as the Day of Atonement, the day when we are forgiven for our sins. It’s not a simple, magical ritual that automatically wipes the slate clean.
Judaism acknowledges that God can only forgive for sins between “Man and God,” for sins that occur between “Man and Man,” between a person and his or her neighbor, the forgiveness must happen between them.
Why do people need to forgive in the first place?
It says in the Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This mitzvah seems so obvious a child can understand it. “If I am just like everyone else then I shouldn’t do something to someone else that I know would hurt me.” Yet people do not always listen to this mitzvah, and they sometimes hurt each other. After being hurt, the pain, the lack of understanding why — why would someone do something so irrational as to hurt another human being!? — could make someone want to put up a wall against the person who hurt them.
It says in a midrash (interpretation of Jewish texts) that God created the world with the quality of Din and saw that no one could survive, so God threw in the quality of Rachamim. “Din” means strict judgment — if a person does good, they receive good; if a person does bad, they receive bad. If we lived this way, considering the amount of mistakes people make, we could not last long. “Rachamim” is the quality of mercy. In this spirit, forgiveness means taking the wall down that we have put in front of our heart.
It’s Easy to Hold a Grudge
After being hurt it is easy to hold a grudge, to hold on to the thorn that we believe was put in our heart by whoever hurt us, and to point the finger of blame at whoever we believe to be guilty. A person could blame not only individuals, but also “the system” or “society.” What I have learned is that to hold a grudge against someone takes energy, as if I were holding a heavy object against a wall, If someone wanted me to give him hug, or if I wanted to paint or cook, I wouldn’t be able to to it because my hands would be occupied by holding that object up. So, too, when I am holding a grudge against someone, I have to burn psychological calories to keep that grudge there. That is energy could be used for something else, to be more loving in a relationship, to engage in acts of creativity or kindness, but until I put down that grudge, that energy is stuck maintaining a wound from the past. Forgiveness is putting down the thorn of anger in our hearts, allowing that wound to heal and opening our hands.
Another midrash says before God created the world, He created Teshuva. Teshuva has many meanings: On a most basic level, it means to “return”; on a more practical level, it means to regret our mistakes and to turn toward goodness. People make mistakes. Sometimes we even do things we know are not good for us. If we hold a grudge against ourselves and others for not doing what is best for us, we could spend a very long time being stuck over something that has happened in the past. Teshuva on its highest level means to return to the Infinite Source from which we all come. Teshuva existed before the creation of the world, and therefore before time; therefore, teshuva allows us to start over and step out of slavery to the past. Our ability to return, to fix our actions, was created even before our ability to act.
Yom Kippur is the day of “atonement” – of “at-One-ment.” When we forgive, we are also doing teshuva and are able to stand spiritually in that place before creation. Before the past, before the future, we are able to stand in the Infinite present moment in which God is recreating the world – making “something out of nothing” – every single second. When we forgive, we are returning to God, we are returning to Love and we are setting ourselves free. We are affirming the possibility of goodness and life for whoever hurt us, which is what we, to, would wish for ourselves notwithstanding our mistakes.
May the Almighty bless us that this Yom Kippur we are forgiven by God, by ourselves and by each other, and may we all be written and sealed for a good and sweet year in the Book of Life!
Author: Eitan Press
Staff Writer, United with Israel