“I'm sorry if I offend anyone - I am in no way intending to and I realize my views may be unpopular. But how exactly does fasting for one day and writing that you're "sorry" on Facebook show that you truly are sorry for what you did to someone AND, more importantly, that you will change your behavior in the upcoming year?? This applies to me as well. I do not think just by doing this I can undo the ways I hurt some people close to me in my life. Your comments are most welcome (*cough, cough Chava Tombosky, Jew in the City, Chaim Friedman, Henchi Fellig. Mendy Fellig, Baruch Plotkin)”- Jackie Skevin
The truth is before we attempt to answer Jackie’s question, we must first examine the act of forgiveness. In the dictionary, Forgiveness is described as “The action or process of forgiving or being forgiven.” Forgiveness is not a one time comment, event or activity. Forgiveness, like most things is a process. But how does one begin a process so huge, so overwhelming? Where does one begin? Is there a formula? And if so, why is it that the past formula I’ve tried doesn’t seem to work? Why didn’t that facebook status I posted asking all to forgive me still leave me feeling lonely, bitter, and avoiding eye contact with those who I have wronged, or with those who may have wronged me? I have walked into that Yom Kippur service, yet it has disappointed me so. I think the process of even stepping into the space of how to forgive comes with practice and with many failings, mistakes and do-overs. Thus, because I am pretty damn good at this practice, being I have had to mount my share of “I’m Sorries” on my pardon mantle, I will attempt to only share with you my personal experience, what you take of it is yours and yours alone to translate for yourself.
I used to think forgiving someone meant hearing the words I’m sorry and then moving on thereby checking that awkward moment off my to do list. The problem with that was, that there were times I just did not move on. There were times I still needed to hold on to that pain, it comforted me, it made me feel courageous, a little better than the person who wronged me, making me feel RIGHT. I love to be right. Who the hell doesn’t like to be right? However as time progressed, what I became was right and angry. I became right and bitter. I was still right. Just not happy. Suddenly my world was upside down, I was unable to cope with seeing that same person who wronged me over and over again in social situations. The awkward hello became the ever-avoiding experience. Situations like that led me to my own isolation, missing out on big events, incredible opportunities and a space that held me hostage.
On the other side of the coin, when I was the one who did the wrong, and needed to become “the asker” I felt vindicated and no longer in my own head space of guilt after trying my hardest to truly display my apology. And in the moments it was not received, I found it ridiculous that I had to carry the burden of feeling so responsible for the other person’s inability to see my true intentions, and again felt resentment over this forgiveness routine. I was in a catch twenty-two, for I was unable to give forgiveness and I was unable to receive it. I was left in a holding pattern. Forgiving, forgiveness...the whole experience was completely lost on me. I hated controversy, and suddenly began to avoid it like the plague just so I could trick myself into thinking, I could remain right, perfect, unflawed and without too much guilt on Yom Kippur. Then the day of Atonement would arrive, again, I’d say my sorries, I’d receive my apologies thinking, this time the formula would work. I’d fast, wear that white dress, listen to a holocaust speech or two, and then….NOTHIN. Nothing would happen. The same old relationships wasting away were yet to be repaired. All I was left with was feeling hungry. Feeling so damn hungry. Was it worth that awkward phone call I was guilted into make? Was it worth the day of starvation? What it worth wearing fourteen sweaters in an overly air conditioned room as my feet welded in the carpet floor feeling stiff by my non-leather Payless copies? Why bother? What was I getting wrong? As Jackie said, I too was unable to undo the ways I hurt some people close to me in my life. I was failing. Miserably.
I think Oprah described forgiveness best when she said, “The act of forgiveness is the art of accepting the fact the past could not be any different.” The truth is I was looking at Yom Kippur and the act of engaging in forgiveness as one big punishment fest. I had not looked at it through the glasses of opportunity that came knocking once a year. I was punishing myself. I was punishing others. I was under the assumption God was punishing me. I did not take the time to truly stop beating myself and my wrong doers up. I held judgment in the way of my own repair. Yom Kippur is the day of judgment, but not the judgment where we think if we don’t get it right we burn in hell. It is the day to recount, reinvent, and realign our own judgment about how we forgive, about how we forgive others. And how we forgive ourselves. Just the very act of Yom Kippur itself is meant to be the step we take into honoring the power we have to walk into the experience of forgiveness.
The day of fasting, prayer, and introspection is only the beginning to START the process of realizing, yes we are human, which is why we use our most human basic need to express that although we are limited by our physicality, we can indeed rise above our own human instincts and imperfections if we choose to become more. We fast as a way to remind ourselves, we can indeed have the human control to even suspend our human urge to down that chocolate cookie some kid is eating during Ne’ila just as we can suspend the urge to not hold onto resentment or feel more empowered by our refusal to see the wrong that has encountered us with empathy. We listen in the final moments of Yom Kippur to that last piercing sound of the shofar breathed in by the Cantor's tired lungs into the skinny pipe that widens at the bottom, to remind us that with our small contained voice we can indeed pierce the heavens with more vastness than we realize. We can feel constricted, but our efforts can have huge impact.
We really can do the opposite of what we desire or urge to do if we put our mind to it. We can change, we can evolve, and we can become better than yesterday. We can accept that yesterday will never come back. We can accept that we may have broken other’s hearts, as others have broken ours, but we do not have to become victims to those events. We can restore the past by realigning ourselves with hopes for a new future. We can rediscover ourselves differently if we choose to. We don’t have to hold on to guilt, pain, or gross negligence to have a brighter future. We can rebound to a new restart button. We can always change. We never have to stay in that ugly space. Judaism gives us room to be human, to be flawed, to be less self important and more self-aware. Judaism gives us room to not always have to be right.
Good luck on this year’s Yom Kippur, good luck on the beginning of this process, that I myself have tried, retried, failed, reconfigured and sometimes not always mastered, yet insist on the strive to perfect. Good luck on entering the space and feeling empowered by your own ability to see yourself as the beautiful Divine light that you are all capable of being. May this year’s day of atonement bring us the comfort we all deserve.