Kol Nidre 5775 Sermon — Forgetting Justice for the Sake of Forgiveness

October 5, 2014
By bethmordecai
no comments.

Kol Nidre 5775 Sermon — Forgetting Justice for the Sake of Forgiveness

Forgetting Justice for the Sake of Forgiveness

Kol Nidre 5775 – October 3, 2014*

Rabbi Ari Saks

Congregation Beth Mordecai

There is a famous midrash (Masekhet Rosh Hashanah, 17b) in which Moses is standing atop Mt. Sinai about to greet God for the very first time. When God arrives, Moses does not see God’s face but rather a figure wrapped in a beautiful Tallit. God then brings Moses into God’s Tallit and declares: “Moses. I will show you how to lead the people of Israel in prayer.” And as God teaches Moses how to lead the Israelites in prayer, God also teaches him a secret. “Moses, whenever Israel sins, let them recite the following words before Me, and I will forgive them.” And then God sang these beautiful words:

ה’ ה’ אל רחום וחנון ארך אפים ורב חסד ואמת נוצר חסד לאלפים נושא עון ופשע וחטאה ונקה

LORD, LORD God, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.

Thus on Yom Kippur, the day we atone for our mistakes, we repeat this magical refrain known as God’s 13 attributes over and over again, because on this day, perhaps more than any other day, we yearn for God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s forgiveness. And our hope, as the midrash I just shared from the Talmud teaches us, is that…

כל זמן שישראל חוטאין – every time that Israel commits a sin…

יעשו לפני כסדר הזה – they should say this prayer to God

ואני מוחל להם – and God will forgive them.

It’s a powerful idea, that simply reciting the perfect words will cause someone – let alone God! – to forgive us. I don’t know about you, but I kind of wish we had that power in our own relationships. Whether it’s with our partners, our families, our friends, or our colleagues, wouldn’t it be great to have the power to instantaneously achieve forgiveness? Wouldn’t it save us from a lot of grief, from a lot of bickering if we were simply able to say “I’m sorry” and move on? Perhaps it would, but I don’t think that’s how we’re wired. Saying “I’m sorry” is simply not enough. When we are hurting, especially by the ones who love us, we want them to know it, to understand it, to recognize what they’ve done to us, and to graciously accept the consequences for their behavior because that is the right thing to do, because that is justice.

Yet, how often does it really happen that when we feel we’re in the right – that justice is on our side – the person who hurts us actually agrees with our view? Usually that person has another version of what happened, another version of the story in which justice is on their side and we are the ones who need to ask for forgiveness! It is our mutual struggle for justice that entangles us in night long, week long, even decades long conflicts. We’re playing a game of chicken in which the first person to blink says “I’m sorry.”

Yet, when it comes to our relationship with God – with the all-powerful, all-knowing God whom we stand before on this Day of Atonement – a game of chicken is pointless. God knows we’re not perfect; God knows we are flawed, so we take a different tactic. We repeat this magical phrase, LORD LORD GOD OF MERCY desperately hoping – perhaps even lying to ourselves – that God will forgive us the moment the words exit our mouths. And the funny thing is that kind of magical forgiveness is exactly what the midrash expects from God, even though in order to forgive us so quickly God has to forsake the justice of God’s claim that we haven’t lived up to our potential as human beings. And that’s what’s so interesting about the magical 13 attributes of God. Part of their magic is that they’re really a lie.

As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, a contemporary rabbi and author of “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right,” writes:

“The text that we recite on Yom Kippur is a lie. We cut off Moses’ description of God in the middle of his words. We say God is merciful, gracious, and forgiving, and will wipe away all our past wrongdoing. In the same text [in the Bible], however, Moses describes a God who will keep track of our sins for generations, a seeming contradiction! What’s going on?” (101).

What’s going on is that the lie God allows us to recite on Yom Kippur helps achieve something greater than upholding the Truth. It gives God the opportunity to remain in relationship with us by forgiving us. As Hirschfield continues:

“The genius – the sacred audacity – of the authors of the Yom Kippur service is to amend what the Bible says… [because ] deep down they knew that there was a truth that was bigger than accuracy, bigger than being right when we insist that the relationship between human beings or with God is so strong that we can get past anything – [that] we can begin again” (ibid).

In other words, God’s sense of justice – what is accurate, what is right, what is true – is not as important as God’s sense of forgiveness – the insistence that we can move past the differing truths each of us holds on to in order to remain in relationship with one another. Or to put it another way, Justice is our need to uphold the virtue of our Truth. Forgiveness is to give space to a Truth other than our own. When it comes to God, we want God to be quick to forgive, but when it comes to human beings, justice comes easy; forgiveness is hard.

Nowhere, especially in the Jewish world, is the tension between justice, between having the need to uphold the virtue of one’s Truth, and forgiveness, the admission that there is a different truth other than our own, more starkly apparent than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I don’t have to go into details about the history of the conflict. Most of you, if not all of you know enough of the details – and some know all of the details – about the history of this conflict. The one thing that’s important to note though is that the conflict over who rightfully controls the land of Israel goes all the way back…to the moment of creation. In a commentary on the very first line of the Torah in which God began to create the world, the most famous Jewish commentator in history, Rashi, teaches us that the reason the Torah begins with the story of creation is to prove that the God of Israel is the God who created the world and as such can give any land, like the land of Israel, to any people God chooses, like God’s chosen people. In other words, Rashi is claiming that since our God created everything in the world, then our God will determine what is rightfully our land. Just think how powerful this view is when it comes to the justice of the Jewish claim to the land of Israel – it goes as far back in the past as the moment of creation! This view, in so many words, was articulately expressed by Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a passionate Zionist settler, at the recent Israeli-Palestinian Speaker Event: One Land, Two Worlds, One Painful Hope held here at Beth Mordecai. Not only is the land of Israel promised by God to the Jewish people, but the land that is currently disputed as the West Bank or Judea and Samaria is the particular land mentioned in the Bible. As Rabbi Schlesinger said: “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all walked through my backyard.” Our ancestors did not walk through Tel Aviv or Gaza and yet ironically in our times, it is rocket fire from Gaza reaching all the way to Tel Aviv which left unchecked, could wipe out a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. In the words of Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who in a recent speech in Germany so eloquently articulated how the lessons learned from the Holocaust inform Israel on how to approach the current war: “The need to survive teaches us to strike hard to defend ourselves” (Lapid, http://www.algemeiner.com/2014/08/22/full-transcript-israels-finance-minister-yair-lapid-speech-at-platform-17-in-berlin-in-memory-of-holocaust-victims/). And whether it is based on a historical or cultural connection to the land or as Rabbi Schlesinger put it, a providential inheritance, the need to defend the Jewish right to live in the land of Israel as our own State is a just and rightful claim.

After Rabbi Schlesinger gave his presentation and sat down, his Palestinian friend and fellow peace activist Mr. Ali Abu Awwad stood up on the bimah – precisely where I’m standing – to deliver his presentation, and the first thing he did was to look directly at Rabbi Schlesinger and say with profound empathy and compassion: “the hardest thing to do is to admit the Truth of the other side.” And he went on for a few more minutes talking about Rabbi Schlesinger’s Truth and the difficulty in accepting it. If you weren’t there, you might think that in admitting Rabbi Schlesinger’s Truth Mr. Awwad was accepting the Jewish right to the land of Israel  — a right that is so deeply rooted in the past that according to Rashi it stems from creation – and that in accepting the Jewish right to the land of Israel, he relinquished at least some of the Palestinian right to the land. You might think this, because when it comes to what’s right and what’s just, we don’t care about the other side. All we care about is upholding the virtue of our Truth, all we care about is winning the game of chicken, and in admitting Rabbi Schlesinger’s truth, Mr. Awwad seemed to be losing that game.

When I was training to be an Israel advocate in college by Aish HaTorah’s “Hasbara” program there was great emphasis on not losing the battle of words. We were taught that the language each side uses to describe the conflict is critical to winning the conflict. The lands on the other side of the post-1967 green line are not occupied territories, they are disputed territories. The Arabs who fought or blew themselves up during the Second Intifada are not freedom fighters or martyrs, they are terrorists. I think we were taught not to lose the battle of words because any loss in that battle would undercut our claim for justice, our need to uphold what we see to be the Truth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any loss on our side, means a win for the other side; any time we give in on how to describe the conflict, the more we give up our Truth…the more we allow the other side’s Truth to be seen as just and right. That is what I think Mr. Awwad meant when he said that “the hardest thing to do is to admit the truth of the other side,” that it seems impossible to believe there can two names for one land, that there can be two words to describe the same person. It can be painful to listen to a different view than our own because in that act of listening we feel that we are diminishing our own Truth.

Consider the last time you had an argument with a loved one, a friend, or a co-worker and tell me if this sounds familiar. “Yes, I understand your view BUT…” and we’ll rant on and on with precise detail about the virtues of our view. And of course, the other person can’t have the final word, WE have to have the final word. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that we spend at least 95% of our time arguing why we are right, and perhaps 5% of our time articulating how the other side could be right. The disproportionate amount of time we spend wanting to be understood as opposed to trying to understand makes it seem that we are scared of listening to the other side, as if the moment we stop talking is the moment we lose the virtue of our own Truth. As Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, comments: “We’re filled with our own rightness, our own autobiography. We want to be understood. Our conversations become collective monologues, and we never really understand what’s going on inside another human being.” In other words, what I think Mr. Covey is saying is that we don’t really want to listen because we’re consumed with being understood, with the need to uphold the righteousness of our views, with our need for justice. And we fear that listening is a sign of weakness because it’s the first step to forgiving; it’s the first step to losing the game of chicken.

That is what is so revolutionary about Yom Kippur because it attempts to scale back our obsession with seeking justice for the wrongs committed against us to fill our hearts and minds with the possibility of mercy and forgiveness, with the possibility that we can get past anything. Yom Kippur tries to give us the air to listen to God, to ourselves, to our loved ones, to all of those with whom we desire to continue to be in a relationship with and even to those who we might consider our enemies with whom we would never think before this moment we could possibly be in a relationship. Yet if there is any hope of maintaining a relationship, with a loved one or even with an enemy, Yom Kippur is the time to try because this is the day we willingly block out the sound in the back of our head screaming “what about my pain!.” This is the day we willingly lie to ourselves that justice is not as important as forgiveness. Just as the rabbis decided to only print God’s 13 attributes of mercy and forgiveness in our prayer books and cut the attributes that depict God’s sense of justice, we must use this opportunity of Yom Kippur to hold back our need for justice for the purpose of giving ear to forgiveness. This does not mean that justice is forgotten, it is simply put to the side for a moment so that we can hear another Truth other than our own. That’s what Mr. Awwad and Rabbi Schlesinger tried to teach us during their talks – to put ourselves in a position to hear the other side no matter how difficult it may be, to willingly ignore the justice of our Truth even for just a moment, for the sake of possibly holding more than one truth at the same time. They taught us that it’s OK to stop playing a game of chicken.

On the same page of Talmud in which God teaches Moses how to pray, we read of a disagreement between rabbis on the contradiction in the Torah between God’s need for justice and God’s love of forgiveness. One rabbi tries to answer this concern with a parable – a man borrowed some money from a friend and promised on the life of the king to pay him back by a certain date. When the man did not pay his friend back by that date, they approached the king who because of the man’s promise had the right to kill the man in debt. Instead, the king said “I excuse the wrong you have done to me; but go obtain forgiveness from your neighbor “ (RH 17b). Thus, according to the rabbi in the Talmud, the case in which the king excuses the debtor is like God mercifully forgiving human beings – putting justice aside for the sake of forgiveness – while the debtor’s need to ask forgiveness from his neighbor is like the offenses human beings commit against one another – we can only achieve forgiveness when our right to justice is upheld. In other words, there is no magical phrase that will achieve peace or help us forgive. We do not forget our need for justice, just like how despite their admissions of each other’s perspectives, both Rabbi Schlesinger and Mr. Awwad spent the majority of their time talking about the justice of their particular sides. Likewise, we will spend most of our energy over the year seeking justice for our views. That is just natural, that is part of being human. But what Yom Kippur allows us is this golden 25 hour time to put aside our humanness and be more like God, to forget justice and embrace mercy and forgiveness, to be open to hearing each other’s Truths, so that after these 25 hours we will be able to listen just a little better, we will be able to hold multiple truths at the same time just a little better, and we will know that we will have the strength to get past any conflict we may face.

*Note: The High Holiday sermon for “Kol Nidre 5775” was delivered extemporaneously off of notes. This copy was the written draft used to create those notes. As such, the actual delivery of the sermon did not match word for word with this written draft.

Photo taken from — http://rhondasays.com/category/bible-studies/


Category : Israeli News Jewish Current Events Rabbi Sermons Yom Kippur
Tag :