On Yom Kippur and Forgiveness

As in other occassions when I dabbled into subjects which touch on religious observance, I need to first give a disclaimer: I am not a Rabbi nor I pretend to be. My look at these traditional Holidays and observances is from the perspective of a secular Jew looking at the tradition I love and embrace.

We all know that Yom Kippur is about sealing our fate for the coming year, and as part of making sure that fate is a good one, we ask forgiveness; from God for transgressions committeed against our covenant with God, and from our fellow humans for transgressions committed against him/her. The first case is covered plenty by the ritual, including "Al het shehatanu lefanecha".

The case of asking forgiveness from other people for our transgressions against them is different, and offers an opportunity to learn, to better understand the culture of our People. According to the Talmud, the process of forgiveness includes several steps:

1- We recognize we had wronged the other. Without first recognizing we have done this, there is no possibility for redeeming ourselves. How could we ask forgiveness for something we don't believe we did?

2- We ask forgiveness from the person whom we wronged directly with our actions and we make ammends. We can never truly undo what we did, but we can compensate for it. 

3- We ask forgiveness from those who were indirectly impacted by our actions. When we do something wrong, the effect is like the butterfly effect. There are those directly affected, but also those indirectly affected. We ask forgiveness from them all. We OWN our mistakes and take responsibility.

4- We modify our behavior so as not to repeat the wrongful actions. This step in the key for personal growth and redemption; we learn from our  mistakes. The prior three steps guide us in our introspection to learn what we have done wrong and how we affected other people's lives. This final step is saying: "I learned, therefore I changed"

Of course there is a glitch in the system. We ask forgiveness from those affected... but what if they do not give it to us? The Rabbis of old saw this glitch, and determined that we are obligated to ask forgiveness three times. If we are still not forgiven, it is considered that we have done our part. This can be seen as strange, but if you look at personal interactions as being mutual - it makes sense. While the act of asking for forgiveness represents our taking responsibility for our actions, forgiving others represents our recognition that people can change and become better people. Not recognizing that possibility for growth is, in itself, a transgression against others.

In many ways, central concepts and values of our Jewish culture are reflected in this process, which can be seen as one of self-redemption. The process is emphasizing that we all depend on each other and we learn from one another. It also talks to the idea of growth through learning from our mistakes - for we are not perfect. This idea of growth as a path to perfection (a perfection we never reach) is an echo of our eternal hope. We live in the world today as it is, but we hope for a better world and we recognize the need to actively seek it.

In his essay entitled "Concerning the Jews", Mark Twain closes the article by asking: "All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?". There is no single answer to that question - but one of the answers is precisely that we are aware of the other and the effect we have on him/her and we take responsibility for our actions; by doing so we learn, we change, we adapt. And at the same time, we remain bound by the ethical behavior written in the Torah. And we remember that "Torah" means "that which iluminates (our lives)"


G'mar Hatimah Tovah!


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