I don’t anticipate having a chance to write for next week’s paper– the week of Rosh Hashanah is just a little busy for rabbis in the pulpit– so I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing a thought that, though a few days early for the holiday itself, is actually timely for the Shabbat of S’lichot, the penitential prayers recited on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.
The High Holidays and the weeks leading up to them are primarily thought of as a season of penitence and atonement, and with good cause. All of the magnificent liturgical poetry that is recited only on the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is designed to promote in us a sense of the urgency of the moment. Spiritually and metaphorically speaking, our destiny for the coming year is predicated on our ability to successfully “do the work” of t’shuvah, or repentance.
Hopefully, throughout the month of Elul leading up to the holidays themselves, we have been doing just that. In order to atone for our sins, we have to admit that we have not always been at our best, and that requires looking at ourselves honestly, without our accustomed defensiveness, and recognizing that we are, indeed, in need of God’s forgiveness.
But it is not God’s forgiveness alone that we are in need of. A famous and oft quoted teaching of the Mishnah relates that all of the liturgy and rituals of Yom Kippur are only effective on those sins which we commit against God, like idolatry. Those sins which we may have committed against friends, family or acquaintances require a sincere, verbalized apology directly to the affected party, and, if appropriate, restitution of any losses that might have resulted from our misdeeds.
That text is so often taught and invoked at this time of year that I fear it too often loses its power.
We spend a great deal of time and effort over the holidays focusing on God’s forgiveness, and that is an unqualified good thing. Being alienated from God, or, more to the point, the idea of God being alienated from us, is existentially terrifying to a believing person. God craves our closeness, and loves us despite our imperfections. But how much better would our lives be, and our families and communities, if we spent as much time working on forgiving each other as we do worrying about God forgiving us?
I’ve learned a lot of things over the years of my rabbinate, far too many to list in a brief article. But arguably, the most important lesson that has been brought home to me time and again is that life is short, and the length of any given life is totally unpredictable. I’m sure you’ve heard that said thousands of times, but until someone that you love and can’t live without suddenly becomes seriously ill or dies, you can’t adequately wrap your brain around the fundamental truth of that statement.
Some arguments and fights that we have with friends and family are over serious issues, and repairing them is much more difficult than just a simple apology, even if offered in earnest. But what I’ve also learned is that most of those arguments and fights are over smaller, pettier things. We don’t have enough time to waste months or years being estranged from the people who matter to us, or who should.
We arrogantly think we have the time, but all too often we learn that we don’t. It’s not just a question of finding the wherewithal to ask forgiveness of someone we may have wronged. It’s also about cultivating the capacity to be forgiving of them when they come to us seeking to make amends. It’s not easy to forgive. But how can we expect God to forgive us if we can’t forgive others?
In that spirit, please accept my very best wishes for a new year that will be sweet, healthy, and blessed with peace. And may we all be privileged to be forgiven of our sins, and to be forgiving as well.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.