Our sages tell a story of a wealthy landowner whose worker had accidentally dropped some crates, destroying their valuable content. The landowner took his worker to court, seeking restitution. The Judge, having heard the case, ruled that the law was on his side and that his employee owed him a lot of money. Then the Judge added: “Although the law dictates that your worker fully repay you, it is a large sum for him and meeting his obligation will put him through much hardship. I recommend, on the basis of Hesed (pure kindness), that you release him from his obligation. In so doing, you might hope that in the future someone else might extend to you the same Hesed someday when you’re in a similarly difficult position.” The landowner took the Judges advice and forgave his worker.
This is what forgiveness looks like. We all know people who don’t deserve kindness, generosity, or our faith in their unreliability. Someone slights you. Another demeans you. It is natural to return the disfavor. Yet Yom Kippur is when we note that the most disagreeable parts of a person are not the totality of a person. As racial-Justice champion Bryan Stevenson likes to say, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
What does God’s pardon look like? Kol Nidre’s summarizing forgiveness-verse does something surprising. “And it will be forgiven for all the congregation of the children of Israel and the alien who resides among them, because it was by mistake (bish’gaga) for all the people” (Num.15:26). God’s forgiveness for our past sins shifts intent – based on our sincere regret for, confession of, and resolve to not repeat a transgression – from malice to mistake. We meant the wrong we did at the time we committed it. It was intentional. But now, if we sincerely repent, we are saying if we had the identical opportunity, we would not do it. If it did happen, it would be an accident.
You may ask, “If the impact of an accidental hurt is the same as the impact of an egregious hurt, then why does such a shift in intent matter?” It matters because we all want to live in a world where badness is in decline. We far prefer a world where mistakes happen than a world where malice is habitual.
Having glimpsed what forgiveness looks like at Kol Nidre, may we all experience what it feels like – as granters and receivers of it – by Neilah.