On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Moving On And Letting Go - Parashat Vayeilech

It’s that time of year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where we are celebrating the New Year and contemplating our previous actions, while thinking about what comes next. Is there someone or something from this past year that just seems impossible to forgive? This week Rabbi Rick Jacobs talks about forgiveness and the burden of keeping our grievances alive.

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[URJ INTRO] Welcome back to On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about where we are in the Jewish year. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He talks about forgiveness. And while apologizing is certainly part of our High Holy day experience, in this podcast he asks where forgiveness fits in.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on the High Holy days. Here we are either right before Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the 10 days of repentance, or maybe you're listening to the podcast already into those 10 days. So we like to kind of zoom out and take a moment to think about the deeper spiritual significance of these Days of Awe.

I'd like to focus the podcast this week on forgiveness. You don't hear in the liturgy of the High Holiday where we hear a lot about teshuva, the active work that we do as individuals to heal and repair our relationships with people, our relationships with God, our relationships with creation. Forgiveness is another piece of that puzzle, and I want to really dig into it.

So I had the privilege of actually reading about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You may notice that after the ending of apartheid, there really was this process to try and heal the country that was so divided. And there was this one particular episode that there was a policeman who had ordered that two houses in a black township be set on fire. Seven adults and five children were inside, and all 12 were killed. There was actually amnesty for that officer. And there was a rabbi who actually attended the session. And as the officers were counting the burning of these houses, the killing of these 12 people, the policeman lamented and regretted his action. And the audience listening to the truth reconciliation began to weep. And then they gave him a standing ovation. And the rabbi said, "I was aghast. I'm sorry." He said, "This is ridiculous. You call that-- you can't sadistically murder 12 innocent people by burning them alive and then to say, I'm sorry." So the question before us today and really, during these 10 Days of Repentance, Return, and Awe, is how do we actually go about the business of forgiving others? It's one spiritual part of the puzzle to go seek forgiveness, but what is it that we do that enables forgiveness to be granted? Now of course there is-- we'll get to a forgiveness that we ask of God, but what about the forgiveness that people ask of us?

Now there's this most remarkable project at Stanford University called the Forgiveness Project. And Dr. Fred Luskin, he's the co-founder and director of the project. And he wants to study forgiveness. So he says there are a lot of people they recruited who were unable to forgive their spouses for cheating on them, or their best friends for abandoning them, or their parents for mistreating them, or business partners for lying to them, or siblings for not caring about them. And what does he find? You're not going to be surprised. That people who went through the Stanford Forgiveness Project became significantly less angry and more forgiving. And I think if all of us were going to sign up that we're going to be healthier, live longer, anybody want to sign up for that project? But the key here is the forgiveness part. So let's dig into that forgiveness. And one of the things that Dr. Luskin focuses on is that too many of us go about our lives creating our grievance narrative, right? I'll just give you one example that he uses, a typical grievance. Here it is. You go to your doctor to help deal with a medical problem, and she's too busy to fully answer your questions, and you leave feeling rushed and unheard. Now what is it that's going to take you to forgive the doctor? Well, for almost all of us the way to end a grievance is for justice to be done, right? We want the doctor to call us up and say, hey, I feel terrible. I was pretty short with you today. You clearly had many more questions and issues to explore with me, but the office was filled with very sick people and I rushed you. Forgive me, please. Now I don't know about you, but a lot of us are waiting for that call. And again, it doesn't have to be a doctor. It could be a million people. I just use that as an example that they use. So the question is, how many of us carry into the holidays literally suitcases filled with grievances? We just can go at any moment.

I remember once, a Friday night when I was a pulpit rabbi, we would do this thing before candle lighting and reflect on good things that had happened in the week previously. And this one Friday night I asked people, what are all the good things that happened this past Friday, the best week on that Friday night? And I'm looking out, and nobody's got a hand up in the air. I'm thinking, come on, come on. A couple hundred people, nothing good happened? And then I said, just for the sake of it, anybody have anything that went wrong that you'd like to just unload here in this sacred community? And I got a lot of big smiles. For too many of us, we carry the grievances, and we hold onto them, and we never let go of them. So how do we go about that? And it turns out that one of the things in the Jewish tradition is that we have a notion that you have to merit forgiveness. You have to earn it, right? And that's what made the rabbis so angry at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and frankly, what makes us really mad when people say they're sorry in a kind of perfunctory way and we don't think they really mean it. Is forgiveness really about the merit of the person who seeks it?

So Rabbi Harold Kushner, one of the really gifted rabbis-- you may know his work from "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People," probably one of the most, other than the Bible, one of the most widely read books on spirituality, theology. So he tells the story of giving a sermon on the High Holidays that we have to forgive. And he just says it's an absolute and it will make us healthier. Really, like the kind of litany we heard from Dr. Luskin at the Stanford Forgiveness Project. Well, after the sermon, this woman makes an appointment, comes into his office, and says, "You know my story. I'm divorced, one of the most painful divorces ever. And my ex was so cruel to me, to our kids. Are you really suggesting in front of the whole congregation that I am supposed to forgive him? He's done nothing to earn my forgiveness." And Rabbi Kushner said, "It's not for me to tell you what to do. But he said carrying as much of the grievance and the justified, righteous grievance that you do, it's eating away at you, and your kids, and your family. So I wasn't suggesting to forgive your ex for his sake, but for your sake." And that is a whole dimension to this work which is, it may not be merited it may not be earned, but it also may be killing us to not be able to let go.

So there's this adapted story of two rabbis who are on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And as they're walking along the way, they come to a river. They see this beautiful woman who's all dressed up in her finery, standing at the edge of the river, knowing that she can't get across it. There's no bridge. So one of the two rabbis says, "may I help you?" She says, "I'd love that." He picks her up, puts her on his shoulder, carries her across. Gets across, puts her down. Two rabbis are walking. It's hours later. And the one rabbi who didn't carry her is fuming. Finally he says, "I can't believe you did that. That's so not our tradition. You shouldn't have carried this woman you didn't know. It's a lack of modesty." And the rabbi who carried her said, "I can't believe that happened hours ago. I put her down on the other side of the river, but you, you're still carrying her." So what does it take for us to let go, to be able to not just hold that grievance, but again, to let it go? And sometimes to let it go even when someone hasn't earned their way to that forgiveness? They haven't apologized. They haven't healed their ways, but you know they're just carrying it all the time, all these different ways.

So that, I think, friends, is some of the hardest work for these Days of Awe. And maybe you say that's just not in the prayer book, Rabbi Jacobs. I don't know where you're getting this idea. But it it's in the dimensions to it.

So let's just pause for a moment to talk about God. Is God forgiving? We have this amazing passage in the High Holiday liturgy based on Exodus 34:7 which describes God's essence as, "The Lord, the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousands of generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin." But the Torah goes on, not the liturgy, but the Torah says, "Yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of fathers upon children, and children's children, upon the third and fourth generation." Now what's amazing about the liturgy is the talmudic rabbis are so unbelievably chutzapik, filled with audacity, that they decide they're just going to quote the first part of it and leave God as gracious and compassionate and not vindictive. They cut-- they liturgy cut that vindictive part out, because they want the message to be that forgiveness and graciousness are the essence.

So the last teaching is from Elie Wiesel. I don't know if you remember this, but it was a number of years ago. Open up the New York Times on the Opinion page, and there's an op-ed from Elie Wiesel, the survivor of the Holocaust, the most eloquent teacher for many of us about the Holocaust. And basically, it's a coming to terms and a granting of forgiveness to the Holy One for abandoning us. He begins, "Where were you, God of kindness, in Auschwitz? What was going on in heaven at the celestial tribunal while your children were marked for humiliation, isolation, death, only because they were Jewish?" And then goes on. And then he concludes by saying, "As we Jews now enter the High Holidays again, preparing ourselves to pray for a year of peace and happiness for our people and all people, let us make up, Master of the Universe in spite of everything that happened. Yet yes, in spite, let us make up for the child in me. It's unbearable to be divorced from you so long."

I think he's modeling that very difficult spiritual truth of being able to let go, forgive. Is it always earned? We know it can't always be earned, but a stance of not simply righteously holding our grievances. I'm not suggesting this is easy, friends. This is hard, hard stuff. But the High Holidays is not just about honey cake and teiglach or some of the other wonderful things. It's about the really backbreaking spiritual work to make ourselves more whole, our communities, our families. And if we actually can find our way to some of that deeper forgiveness, it's modeled in the theology of the prayer book. It's modeled in the larger arcs of how we see and heal. I think we will, like Dr. Luskin says, we'll be able to have more health, more well-being.

I don't say it's easy, but I hope during these days of return that each of us will find a way to let go, and to carry fewer grievances, and to grant more forgiveness. The shanah tovah, may it be a sweet year filled with goodness and forgiveness.

[URJ OUTRO] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah." What more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter and @URJPresident.

"On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!