Rosh Hashanah Day 1, September 7, 2021 / 5782
I’ve been reading the work of Otto Scharmer, an economist and social activist based at MIT who describes his theory of change – Theory U. The basics of his theory are that in order to change, we need to let go of the past and travel down one side of a big U of letting go, making space, and then, at the very nadir of the U, letting in what’s coming, the world that is being born. Only by making space, by letting go of what we held on to, can we make space for the emergent future that is already on its way. Traveling up the other side of U is building that future, turning it from an idea to proper action.
Today I want to look at how we might let go of this year, of this year and a half really, to make space for what is coming. I want to talk about forgiveness – specifically, I want to talk about the forgiveness we can offer.
When I was little, I used to read my dad’s comic books, slim paperback volumes from the 70s and 80s lining our basement shelves. I remember reading the comics of Stan and Jan Berenstain, better known for their children’s series The Berenstain Bears – they also created a collection of one-frame adult comics addressing family life, a series of which ran in the newspaper until 1989. I remember one particular comic that showed a mother holding her child, who had fallen off his bike and had a bleeding-skinned knee. The caption was simply, “I forgive you everything.”
I maybe sort of knew what this meant as a 10-year-old, but only as a parent myself did I fully relate to that flood of love and forgiveness that comes when your child is suffering. Perhaps no more so than on a sunny day when Elijah almost drowned. I still lie in bed some nights replaying my fear from that moment. We were all at a birthday pool party, and for some reason, I had just been reading several articles about the signs of drowning and how it usually makes no noise. I was walking past the pool to use the bathroom and suddenly realized I was looking at one of those signs, Elijah’s little fingers and nothing else, pointing up, bobbing up and down in the water where the shallow end begins to drop. In a split second, I leapt into the water and pulled him out – he was probably under for about 10 seconds when I grabbed him. He took a huge breath and we sat together silently by the poolside for the rest of the party, me praying silent gratitudes to God. And as I held him close, I was that mother in the comic: “I forgive you everything.”
The days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are called the 10 Days of Forgiveness, and on Yom Kippur, we will recite many confessions of wrongdoing and promise to do better. We ask God to write us and seal us in the Book of Life, and to forgive us for our wrongs. It is also a time for us to ask for and to extend forgiveness to other people.
In any more normal year, if we sit down to think about who we should ask forgiveness from, our minds fill with memories of our harsh words, insults in the heat of anger, office issues, drawn-out disagreements or grudges, times we hurt a friend’s feelings whether intentionally or unintentionally, the big and little offenses of everyday life. This year, less of those come to mind. It’s not that I’ve been such a saint: I absolutely have things to ask forgiveness for. But I review, and between heavy doses of the three people I’ve spent the pandemic with, I see long stretches of blank. Because I haven’t been interacting with more than maybe a dozen people during this entire time. My world of relationships has shrunk, and with it, the number of opportunities to interact, let alone wrong someone, have also shrunk.
But maybe the biggest thing we in common need to ask forgiveness for and to forgive is the simplest: Absence. The yawning blankness where we weren’t.
In my 20s, a number of my friends got married before me. I was invited to some of those weddings and not to others. I was upset when I wasn’t invited to a wedding, and took it personally, it said something about our friendship. Then I went through the experience of having a wedding myself. The long list of friends and limited budget. The hard decisions. Having two big families. And afterward, I never took offense again when I wasn’t invited to someone’s wedding. I had lived through it and I knew it didn’t say anything about me and my friend except about their wedding budget and the size of their families.
Friends, it has been a long year since many of us sat here together during last year’s high holidays. Some of you I honestly haven’t even seen since that day. And it’s been a long year and a half since the pandemic radically altered our lives, closing our houses and schools and many relationships. In some ways, it feels like the longest year and a half of my life. And in other ways, it feels like a weird pause. I’ll think to myself, “oh, I should call so-and-so, I haven’t seen her since last month” but I really mean March 2020. The suspended animation of most of my relationships has meant that time is fast and slow and that is what in other years I would consider dropping the ball on relationships this year I have to name simply getting by.
We’ve all done this, I imagine. We’ve all had to shrink down to the relationships at the core and then let the others fall away for now. Most of us here have school-age kids. We’ve had to be workers, parents, teachers, cleaners, chefs, camp counselors. I don’t care to count the number of nights I was folding laundry after midnight or crying on the floor in my bedroom or sitting silently in my car after arriving home from the grocery store just to try to pull it all together.
We hope and pray that we are seeing the long denouement of this chapter, the beginning of the end of the pandemic as we have experienced it thus far. In addition to the grateful tears we’ve shed when receiving a vaccine, the joyful park play dates, and porch drinks we’ve finally been able to share, I have to say:
We need to do a bit of work to G-d-willing leave this behind.
I don’t think we can coast out of it.
I want to call what we need right now “The Great Forgiving.” What we’re all in together is a murky soup of friendship failures and social confusion. We have all been hurting. We have all suffered. And now that we are reopening our world, it is not a return. We have gone forward. And we’ve messed up; we’ve not been able to maintain relationships we might have wanted to; we’ve said hurtful, clunky things because we forgot how to be in polite society; we’ve pushed people away because we were full of fear.
We need a Great Forgiving of each other to be able to close this chapter and walk into, G-d-willing, the next one. As we say at the beginning of the Kol Nidre recitation, “Anu matirim l’hitpalel im haabaryanim – we declare it permissible to pray with transgressors.” Whew, if we didn’t, none of us could be here. We have all had this macabre wedding and now can’t hold it against anyone for not inviting us to theirs.
My friends, my neighbors, my family: Forgive me.
And: I forgive you everything.
Rosh Hashanah. The head of the year. We say the world was born today. And the world is born again every year on this day, the birth of the new year.
Like a newborn baby, can we imagine, after the year we have had, a faultless world? Can we give this year a chance, even though we were hurt by last year?
With the emotional and physical scars, we carry from this last year,
the scars on the earth and our society, the damage done,
the doomscrolling through instead of helping,
and the lost jobs and the hunger and living in cars
and murders of innocents and the protests
and the attempted overthrow of democracy
and the lack of clean water and the mass graves of the children
the wildfires and the glaciers melting and the droughts
and the advancing line of terrorists despite a twenty-year war
and the refrigerator trucks in hospital parking lots
the PPE made of garbage bags and the sacrifices of the front line
the deaths we mourned from our computers, the deaths we couldn’t be there for.
(ai yai yai yai yai…)
The world is born today. Like a baby in our arms, can we imagine a faultless world?
It may be necessary.
Just to be able to restart the lives we thought we knew, or more accurately to start a new life now that we’ve been through this. To come into this year, we may need to forgive the last one, and to start fresh.
Marge Piercy writes in her poem Head of the Year:
The moon is dark tonight, a new
moon for a new year. It is
hollow and hungers to be full.
It is the black zero of beginning.
Now you must void yourself
of injuries, insults, incursions.
Go with empty hands to those
you have hurt and make amends.
It is not too late. It is early
and about to grow. Now
is the time to do what you
know you must and have feared
to begin. Your face is dark
too as you turn inward to face
yourself, the hidden twin of
all you must grow to be.
Forgive the dead year. Forgive
yourself. What will be wants
to push through your fingers.
The light you seek hides
in your belly. The light you
crave longs to stream from
your eyes. You are the moon
that will wax in new goodness.
This world, this last year: Forgive me.
And, I forgive you everything.
So I’ve forgiven those around me. (No small feat.) And I’ve forgiven the world. (How could I? I don’t know, but I did.)
Now I’m left only with myself.
In those darkest days, the ones without the playgrounds and without school and without a job and without all the things I knew to be true, and without hope, I’m pretty sure I failed. And that I keep failing. Yelling in the kitchen at my poor children, torn from a childhood they thought was sturdy, one more day I wasn’t sure I could finish. Turning to my husband with nothing left to give, wondering would we weather this immensity, I summoned all I had, and sometimes it wasn’t even enough. I was not the person I might have hoped I would be.
On Erev Yom Kippur next week, we will recite: “Forgive the transgression of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love. Just as you have forgiven this people from Egypt until now.”
And then, with great chutzpah, with a most breathtaking chutzpah, we declare “Vayomer Hashem: Salachti kidvarecha. And the Holy One said, I have forgiven as you have asked.”
If God can forgive me, maybe I can forgive myself.
I forgive you everything.
Forgive each other. Forgive the world and the dead year that was. Forgive yourself. Only when we go through the Great Forgiving do we make way for the world that is being born today, make room for the year that is coming to us wrapped in soft blankets, make room for the self that is worn and weary but still running this marathon and stronger for it, make room for the love and the relationships and the dinner dates and the laughter and the hugs and… and… and all of it! I want it all back! I want to gather it up in my arms and raise my head to sky in a cackle of joy.
But to do that, I need to empty my arms to start with.
And so I invite you: To The Great Forgiving. It starts now.
Rabbi Julia Appel is Clal’s Senior Director of Innovation, helping Jewish professionals and lay leaders revitalize their communities by serving their people better. She is passionate about creating Jewish community that meets the challenges of the 21st century – in which Jewish identity is a choice, not an obligation. Her writing has been featured in such publications as The Forward, The Globe and Mail, and The Canadian Jewish News, among others.