Jews spend a lot of time thinking about forgiveness once Rosh Hashanah rolls around. I assume it is mostly because of fear; after all, the ‘books of life and death are open’ before God shouldn’t we make sure we are in the clear? And so, we prepare ourselves for the ‘high holidays’ in which we will ask God for forgiveness many times, hoping for atonement. This is felt more significantly on Yom Kippur which is a day entirely invested in the experience of asking God for forgiveness (al chet…), but it certainly begins on Rosh Hashanah, which, though it’s a ‘holiday’ in which we enjoy wonderful food, it is nevertheless part of the ‘days of awe’. We feel this most directly when we recite the frightening prayer of unetane tokef, and specifically when we cry out, ‘who will live, who will die, who in the right time, who will be cut down, who by fire, who by water’.
The prayer reaches a crescendo when the entire congregation calls out uteshuva utefila utzedaka maavirim et roa hagezeira (repentance, prayer and tzedakah have the power to break the evil decree). Thus, the first step is asking for forgiveness, and Jews take this act seriously, desperately and unabashedly crying out to God for all our misdeeds. To God, we are all lowly sinners and we are not ashamed to cry before Him and confess our transgressions.
But then there is the matter of confessing our sins to our fellow brothers and sisters—here is where it gets even harder. A story is told of a devoted worshiper who was pouring out his heart at the nighttime prayer in the synagogue. “God forgive me, I am nothing, I am dust, I am a shameful sinner, I am nothing”. Then in the morning during Torah reading, he noticed he was passed up for an aliyah which instead was given to someone else. He immediately started yelling, ‘How dare you! Do you know how much I give to this synagogue? And you passed me for this shmendrick?”
The sainted rabbi quickly approached and said, ‘I don’t understand, just last night you were saying you were nothing, you were dust’. The man responded: ‘True, to God I am nothing, but to that idiot…” And so, we are willing to degrade ourselves before God, but it is much harder to do so before our peers, yet, we muster up the courage and engage in the ritual of calling people and asking them for forgiveness.
To ask involves a bit of embarrassment, a humbling of one’s ego, a recognition of the frailty of the human condition; so it pains us, but we do it, eventually. But this experience pales in comparison to the final level of forgiveness—bestowing it!
Asking for forgiveness involves one set of character traits, using one’s ‘humility muscles’; giving forgiveness on the other hand involves a whole other area of human nature—compassion, love, and respect.
When Rabbi Akiva spoke about the ‘most important ideal in Torah’ of ‘love of your neighbor’, he wasn’t referring to the friendly, generous, lovable neighbor, but to the annoying one! To the one who doesn’t always respect you, or perhaps makes a joke at your expense; or perhaps one who actively wrongs you, steals from you, or worse! How can you find a way to love that individual?
The answer is that to forgive is divine. If God created an entire season based on forgiveness, we can find it in our hearts to do the same. It hurts, we are the victim here, we deserve the compassion, not them; a grudge is a grudge for a reason; and yet, when there is a sincere plea for forgiveness, our response can be divine in nature.
Or it can be very human. It’s up to us.
This season let us seriously take upon ourselves the mitzvah of forgiveness. Let us ask God to fulfill His extraordinary design of atoning for our sins when we ask for teshuva; let us remember that complete forgiveness doesn’t transpire until we are ready to step on our pride and submit ourselves to the one whom we wronged. And let us then take that final step closer to the divine when we muster up the courage and perhaps a seemingly nonsensical effort to confront our own sense of justice, of victimhood, of righteousness in saying three of the most powerful, divine words—I forgive you.