Forgiveness

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In the Jewish calendar Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, begins Wednesday evening at sundown.  This ushers in the ten day period of the High Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah the world is born anew.  That means it is born full of every potential and possibility; it is born unconstrained by past problems or burdens, past chains or conflicts.

What would it be like to witness the dawn one morning and see that the world was, in fact, born anew.  Imagine the world as it would be, fresh, clean, just created.  What would it look like, how would it sound, feel and smell?

Many of us have had that experience: something has happened in the lives of some of us where we have looked upon the world and seen it that way.

        Perhaps when given a new lease on life.

        Perhaps when we fell in love.

Perhaps when a child was born within our family circle; or our own child, or our grandchild.

The claim of Rosh Hashanah is that the world is not only reborn at special moments like these, but also is reborn each year.

And if the earth is born anew, so are we.  We ourselves go into the New Year reborn.

We go into the newly born world free of the burdens we have carried, burdens of sin or sorrow, burdens of anger or hate; starting fresh and clean ourselves.

How wonderful!

However, that is not quite it, we are not quite done.   On Rosh Hashanah the Book of Life for the coming year is open.  For some of us the decision has already been made that we will die in the coming year; for some of us, the decision is already made that we will live; but for many the decision is still unmade and we can influence the outcome by our actions.  On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the book is closed.  The time Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time to shift the balance and scales of our lives before the Book Of Life is closed.  It is a time to make atonement for our failings and shortcomings.

One way to begin to make atonement is to apologize to those whom we have harmed.

If someone had harmed you, and knew that they had, but refused to apologize because they just do not do that, what would you think of them?  Would you think them stronger for refusing to apologize; or weaker?

While I am taking no position on the current political campaign for President, either on parties or on candidates, I do want to speak to one point.  Recently a candidate for President, criticizing the current President, stated that he would never apologize for America.  And it has been said by some politicians and by some political commentators that apologizing for America is a sign of weakness that will cause us greater difficulties in the world, making Americans more endangered than they already are.  That is nonsense.  

One element of maturity is a willingness to recognize faults and apologize for them and where appropriate to make amends.  That is true whether we speak of a person, an institution or a nation.

Just as is true for the High Holy Days, just as is true for any day at any time of the year, the ability to see one’s failings and to apologize for them is a strength, not a weakness.  It is only immature people and immature nations who either cannot see their errors or refuse to do so, and who either cannot apologize for their errors or refuse to do so.

During World War II the United States put thousands of people of Japanese descent into internment camps.  Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton each apologized for that action.  Those apologies did not weaken America; instead they began the process of atonement for an unjustified and unconstitutional act, and so they strengthened America.  

 The truth is that America has much more to apologize for.  Acts of genocide against native peoples, slavery and segregation here at home; unjustified invasions and the imposition of dictatorships on other people, especially but not only in Latin America; and more recently illegal incarcerations, renditions, torture and murder in the war on terrorism.   Apologizing for these acts will not make us weak; it will raise our estimation in the eyes of others.  And it will begin to cleanse us of hypocrisy, and may begin to heal the world.

Just as is true of nations, the ability to recognize our faults, admit them, apologize for them and begin the difficult work of changing ourselves and striving not to repeat them is difficult.  But it is not a sign of weakness; what it is is a step towards restoration of right relationships and of self renewal.  Forgiveness is not a one way street; even more important than having others forgive us is the act of forgiving ourselves; but that cannot happen until we admit our failings.

Forgiveness is a big topic; it can be said to underlie many, even most, religious services.  Any sermon about sin, redemption or salvation; any sermon about how we ought to or might live our lives, has forgiveness as a theme even if it is not explicitly stated.

 For our Universalist forebears, it was the primary topic of a Sunday service–God’s forgiveness of human sins.

 It is so big a topic that we could talk about it every week here and never exhaust it. 

         Forgiving is difficult.  For some it comes much more easily than for others, and so we know that it is not related solely to the act of harm; it is also related to the personality or the heart or the soul of the person who gives or withholds forgiveness.  Some people cannot forgive any slight, no matter how small or inconsequential; and some people seem to be able to forgive even the most terrible of crimes committed against them.  So forgiving is not about the severity or the intensity of the act being forgiven; it is about the person who forgives or does not.

But wait a minute: Assume someone has done something terrible to me; any expectation by others or insistence by others that I will forgive the one who harmed me asks me to take the burden of responsibility when I am the victim.  How does it become my responsibility to be the one who acts?  How does it get turned around on me?  How does it become my burden?

The truth is that the act of forgiveness is not a burden.  If I carry anger or resentment, that is the burden. 

What do these two things–anger and resentment–do to the soul, to the life of the person who holds on to them? 

For me they manifest as a burning sensation in my heart or belly; or they are an anvil, a heavy weight, in my mind.  And that burning sensation sits there; it burns a hole in my soul—a smoking, painful hole.

If someone has harmed me and I hold on to anger and resentment, I burden myself with the weight of it.

If I refuse to grant forgiveness I hold on to the feelings that lack of forgiveness entail, then I am holding on to the affects of those feelings and they will continue to do damage to my soul, to my spirit.  They will continue to burn or gnaw at me, continue to be a heavy weight that I carry.

Forgiveness is a letting go; a letting go of anger and resentment and the soul destroying power they have over me. 

At Rosh Hashanah the world is reborn fresh and clean.  On this new year as on every day, I want to walk into that new world feeling fresh and clean myself, feeling that I have also been newly born.  Like Adam on that first day, I want to walk into the world fresh and clean.  In order to do that, in order to feel that way, I want to leave behind all of the burdens and excess baggage that I carry with me now.

 I want to forgive myself for things I have done to others and to myself. 

And I want to forgive others for things they have done to me.  I want to put my burdens down and be born anew.