Jewish tradition teaches us of the importance of t’shuvah, turning our lives anew toward God and asking forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed.
Our Yom Kippur liturgy teaches that for transgressions against the Eternal One, we are forgiven. But for transgressions against each other, we’re not off the hook so easily. We must acknowledge our wrongdoing, offer appropriate restitution, apologize sincerely to whom we’ve hurt, and pledge not to engage in the egregious behavior again.
The liturgy of Yom Kippur focuses powerfully on us as individual wrongdoers. We seek strength in our communities and congregations, as we beat our breasts in shame during the Vidui, our confessional prayer: for the sins of not caring for the poor, for the sins of not caring for the environment, for the sins of not caring for our wounded, for the sins of not providing health insurance to those in need, for the sins of letting our brothers and sisters live in poverty. For these and so many more sins we have committed, we humbly seek forgiveness. We cry out to God to forgive our shortcomings as we pledge to live more just lives in the coming year.
The question that rests upon my heart this year, however, is somewhat different. Our Jewish tradition offers a clear path toward wholeness when we have done wrong. But what happens when someone who has wronged us approaches and seeks our forgiveness?
Our sages teach that when someone comes to us with an acknowledgment of their wrongdoing, apologizes sincerely, offers appropriate restitution, and pledges not to engage again in the objectionable behavior, we are to forgive them. What, I wonder, must happen inside our own hearts to be able to receive their apology?
Oftentimes, when someone comes to me to apologize for an apparent “minor” infraction, I shrug it off. (I am not speaking about heinous crimes of abuse, violence, embezzlement, etc., but the more daily hurts and pain we cause those we care about and encounter.)
“Don’t worry about it,” I say at one time, “No big deal,” at another. But a trusted congregant and friend recently shared a piece of wisdom for which I will always be grateful: “Rabbi,” she told me, “when you do that, you deny us the opportunity to be fully connected. If you can’t receive my apology, then that creates distance between us.”
I thought about this for a long while as I prepared for the High Holy Days. So much of my attention is focused on all the transgressions I have committed in the past year — the list is a long one! But this question kept gnawing at my heart. To be fully human, we must cultivate the space inside our souls to receive others’ apologies as well as work on becoming people who are more accountable for our own actions.
What does this look like? The Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) taught that prior to Kabbalat Shabbat, they would pray that they would be able to pray. They lifted their voices and their gaze to the heavens and prayed their hearts would be open to pray with fervent sincerity. This model serves us well.
To quiet the mind and still the soul so we might see one another fully and accept each other’s rough edges and transgressions provides the opportunity to be in a whole, authentic relationship with one another.
To be open to each other, to listen fully, to graciously accept an apology, to move forward together in a deeper intimacy and a connection — is this not the essence of our holy work this Yom Kippur?
To hear the still, small voice of God’s presence deep within. To see, in the words of Jewish theologian Emmanuel Levinas, God’s face in the faces of each other — is this not our Jewish legacy?
On this Yom Kippur, I pray each one of us grows in our ability to seek forgiveness to those whom we have wronged, creates the space inside our souls to forgive those who wronged us, and moves forward toward lives of wholeness and peace. My family joins me in wishing you and your loved ones a meaningful fast.
G’mar chatimah tova.
Michael Adam Latz is the founding rabbi of Kol HaNeshamah, West Seattle’s Progressive Synagogue Community. Nothing makes him happier than being a dad.