Atonement – a sermon on forgiveness for Yom Kippur

Today is the day before Yom Kippur – the holiest of the High Holy Days in the Jewish calendar. It follows Rosh Hashana, the start of the Jewish New Year, and is preceded by the days of repentance leading up to Yom Kippur. In the Jewish tradition, the New Year is more than a date on a calendar, a party or a set of resolutions. Each year, it marks the need we all have – to get right with the universe, God and our fellow human beings, to begin again with a clean heart and to resolve to do better. The time between the New Year and Yom Kippur, which is literally, the “Day of Atonement,” is the time we take to reflect on our thoughts and deeds. Today falls on such a day.

It is also a day following a week where the world remembered the terrorist attacks of September 11th ; a week when Canadian families received the news that American soldiers were charged with manslaughter in the deaths of their sons and brothers – but no Afghani families received such news; a week when all over the world, people paused to remember acts that for many – are incomprehensible and even unforgivable. Humanity is in need of reflection, forgiveness and healing every day of our lives, but this year, Yom Kippur seems particularly poignant. How do we begin to seek atonement for such acts? How do we remember Yom Kippur this year? What must we say or do to begin?

To understand what happens in the heart on Yom Kippur, you must understand a few things about traditional Jewish theology that are very similar to our Unitarian Universalist theology. One is that we are given free choice as human beings, and thus bear responsibility for the goodness or evil of our own actions. So, we are neither saved nor damned by God’s choices the way Calvin, for example, believed – but by the effects of our own choices during our lives.

The second is that despite a profound belief in God, the Jewish religion is hugely concerned with the actions of human beings. Like our humanist forbears, Jews believe that religion is mostly about how human beings treat each other, not only about how God treats us. The days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are meant to be days of repentance when you do everything that you can to purify your heart for the “Day of Atonement,” Yom Kippur.

In the Jewish rite of repentance or teshuvah (meaning literally to turn around, to go the other way,) there are four steps. The first is to acknowledge wrongdoing and express regret. Second is to make amends or give compensation. Third is a promise to avoid a repetition of the hurtful act – to “go and sin no more” as the Bible puts it. And fourth and finally, is to ask for forgiveness first of the one you have wronged, and then, and then only, of God. After all these acts have been performed, you may go to the temple on Yom Kippur and seek reunion – Atonement, or “at-one-ment” – within yourself, within your community, and with God. Then the New Year can truly begin.

I have always admired the rigor of the ritual following Rosh Hashana and leading up to Yom Kippur. The list of resolutions that most of us have broken in the first few weeks of our New Year seem like a pale substitute for this honest accounting of our human failings and our profound need for forgiveness – both of ourselves and of each other. Unitarians are sometimes accused of being “soft on sin” – and it’s true that our religion believes in and tries to grow the essential goodness in human nature. But we do have eyes – eyes that can look outward to a very troubled world, and eyes that can look inward to the ways in which we all fall short of our ideals – Unitarian, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Atheist alike.

So you must begin the act of repentance by saying “I admit it. I was wrong, and I am sorry.” On reflection I realized that many, many acts of possible repentance and many people don’t make it past this stage. Acknowledging wrong requires a certain amount of insight and humility to start. It requires letting go of the need to be right or righteous, letting go of a need to be perfect or beyond reproach. It requires a small measure of “at-one-ment” where you recognize the connection between your actions and other’s feelings, and you recognize that you are as capable as the next person of messing up, and probably do it just as often.

Saying “Sorry” is not easy, either. The line that popped up on coffee mugs and posters in the 1970s from the book and movie “Love Story” was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I never understood it much, and now that I know a lot more about love than I did then, I know that it is absolutely 100 % wrong! In my experience, love means learning how to say you’re sorry and saying it on a very regular basis, maybe even more often than needed! Say you’re sorry when you’re wrong and throw in a few extra “sorrys” from time to time just as insurance!

Peter and I listened to a comedian one day on the radio and he said “Men, to be married, all you need to know are 4 words. “Oh. Yeah. Right. Sorry.” Then you just use them in different combinations!” They work well for men, but I can tell you as a woman that they are pretty important for us too – for all human beings, as a matter of fact – however we are related and inter-related, whoever we love and whenever we find ourselves at odds with our best selves. “Oh. Yeah. You’re right. I’m sorry.” It’s incredible the effect those few words can have. I’ve been amazed at the times in my life when I’ve said I was sorry at the magic it worked. Both times it was amazing! (That joke was for Peter by the way!)

It has to be a genuine sorry as well. They will have to forgive me, but in our family, we have what we call the “Sorry not Sorry).” It dates from when a young family member (who shall remain nameless) was about 4 and his little sister was about 2. Frequently he seemed to do things that as far as his parents felt – put him in need of forgiveness. Like most children, “Tell your sister you’re sorry” was something he heard on a regular basis, and this is what he would say “SOR-ry!” Technically, it was an apology, but it left something to be desired in the sincerity department. So, a “Sorry not Sorry” in our usage is one you don’t really mean.

Adults say this kind of sorry all the time – only we are better at dressing it up so that it actually looks or sounds somewhat like a real apology. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is one of the most common versions you hear. Think about it. What does that really mean? It most definitely doesn’t mean “I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry for my actions. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” It’s more like “I’m sorry you’re such a jerk you think I did you wrong.” It’s a “SOR-ry!” Sorry not Sorry!

If you can move beyond the acknowledgment of wrongdoing and hurt, the next stop on the way to forgiveness is “re-dress” or compensation. This step is a key one in communities that are trying to rethink justice, punishment and healing in new ways – like the restorative justice movement in prison reform, the community sentencing that many indigenous groups employ or the long and complex process of reconciliation sought in post apartheid South Africa or in our own country.

What can I do to make it better? Can I pay you back, return what I took, speak about my actions so that others will learn from them and not repeat them? Do I need to hear your story and know the pain I have caused? Is there any way or anything that I can do to help make up for what I have done? In some cases, the answer is probably “No – there is nothing you can do.”

But many victims of crime report that serious attempts at redress and compensation, coupled with an acknowledgment of the wrong, and their telling of their story, bring them a measure of peace and healing that is not possible without these efforts. Say you are sorry, and say ‘What can I do?”
Third, the rite of “teshuvah” (or turning around) requires that you promise to change your behavior. This is not “cheap grace” where you do wrong today, say you’re sorry and are forgiven, and then turn around and do the same thing tomorrow. True repentance requires that you stop doing the hurtful thing! You say “I did it, I was wrong, I am so sorry and I will not do it any more.” You say these things to the people you have wronged, and if you really, really mean them then, on the days leading up to Yom Kippur, you may ask them for forgiveness, the fourth step in teshuvah. You say “Can you forgive me, will you forgive me?”

Forgiveness in Jewish theology is sought rather than bestowed. And most of all, human repentance and forgiveness must come before God’s forgiveness – a huge difference from traditional Christian theology that makes Jesus’ vicarious atonement payment for our sins. You must get right with your fellow human beings, with your community, ask for and receive human forgiveness before you can come before God with a true desire to begin anew. The words of the song set to music so beautifully by Mendelssohn express this desire so perfectly “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me that I might walk with a perfect heart before thee now and evermore.”

So much must come before forgiveness is possible! I think that the Jewish understanding of the power and complexity of our need for forgiveness meets us where we really live. Too often the notion of forgiveness is tossed around as if it was something that magically alights on your sleeve one day when you are not looking. Suddenly, it is time to forgive! It’s a facile understanding of forgiveness and human nature that says that if you dig deep enough, or if simply enough time passes, that forgiveness will enter your heart through some magical process. Anyone who has been well and truly hurt knows that it is not that simple.

I have shared with you before Simon Weisenthal’s book “The Sunflower” where he probes the true nature of forgiveness by asking many different people to reflect on a dying Nazi SS officer’s request for forgiveness. One of the answers I found most moving was that of Albert Speer – the only Nazi at Nuremburg to even get to stage one and admit his guilt and shame over wrongdoing.

Speer says “Even after twenty years of imprisonment in Spandau (prison), I can never forgive myself for recklessly and unscrupulously supporting a regime that carried out the systematic murder of Jews and other groups of people. My moral guilt is not subject to the statute of limitations, it cannot be erased in my lifetime.
Should you forgive, Simon Weisenthal, even if I cannot forgive myself?” Listen to the rest of Speer’s contribution to Weisenthal’s book;
“Well, on May 20, 1975, we sat facing one another for more than three hours at your Vienna-based Documentation Center, a meeting preceded by a six month correspondence. It was in fact your Sunflower that led me to you: “You are right,” I wrote you earlier, “no one is bound to forgive. But you showed empathy, undertaking the difficult trip to Stuttgart in 1946. You showed compassion by not telling the mother of the SS officer her son’s crimes.

This human kindness also resounds in your letter to me, and I am thankful for it.” You showed clemency, humanity and goodness when we sat facing one another on this May 20th, too. You did not touch my wounds. You carefully tried to help. You didn’t reproach me or confront me with your anger. I looked into your eyes, eyes that reflected all the murdered people, eyes that have witnessed the misery, degradation, fatalism and agony of your fellow human beings. And yet, those eyes are not filled with hatred; they remain warm and tolerant and full of sympathy for the misery of others. When we parted, you wrote for me in my copy of your book that I did not repress that ruthless time but had recognized it responsibly in its true dimensions.

My trauma led me to you. You helped me a great deal – as you helped the SS man when you did not withdraw your hand or reproach him. Every human being has his burden to bear. No one can remove it for another, but for me, ever since that day, it has become much lighter. It is God’s grace that has touched me through you.”

By any reasonable standard, Speer’s sins are unforgivable, but even then some healing happened (for both parties) in the simple human encounter they shared.

Weisenthal’s experience raises an important human question – Are there acts that are unforgivable? Undoubtedly there are. Certainly there are acts which cannot and should not ever be forgotten. But sometimes, even with the unforgivable, there comes a time when we need to let go – for ourselves if not for the other. Nelson Mandela has often been praised for the act of inviting his former jailer to hi inauguration and celebratory lunch after he became the President of South Africa. Mandela says that many people have misunderstood this gesture as one of magnanimous forgiveness.

The man in question was the prison guard who stood guard over him for many of the years he was imprisoned – and who treated him with disdain, loathing and at times, cruelty. Nelson Mandala explains that he invited the man to his table, not to grant him forgiveness, but to release himself from hatred so that he could put his energies to better use. “I had lunch with him” said Mandela “so that I could focus on building a better country.”

Sometimes the usefulness of letting go of an old hurt is that it frees you to put your energies to places more worthy of your precious soul. This, too, is a form of atonement or “at-one-ment” where we are restored to ourselves – we take back our soul, if you will, from those who have stolen a part of it by wronging us.

I have been asked in counseling – “What do you do if there is no longer any hope of forgiveness or reconciliation – if those who wronged you are long gone from your life, or unable or unwilling to acknowledge the hurt, make amends or begin again? The process of forgiveness in these cases is longer and more complicated because it is a relationship essentially with parts of yourself, seeking wholeness. It is a choice about how much power you will let the past have over you, and how much you want to live well and richly in the time to come.

Holding onto hurt done to you by those who will never make it better allows them to hurt you still. People decide consciously to let go because it is better for them to do so. Or sometimes, they turn around, do their “teshuvah” by turning pain into advocacy, prevention or hope for others. Anyone who has suffered an unforgiveable loss knows that no amount of vengeance will restore the life you once knew or turn back the hand of time. But the human heart has such a need to turn toward life that often a great and restoring purpose arises in the place where forgiveness cannot. Great good can come out of great hurt, with enough support and time and thoughtfulness.

Paradoxically, some people even find that the death of someone who has hurt them frees them to put their hopes for healing and reconciliation into other places. The relationship becomes frozen in time, without any possibility of improvement, and they are freed from the expectation that things will get better – and they are able to move forward, no longer bound by an inversion to that which has hurt them.

And sometimes forgiveness can come only after you have yourself grown enough to understand things that were impossible to see before. The mother widowed at 34 who drank to forget; the emotionally distant father who managed nevertheless not to repeat a cycle of abuse, the heartless cad whose rejection of you now seems positively fortuitous – all are better understood in hindsight and maturity than with the demanding judgment of a child or the newly-spurned lover. Sometimes it simply requires growing up and seeing things as they are instead of how you wanted them to be. Forgiveness or a softening of hurt can come over time – even without steps 1, 2 and 3 – simply because you have grown in understanding yourself. Sometimes the things that happen in our own lives – the losses or near misses, make us realize how precious is our time on this earth, and how much we should spend it on joy, love, kindness and caring.

And so finally, we come to the toughest forgiveness of all – forgiving ourselves. In Buddhist mindfulness meditation, you begin with compassion for yourself, because without any compassion for yourself, how can you feel it for others? In every faith, the greatest sin is separation, separation from God, from community, from your best self – a profound sense of isolation where we are not “at-one” with each other and the world – but alone and cut off from those who might offer us the healing balm of understanding and community. A lack of self-forgiveness cuts you off from all that could help you.

I’ve always thought that the saddest thing about the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is not that we don’t keep it, but that we do! We do love our neighbours exactly the way we love ourselves. The reconciliation work we cannot do within ourselves becomes the violence that we project outward to the world. This happens in small ways in our lives and in sweeping ways in the world.

Do a better job of loving yourself – understanding the fragile nature of your human condition, forgiving your faults and resolving to do better – and begin again in love on this day before Atonement.

That is my wish for you, and for our world , one step at a time.

So may it be.