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A quick review for those who do not know: the High Holy Days, also called the Days of Awe, begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. On Rosh Hashanah the world is re-created and is celebrated as if it is brand new.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which comes ten days later, is a fast day. Yom Kippur ended last night at sundown. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the days in between are called the High Holy Days.
During the High Holy Days the Book Of Life is open. The book Of Life has inscribed in it the names of those who will live throughout the entire coming year; so it is of some interest to people to have their names there. We can help to ensure that our names are inscribed in the book by reviewing our lives, recognizing our failings, repenting, making restitution for harms we have done and seeking forgiveness from those whom we have harmed. I believe this is not just a process for the High Holy Days, but is ongoing; we should learn to do it on all days.
In the Book of Jonah, which is commonly read during this time of year, God decides to destroy the people of Nineveh. He sends Jonah to tell them so which Jonah ultimately does. But then the people of Nineveh repent and change their ways. God sees this and forgives them for their sins and lifts the condemnation of them. Near the end of the story, Jonah is sitting and pouting, having already spent time griping at God for sparing the people of Nineveh. And his complaint to God was this: You made me do what I didn’t want to do; I went through all kinds of problems and difficulties for you; but it was all for nothing because ijn the end you did not punish the Ninehvites; so, you made me look like a fool.
So he sits there pouting.
I have a take on this story, one which is not explicit in the book of Jonah but one which I think is still there implicitly.
Part of what Jonah objects to, I think, is that even the Ninehvites, this terrible people, were forgiven by God. We don’t know exactly what the Ninehvites had done, only that it was wickedness, but even they were granted God’s mercy.
The book of Jonah contains almost a Universalist message in that all are saved. However, that is not explicitly in the Book. In Jonah the Ninehvites are saved because they repent and turn away from their wicked behaviors. The similarity with Universalist thought is that in Universalism all are ultimately saved, though some Universalists thought they had to go through a post death punishment for their sins first. But in both cases, Jonah and Universalism, God will relent from punishing when repentance is present.
So, Jonah is upset and disgusted that the Ninehvites are forgiven. That is the part of the story I want to focus on today.
In the case of Jonah, he did not know the Ninehvites, and they had done nothing to him personally, but he did know their reputation. He, after all, was the one who preached to them about their coming destruction.
For me there is something childish about Jonah’s reaction; something petty and selfish. An entire city has been called back to goodness, but Jonah pouts. But I can also relate to Jonah.
Think of the people whom you categorize as the worst people in the world, those whose reputations, if you will, are evil. Are they pedophiles, serial killers, or terrorists? Think of your feelings towards them, your anger, your fears, your disgusts.
Now think about how you would feel if God told you they had repented and so were forgiven for all they had done. Of, if the concept of God doesn’t fit for you, think of how you would feel if some person—say, a minister—says that we should forgive such people; or seek not to hate them; or worse, that we should seek to love them. Many of us recoil from such ideas, seeing them as foolish or naïve or dangerous. And some would say that such forgiveness is a betrayal of the victims of these people.
In America today we have debates about capital punishment with some people saying that even serial killers are worthy of compassion and of humane treatment while others are too disgusted by such people and by their actions to entertain such notions.
We have also debated the kind of treatment we give to terror suspects and whether secret prisons, isolation, lack of fair trials, or even the use of torture are things we can or should engage in.
Many of us are too angry at terrorists to be willing to treat them humanely.
But the Book of Jonah claims that God sees all people—and therefore even the ones that we find thoroughly reprehensible—God sees even these as salvageable.
It is precisely there, where God or the Goddess or Unitarian Universalist Principles or Goodness call us to be open to forgiving even the most despicable people, where God calls us to be better than we want to be, that the concept of God and God’s mercy is most difficult.
If God said instead: You can hate, you can despise, you can hit, you can kill, that God would be easy because he would affirm what our lesser selves want us to be. But when people act on that kind of impulse or desire, when we yield to anger or fear, then the world becomes a less humane and less decent place. It becomes a place where decent people believe in torture and killing and war.
On a more personal level what of those who have done us direct harm?
During the High Holy Days we are called to evaluate our behavior, think about the things we have done wrong and the people we have hurt, repent, make amends and seek forgiveness from those people. We then hope that God, too, will forgive those wrongs.
We are not the only ones engaged in this process. That means that other people are doing the same as we, and some of them may recognize that they have harmed us. In that case, some of them may come to us to say they are sorry and to seek forgiveness.
Do we have to forgive them?
The Talmud says that we should not forgive until the person requests forgiveness three times. And even then, we are not required to forgive. On the other hand, it also says in the Talmud that to withhold forgiveness from someone who has truly repented and asked for forgiveness three times—to withhold forgiveness then is cruel. That begins to shift the sense of wrong from the transgressor to the transgressed; the withholding of forgiveness begins to become the wrong. And so we should forgive.
That is a difficult part of the Days of Awe for me. Sometimes I am not sure which the most difficult part is, looking at myself or thinking about forgiving others.
When I am righteously angry at someone, I don’t want to forgive them. I want to hold on to that anger. They hurt me, and I have a right to be angry. And, truth be told, when I am self-righteously angry, that self-righteousness anger feels good.
Letting go of anger and self-righteousness can feel like a loss.
Part of the process of the Days of Awe is that I should forgive. There is a mutuality here: If I won’t withhold forgiveness from others will others—including God and myself—will others withhold forgiveness from me.
If I do forgive will I forgive verbally only, will I forgive only because I am supposed to, but will I like Jonah sit disgusted and upset because I had to forgive?
Is that forgiveness?
I offer another way to view this issue of forgiveness: Regardless of what they have done to me or to others, my contempt for anyone, my disgust for them, my self-righteous anger against them, my withholding of forgiveness from them, is an act of harm towards them for which I should seek forgiveness.
That can’t be right, can it? Am I supposed to feel guilty every time someone harms me and I respond with anger? Does it always become my fault?
Anger is not a fault; holding on to anger is.
In the spirit of the Days of Awe, of the goal of self-evaluation and of seeking atonement, I would ask us to pause now, entering each within ourselves, taking a few moments to think of those against whom we harbor ill will, either individuals or categories of people. As they come to mind, as and if we are able, ask God, the Goddess, the Cosmos or this community to give you the strength to forgive them. If you cannot do that for everyone, do as much as you can.
Let us ask further, if we can, that compassion and goodness surround them, that peace and calm enter their hearts, and that they forgive us our ill will towards them.
As we gather together here today in the spirit of humility and hope, we acknowledge that we are not perfect people. May our knowledge of our own imperfections give us the wisdom and compassion to be more tolerant of the imperfections in others. May we have the deeper wisdom to see that it is our quirks and idiosyncrasies, our differences from others, which give us our individuality and our unique lovability. May we use that wisdom to find growing compassion for ourselves and others, and may that compassionate love serve to transform ourselves, others and the world.
May you be inscribed in the Book Of Life.
So let it be.