Central to the understanding of the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the simple yet fundamental belief that people can change. We need not be stuck in habitual conditioned behaviors. We need not repeat the same behaviors that are hurtful to ourselves or to others over and over again. We are capable of change and growth. The great mystic and sage Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that it is incumbent upon each individual to believe that with the next breath we can become new beings. The possibility of personal renewal is the great mystery of being human.
The blowing of the shofar – the ram’s horn – is the climax of the High Holiday ritual. The sound of the shofar is meant to cut through our web of routine, rationalization and conditioning, to wake us up to our true nature, which is goodness, love and compassion, and to urge us to leave behind behaviors and actions that cause suffering to ourselves or to others.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer us the personal and communal spiritual task of teshuvah – repentance. Repentance is the self-aware practice of assessing our deeds and our spiritual condition. To participate in the practice of repentance requires a willingness to engage in a courageous moral inventory, to ask for and give forgiveness and to make amends where possible. Repentance is achieved when we recognize and regret our hurtful behavior; we discontinue the behavior and determine not to repeat that behavior in the future. Repentance also requires asking forgiveness from those we have hurt. While we ask others for forgiveness, it is also important that we find a way to forgive ourselves. We are, after all, merely human.
While asking for forgiveness can be hard, offering forgiveness to others can be much more difficult. Sometimes we feel so hurt by others that the possibility of our forgiveness seems impossible. We simply can’t let go of the hurt and the anger. We hold on to our hurt as if it were a prize, a badge of honor. We have no desire to be in relationship with the person who has hurt us. Or, we feel that to forgive that person would be to condone what they did to us.
What we fail to understand is that as we hold on to our hurts and wounds for dear life, all we accomplish is to prolong the hurt. It has been said that holding on to our anger at the person who hurt us, is akin to holding on to a burning coal: the only person who gets burned is us.
Forgiveness does not require us to trust the person who hurt us or to re-establish a close relationship with her, nor does it mean we condone what was done to us. It simply means that we put down our anger and let go of it. As my teacher and friend Sylvia Boorstein likes to say, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better yesterday.” We cannot change what happened, but we can change our attitude about what happened. We don’t need to bear the painful burden of it forever.
Receiving forgiveness from others is a relief; asking forgiveness of others is an act of grace. Either way, forgiveness is a miraculous experience. Without the possibility of forgiveness we would live with constant despair. The promise of the High Holidays is that we can live instead with profound hope.
May this New Year bring us all health, happiness and abundant hope.