The season of forgiveness is upon us. But it follows a tough summer for our people.
Mel Gibson's Jew-hating rant gave proof to the wisdom of gematria: in goes the wine, and out come the secrets (although, in his case, it was in go the cocktails, and out comes the 'passionate' truth).
Hezbollah crossed the line in the sand, figuratively and literally, setting Israel on a course of defensive war and parts of Lebanon back to the Stone Age. And the sense of comfort and security we have always felt in this community was brutally shattered by the actions of a troubled, hateful man. The world is becoming increasingly unforgiving and unforgivable.
Yet we are bound as Jews to seek and extend forgiveness. These Days of Awe are incomplete, and thus we as individuals are incomplete, if we do not strive to rise above the deeds of the world and the limitations of self. The process of teshuvah lends both structure and substance in pursuit of this sacred goal. There is a reason we begin this process one month before the holy days. Forgiveness is hard.
Our tradition provides many resources to aid in this effort. The liturgy itself, the brilliant, eloquent words of the Machzor, are particularly helpful. Of the many prayers we offer, few give more support in our quest for forgiveness than the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. The words are as famous as they are chilling:
'On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die.'
The prayer is a humbling concession to the fragility and tenuousness of life. It is something of which we need scant reminder in this time of increasing danger. But the key passage comes at the end. We learn that the three T's of the season, teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteous giving)' ma'avirin et roa ha-gezerah,' or ''temper the evil decree,' as this last phrase is often translated.
But the theology is subtler. God is not merely a cosmic vending machine that answers prayers and thwarts tragedy based on how many tokens of goodness we drop into the sacred slot.
Bad things will happen, no matter how good we are. Rather, if we sincerely embrace the three T's, the evil of the decree will be tempered. If we fill our days with these acts of blessing, the sting of tragedy will inflict less permanent damage, losing its power to forever taint our view of life in the world.
But the three T's offer more than merely salve to sooth the pains of the world. Through them lies the path toward the forgiveness we seek and extend. If we are truly repentant, genuinely aware of our failings, and compelled to be better, than seeking forgiveness is integral to evaluation and refinement of self, and bestowing forgiveness is proof that we have transcended the petty boundaries of self.
If we pour and immerse ourselves in prayer, we move beyond the close confines of ego, investing ourselves into the heart and mind of God, and thus the hearts and minds of others. Thus, forgiveness sought and given more easily passes now permeable walls.
And if tzedakah becomes a central thought and act, we become agents of that most basic and profound distillation of Torah: 'Ve'ahavta l're'echa kamocha' ' 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' If we are forgivable, than all are forgivable.
Forgiveness is more about ourselves than others. It is more about who we aspire to be than who we want others to become.
Our relationship to others and to the world at large defines this path. The world will not change anytime soon. There will be wanton hatred and unfounded bigotry. There will be senseless slaughter and rampant destruction. But we are not without power, the tools to bring about wholeness and healing. We must start with the self, and move in concentric circles of change and growth to embrace those whose lives touch ours. Holiness is often found less in grandiose gestures than in the small, simple steps toward reconciliation.