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September 5, 2020

A Rabbi’s Soul-Shaking Lesson in Forgiveness.

It was my second Yom Kippur as a newly ordained rabbi, and I had the honor of delivering the sermon—on forgiveness—to thousands of congregants.

Yom Kippur is the most solemn holy day in the Jewish calendar.

Each word of my sermon had been carefully crafted; each text meticulously explained.

I spoke about my personal struggles with repairing relationships within my own family.

The energy in the room was palpable. I felt satisfied with my content and delivery, and I was fairly sure that it (the sermon) would be reviewed positively at the plethora of post-fast gatherings that would commence at sundown.

As the service ended, congregants began to gather around me, even before I was able to collect my papers and prayer books and make my way from the podium from where I had spoken. I recognized most of them, despite the fact that many were not regular synagogue attendees.

One gentleman with a familiar face waited by the side until the small gathering of supporters departed. He approached me with a slightly tentative look on his face, never introducing himself, and began to speak with me as if we had known each other for quite some time.

He said, “Rabbi, I want you to know that your sermon really touched me. I’ve struggled with forgiveness for a long time, and your words really made me think about it in a way I haven’t been able to think about it before. I would love to have a copy so I can revisit it and think about it over the coming weeks.”

I knew he looked familiar, but I just couldn’t place him—maybe a member of the board? Did he sit behind the bagel table on Sunday mornings or attend our intimate alternative Saturday morning prayer service? I wasn’t quite sure, and I wasn’t going to pretend that I remembered his name—a lesson I learned from a mentor that had always served me well.

“That’s so wonderful,” I said, “And I’m a little embarrassed because I know that you look so familiar, but I can’t place your face. Can you please remind me what your name is?”

The moment he revealed his name, I felt the whole sanctuary spinning around me. I did not know this man personally. Rather, I knew him from the national media coverage of his son’s tragic murder, a case that had been the focus of international news coverage…for years.

I was utterly dumbfounded. My artistically crafted words suddenly felt shallow and superficial. It never occurred to me that I would preach that morning to someone who had suffered such great loss.

On the other hand, if this man—who had suffered the death of his son in a horrific and public manner—could even contemplate the act of forgiveness, perhaps all of us should reconsider how we make peace with those who challenge us.

Recently, I found that sermon hidden away in a pile of papers from those early days of my rabbinate. As I read it, I rolled my eyes at my naiveté, remembering those years, and recalling my lack of experience as both a rabbi and a human being.

And yet, I was now able to read it with a deeper understanding of his perspective—even though I could never truly comprehend the pain of his personal loss of the death of a child (and God willing, I never will). In the 20 years that have passed since I wrote that offering, I’ve suffered loss, hurt, and pain that I could not have possibly imagined as my younger self.

I pictured myself sitting in the congregation, listening to those words, contemplating, considering my own behavior and responses to those who have betrayed me. It was as if I wrote that sermon to be rediscovered at a time in my life when those words would speak to me as they spoke to the man who approached me long ago.

Yes, there are times—many times—that I still struggle with letting go, forgiving, and making peace. But deep in my heart of hearts, I understand that the only one who suffers from holding on to that anger and resentment is me. And the more that I am able to find forgiveness for those who have hurt me, the more I will be able to live, and love, without boundary.

As the warmth of summer begins to turn to hints of autumn, and Yom Kippur inches closer, my thoughts turn to these universal themes of taking an accounting of our deeds and making amends with those we have wronged.

No matter what religion one may (or may not) practice, I cannot imagine a ritual as essential as turning soul-ward, seeking forgiveness from those we have hurt, accepting apologies from others, and clearing our slates.

During these days of introspection and reflection, may we all be blessed with growth, with increased insight, and with compassion to see the world in a light that is reflective of our deepest truths.

~

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