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By Rabbi Ted Reiter, Yom Kippur 5770/2009
S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu . . . forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
The words of our HHD liturgy ring through the air.
We’re taught that every day should be a day to atone and ask forgiveness from another. And, the days leading up to and including the High Holy Days should be an especially focused time to seek the forgiveness of others.
So, I stand here today, asking your forgiveness. Forgive me for anything that I have said or done intentionally or unintentionally that has caused you pain. I have tried to do good. I have tried to bring healing and wholeness to myself, my family, this congregation and to the world. I have tried to see and treat each and everyone as a holy soul. But I admit, I have not always lived up to my intentions nor your expectations. I ask your forgiveness.
Perhaps there are some who will not forgive me my sins, my humanity. Perhaps there are some here who withhold forgiveness from someone else in life. Perhaps there are some who have been holding out on forgiveness for months or years, or nearly a lifetime.
Here we are on Yom Kippur, asking God to forgive us; and yet, are we ready to forgive? We are a people who have created a method of apologizing and seeking forgiveness, yet to be honest we are not always so good at forgiving.
S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu. . . forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
Last year, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey was a best seller. She was on Oprah and she gave a wonderful lecture at the TED conference which went viral on YouTube. Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, had a stroke in 1996 at age 37. Unlike most, once she realized that she was having a stroke, her scientific curiosity kicked in and she actually studied herself while experiencing the stroke and through her many years of recovery. Her book and lectures describe what was going on in her brain and the stark differences between the left and right hemispheres within our skulls. It’s a fascinating read and video, and I would like to just give you a tidbit. Bolte Taylor teaches that it takes less than 90 seconds for a feeling or emotion to run its physiological life span. In other words, if something upsets us, surprises us, or tweaks us in any way, a chemical reaction takes place that courses through our body and then dissipates within 90 seconds.1
90 seconds! How does 90 seconds explain a life time of grudges and resentment? How does 90 seconds explain the warm mushy feelings I carry? Dr. Bolte Taylor argues that after 90 seconds, we are no longer involuntarily reacting to a stimulus, instead, we are choosing to run the “circuitry” on a continuing loop rather than living in the present moment.
What does this mean in lay terms? When someone upsets or offends us, our brains take 90 seconds to fully be with the sadness or upset, and then if we continue to hold onto those feelings, we do so by pure choice. It means that ultimately the only thing that keeps us attached to a feeling or an emotion is the story we write about it.
I can, therefore, conjure up the memory of challah baking this morning, or the person who snubbed me. My body has already reacted and moved on. It is my choice whether I will try to reconnect the physiological circuitry or whether I will let it go. How freeing!
You mean that my mind chatter is the only thing that keeps me angry, hurt, resentful, self-righteous? Yes!
The fact is that Corey baked a Challah this morning. The story I write is that she baked challah for all kinds of loving reasons.
The fact is that someone did not say hello to me today. The story is that they are arrogant, self-righteous, and mean.
Clearly, sometimes the story is accurate. But it is still a story and we still get to decide what to do with it.
And yet, we typically do not think of our feelings as choices. We convince ourselves that we are still being hurt by that other person. Perhaps there is someone here in this sanctuary today upon whom we are still choosing to hold a grudge? Maybe it is the parent from our kid’s class years ago? Maybe it is a spouse, a sibling, even a good friend. Perhaps it is me?
Of course, some of us do not have difficulty forgiving others. Instead, we find it harder to forgive ourselves. We can beat ourselves up for gaining weight, not calling a friend in a time of need, loosing our keys. Something does not go our way at work, with family, with ourselves, and we spend the following hour punishing ourselves by going over all the ways we fell short. And, of course, this too can have a spiraling effect: anger, resentment, destructive behavior.
Whatever we did or did not do, we use as evidence to convince ourselves of something that we are or are not. We are lazy, we are selfish, we are unkind. Or perhaps, we are not smart enough, are not nice enough, do not live up to who we think we should be. Rabbi Ted Riter p3 Some of us are quick to forgive another, while carrying an awfully big stick for ourselves.
And, some of us have little difficulty forgiving ourselves or others, but we have a harder time with God. The third grade theology that we have been clinging to for all these years is not holding up. We need to point our finger, assign blame, accuse someone of being at fault for the wrong and injustice in our world. God is a pretty convenient target for our frustration and our blame. God is easy to use as a scapegoat, to bear the burden of our fears, our losses, our disappointments. After all, God rarely argues back. We see pain and suffering in the world, even in our own lives, and we get mad at God or throw out the whole notion of God altogether. And who ends up suffering from that?
So if it is so simple that it is just a choice, why do so many of us choose to hold on to grudges, hurts, insults? If after 90 seconds our bodies are no longer reacting to the stimuli, why do we continue to revisit these feelings? Perhaps because holding on gives us a sense of control. “You hurt me somehow, but I get to write the rest of the story.” In fact, “You may have long forgotten what happened or not even know what happened, but I have had ongoing discussions in my own mind with you for years.”
If this is the conversation that we are constantly replaying in our heads, my question is simply this. . .how is it working? If we are holding a grudge, unwilling to grant forgiveness, are we changing some past event, are we making the best use of our energy? What is the charge we get out of holding on to negativity?
I will argue that if we are holding on to it, it is actually feeding something within us. But, I’m afraid if we take a close look, we will not love what it is. We are holding on to it because we get to be the one who is right. Or we get to be the one on the top of the pyramid. It makes us feel powerful. Is that what we want empowering us and empowering our relationships? Do we hold on out of fear? Out of hubris, out of anger, out of spite?
If that’s not what we want. . .let it go.
If the grudge is not serving us in some positive way, let it go. And, P.S., grudges never serve us in a positive way. If we are getting value out of it, we need to ask whether this is the life we want to live. Try this simple test: At our funerals do we want to be eulogized by the line, “He held a damn good grudge”?
I hear you saying, “But what if they have not repented? What if the other person has not asked our forgiveness or is not even aware of their actions or inactions? Should we forgive? Can we forgive? Must we forgive? For our own sake, I say “yes”.
Please do not confuse forgiving with condoning or forgetting. A wrong is still a wrong, a slight is still a slight, a sin is still a sin. But holding these things with energy and emotion saps our strength and sidetracks our lives. We may think that we hold on to it to retain our power. I think if we hold on to it we are really giving away our power, we’re giving up on our own ability to choose.
Our sages teach us that forgiveness is sometimes like a nail driven into a plank of wood. That nail, or that offense, can cause us pain. And, when we remove the nail, our pain is ended. Yes, there may still be a hole left from that wrongdoing, and we can focus our hearts on that hole. Or we can recognize the hole, knowing its history, and yet still choose to fill our hearts with forgiveness. That is a pretty powerful choice to make.
Not forgiving others. Not forgiving ourselves. Not forgiving God. There is another approach; an approach as old as our tradition itself. It is one of granting that forgiveness. If we can come here today seeking God’s forgiveness for how we have lived our lives over the past 12 months, I believe we are only in integrity if we come here also with the intention of granting that same forgiveness we are expecting from God! Forgiving (for-giving) is about giving, not just taking. Giving is how we wipe our slate clean for the year.
I get a fun email everyday from a site called, “The Universe”. A few weeks ago it taught me: “Young souls get angry at others. Old souls get angry at themselves. But really wise souls, Ted, have already turned the page.”
A classic tale2:
Moshe the tavern-keeper had a practice of rising early from bed on the morning before Yom Kippur and pulling two ledgers from the shelf. The first was a diary of all Reb Moshe’s misdeeds. Nothing too big, mind you. But, he missed a prayer service here and neglected to drop a coin in the tzedakah box there. He overheard some gossip one day and stared enviously at the beautiful horse and carriage of a guest. But as he turned page after page, Reb Moshe wept and wept.
Finally, he reached for the other ledger. This was also a diary, but one of the troubles and misfortunes that had befallen Reb Moshe over the course of the year. The winter had been particularly brutal and the family often had not enough to eat. The cow died, Reb Moshe was attacked by peasants. Again, Reb Moshe wept and wept as he turned page after page.
Finally, Reb Moshe looked upward, with puffy red eyes and tear-stained cheeks and said, “Rabono Shel Olam – O God, I have fallen short. I have not lived up to my potential. I have sinned, I have transgressed. And you O God, You too have fallen short. You have not always kept your end of Rabbi Ted Riter p5 the bargain. Today is the day everyone forgives and is forgiven. Let’s call us even and start the year anew.”
And with that, he would throw both ledgers into the fire and go cook breakfast for the guests at the inn.
How do we break free? Often these days we use the language that, “forgiveness is an inside job.” We are the ones who at some point must decide if it is worth it to replay the circuitry in our brains. If we are waiting for things or people outside of us to bring healing to our inside, it may not happen. Are we willing to take this gamble?
Let’s try a visualization exercise3:
If you are comfortable doing so, uncross your arms and legs, place both feet firmly on the floor, and close your eyes. Breathe slowly, envisioning blue air coming in and grey air going out. Three times. Imagine you are holding a small round cage. Inside the cage is the focus of your resentment: Another person, yourself, God. It’s not easy holding the cage together. In fact, it takes all of your strength as you strain against the bars. See who is in the cage. They are captured and scared, or they do not even see you holding them.
Notice how it takes all of your energy, all of your focus and your effort to squeeze the bars of that cage closed. Notice how your hands are tiring, how your muscles are fatiguing. Notice how holding the cage is making you feel.
And now. . .let the cage open up and watch the captured go free.
When you are ready, open your eyes again.
How do we want to live our lives? Straining to hold the cage closed or letting go? Are we holding out on granting forgiveness? Victor Frankl, the late renown psychologist and Holocaust survivor, teaches “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Are we ready to change the story we have been writing?
Letting go of our anger, our bitterness, our grudges. . .forgiving others, ourselves, and God. . . allows us to move forward in life. It allows us to grow, blossom and flourish. It allows us to live! And this is what being inscribed in the Book of Life is all about!
Judaism teaches that it is up to us to ask forgiveness for our transgressions. If the wronged does not grant forgiveness, we are counseled to ask a second and even a third time. However, if the wronged still refuses to grant us forgiveness, we are told that the issue is now between that person holding the grudge and God.
In other words, if we refuse to forgive, it is now our burden that we must carry. If we are so entranced with replaying our own physiological circuitry, it has less to do with the person who may have wronged us and more to do with our own needs.
Yom Kippur is all about seeking forgiveness. Are we ready to forgive? And if not, what in the world are we doing here today? Are we here simply filling a seat?
S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu . . . forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
I began my sermon tonight by seeking your forgiveness. And so again, I stand here before you, asking your forgiveness:
Forgive me for anything that I have said or done intentionally or unintentionally that has caused you pain. I have tried to do good. I have tried to bring healing and wholeness to myself, my family, this congregation and to the world. I have tried to see and treat each and everyone as a holy soul. But I admit, I have not always lived up to my intentions nor your expectations. I ask your forgiveness.
And, I pray that our forgiveness for each other allows all of us to be sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year.


1 My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, Chapter 17.
2 Adapted from “The Paper Chicken”, The Chasidic Masters.
3 Adapted from a teaching by Alan Morinis.
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