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Forgiveness: The Path of a Repentant Life – 2018 Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Posted on October 4, 2018

INTRODUCTION

            We live in an era in which people are being accused of crimes, indiscretions, harassment and even inappropriate social media posts that actually occurred years ago.  The MeToo movement is a reminder that there is no statute of limitations for accountability.  Sometimes it takes a seismic social shift for us to acknowledge and put a stop to inappropriate behavior.  But in the social angst of accountability that we are now feeling, the question of forgiveness has also been raised.  Namely, what does it take for someone to be forgiven?

Several months ago the writer and director of the hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies, James Gunn was fired from the third movie under production because of 10 year old tweets.  In a statement, Gunn said: 

 “My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. I have regretted them for many years since — not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don’t reflect the person I am today or have been for some time.”

            Should Gunn be forgiven for his offensive tweets posted ten years ago?  Should the studio allow him to continue his involvement with the movies?

            The question surrounding Gunn, is a question relevant to many other people.  Whether it is actors, politicians, friends or family, in our deeply divided society, the question of how forgiving do we need to be and what is required to be forgiven are questions more relevant today than ever before. 

 

FORGIVENESS

            When it comes to forgiveness it is important to know that in the Jewish tradition forgiveness is not granted, as much as it is earned. 

            We live in a time when people blame the wrongful acts they have committed on a physical, emotional or medical condition.  Without accepting any blame for their actions, they enroll in a rehabilitation program as a means of cleansing away their sin. 

            The inability to acknowledge fault and accept blame is nothing new.  It is no accident that the first story in the Torah about people is one in which humans are unable to acknowledge their wrongful acts.   Eve blames the serpent for the decision to eat the fruit of the tree and Adam blames Eve.   There is no accountability.  The Garden of Eden is a place of perfection and we as humans have no place there, because misdeeds are part of the human condition and therefore there must be a path for repentance.

In some cases, there is a real medical or psychological issue that is the motivation for a person’s behavior.  I have had a number of congregants share with me bad decisions they have made because of an addiction to drugs or alcohol.  I have lived through the chaos created when they go off necessary medication needed for diagnoses of mental illness.  These people need the necessary support to deal with their illnesses, but cannot do so until they acknowledge this reality.  This is the true path to rehabilitation.   But very often, we read in the newspapers about people responding to accusations of impropriety with plans of therapy and rehabilitation, that seem more about rehabilitating their reputations, than rehabilitating themselves.  Judaism knows that even if a wrongful act can be attributed to medical or psychological issues, the reparative journey of recovery and forgiveness must include repentance.

In order to understand the concept of forgiveness we need to distinguish it from repentance and the difference between these two different journeys. 

Repentance is such an interesting English word.  How many of you associate repentance with a religious context? 

Namely, that repentance is the religious response to sin?

As I looked for synonyms for the word repentance that might provide a secular feeling I could find none.  The words regret, remorse, penitence, contrition, shame, penance are no better.  Most significantly they don’t tell the story of what it means to honestly deal with a misdeed, apologize and seek to become a better person.  Perhaps this is because the secular world can’t conceive of such a process.  As a result, I believe repentance is the only possible word we can use to discuss the reparative process of responding to a misdeed.   As I speak today, I will be using the terms repentance and forgiveness in a non-religious context and solely as concepts in how we should be dealing with repairing the misdeeds of our lives.

Let us begin with my understanding of the difference between repentance and forgiveness.

Repentance is the process that the wrongdoer must go through.  It is the journey in which we embark upon, that begins with acknowledging that the act was wrong, next an apology to the person we have wronged, and finally working to undo the harm caused by our act and working to be a better person. 

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the process we go through, on our journey to heal from the wrongful act committed against us.  As a victim of some act committed against us, we actually have some control.  Namely, do we choose to forgive in the face of true repentance?  

There are many people who suggest that forgiveness is the act of giving up anger, resentment and need for revenge.  This idea is supported by a number of religious groups including Christianity, that forgiveness can be granted without the wrongdoer expressing remorse or apologizing. 

Can the unrepentant murderer be forgiven by the family of the person he murdered?

Can the rapist be granted forgiveness by the woman he violated without acknowledging the pain and trauma he caused her?

I want to argue against using the term forgiveness in this context, because I believe that forgiveness, when earned, represents that reparative process that allows the two parties to reconcile.   Rather than using the word forgiveness in this context, I prefer the term “letting go.”  Namely, we are willing to let go of the wrong committed against us, because we choose not to let the experience and the pain have control over our lives.  By letting go, we don’t forgive, but we also don’t allow the wrongdoer to have control over us; we take away their power.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, is a possible outcome that helps repair our relationship and can only be accomplished when the wrongdoer initiates the repentant process. 

            Although interconnected, repentance and forgiveness are two separate paths taken by the parties involved in the incident; each path has a life of its own.  Sometimes they are both achieved, but other times they are not.   What is clear, is that, the penitent’s process of repentance does influence the ability to achieve forgiveness from the person that has been wronged.

 

FIVE STAGES OF REPENTANCE

            What is repentance?

A major part of repentance seems obvious, it is present in the apology offered by the wrongdoer.  Apologies are at the heart of repentance because they ideally reflect the sincerity of the individual.  But sincerity is not always easy to determine because it is an inner emotion that we can only be judged by external symptoms.  We have seen some doozies of public apologies in the last year.  Was Kevin Spacey’s apology sincere?  What about Roseanne Barr? Matt Lauer?  Bill O’Reilly?  Notice that in our politically charged culture I had to give examples of people from the left and the right, otherwise many of you would have required repentance of me.

How do we know when an apology is acceptable?

Judaism provides a simple alliteration of what is called by some as the 5 R’s of Repentance- what we call teshuvah:

  1. Recognize you did something wrong
  2. Remorse– own up to what you did and feel remorse
  3. Repentance– Demonstrate repentance for what you have done with a sincere apology
  4. Restitution– provide compensation if necessary for the damage you have created.
  5. Resolve never to do it again

 

RECOGNIZE, REMORSE AND REPRENTANCE

            I think we would all agree that true repentance requires sincerity.  For forgiveness even to be possible, the wrongdoer must be sincere in the acknowledgement and in the apology. 

From the perspective of the penitent, the five steps are all necessary.  First, of course, he or she must recognize that they committed the act.   This may sound simple, but just look at the many people who refuse to acknowledge the wrongs that they have committed.  In the minds of these people if you don’t acknowledge it, you are not guilty.  Acknowledging the wrong often takes an act of courage, because then you have to deal with the consequences.  Being able to own up to the possibility that we did something wrong requires an introspection and willingness to face up to the consequences that not everyone is willing to do. 

How can we tell if the person is truly remorseful?  How can we truly know if they are sincere?

Usually it is through the unequivocal acceptance of blame for what they did.  The difference between, “I’m sorry if you felt hurt when I….”, and, “What I did was wrong and I feel awful that it caused you pain” are worlds apart.  The first expresses regret only for the hurt caused and doesn’t acknowledge the wrongful act.  

A press release from an actor that acknowledges that he “is taking the time necessary to seek evaluation and treatment and no other information is available at this time” is not an apology. 

A statement that “I am entering a rehabilitation program and therefore request privacy” is not an apology.

The first three “R’s”- recognize, remorse and repentance- the apology, are essential to forgiveness, but unfortunately many people believe this is the end of the process rather than just the beginning. 

The process of getting to a sincere apology is often difficult.  It requires a spouse to be honest about the times in which he or she yells at or embarrasses a partner.  We often feel that our actions are warranted.  The other person made us act this way.  If he just wasn’t so obstinate and having to be right all the time.  If she just could be more understanding of when I’m in a bad mood, then I wouldn’t yell at her. 

The first 3 “R’s” are supposed to get us to a sincere apology, but there are many people, who believe that just by uttering the words, “I’m sorry” that the situation has been corrected and forgiveness should be forthcoming.  In truth, the words “I’m sorry” are only words unless they are backed by action.  Repentance can only be completed through acting upon the next two “R’s.” 

 

RESTITUTION

            The fourth stage of restitution is often thought of as having to do with compensating someone financially for any damages you caused them.  If you stole from them you must repay them.  If you hit someone’s car and didn’t tell them, repentance must include paying them for the damage. 

            But I want you to think about restitution in a larger category.  Namely, that restitution refers to repairing the damage done.  How about that, another ‘R’, repairing.  If you have damaged someone’s reputation you have to figure out how to try and repair it.  If you have damaged a relationship between two people, you have to work to repair it.  The journey for repentance must include actions, whenever possible, that help to repair the situation in ways that words cannot. 

 

LIVING A REPENTANT LIFE

The fifth ‘R’- resolving not to do it again, is something that many people do, but don’t live up to.  They promise not to yell again.  They promise not to cheat again.  They promise to be patient next time…but they just can’t change.  Resolving not to do something again, must be backed up with actions that help the individual change.  In fact, according to Maimonides, repentance is actually not complete until the wrongdoer is in the same position of doing the same thing wrong and this time gets it right.  For Maimonides repentance is only possible when we have truly changed.   For many of our wrong doings, we might be able to demonstrate rather quickly that we have changed, but for more egregious acts, it will take longer.  This final stage of repentance is not demonstrating to others that we have changed, but rather demonstrating to ourselves.  It is about living a repentant life.  A life dedicated to making right the wrong we have committed. 

 

FORGIVENESS

            If a person follows the steps of repentance, do we have to forgive the individual?

            Some of you might know that the rabbis mandated that we grant forgiveness after someone makes a sincere request of us 3 times.  The rabbis established a very clear ritual of the penitent taking 3 witnesses with him or her to ask forgiveness of the person wronged. If after the first and second rejections, the penitent comes back a third time with a sincere apology, according to Jewish tradition if forgiveness is not granted, then the penitent is considered to have been forgiven anyway.  Some rabbis even suggested that the person who has been wronged has committed a sin in not forgiving the wrongdoer. 

On a lighter note, according to Maimonides, if the person you wronged was your rabbi you must ask for forgiveness forever, not just 3 times.

            I have studied this obligation of requesting forgiveness three times and always assumed that it was to test the sincerity of the penitent.  If it is difficult to ask for forgiveness once, how much courage and humility does it take to ask three times?  But I have come to accept another element to this process.  Namely, that forgiveness takes time.  Getting past the anger and pain of being wronged takes time and perhaps the thrice-repeated request for forgiveness, is simply a way for the person was wronged to have the time to process and get through the anger and pain.  Perhaps, in between the apologies, the person who was wronged sees the wrongdoer acting differently.  I love this idea, that the rabbis are allowing us time to go throw the process of forgiveness.  Sincere forgiveness requires time, just as sincere repentance does. 

By the way, sometimes forgiveness just isn’t possible.  I have had many people in my office who have been hurt so badly that they were not able to forgive the other person.  Sometimes it is the abuse suffered at the hands of a parent.  Sometimes it is the dishonesty of a spouse.  The closer the relationship, the greater the hurt; the greater the hurt, the harder to forgive.

More than letting the wrongdoer off the hook, forgiveness sets us free.  We acknowledge the world can’t go back to the way it was, but it can continue on.  The energy we once used to hold on to the resentment and anger can now be applied to positive directions in our lives.  We all have a finite amount of energy, how much of yours is spent holding on to a grudge?  Forgiveness takes courage, but it is also so liberating.

 

HOW LONG DOES REPENTANCE AND FORGIVENESS TAKE?

            So, back to my original question, “how long does forgiveness take?”. 

            It is clear that forgiveness is influenced by the sincerity and penitential path of the wrongdoer.  It also clear that forgiveness can only be given by the person wronged.  Therefore, the question really is, “how long do we hold the offender accountable?”. 

In truth, there is no objective timeline.   It is a complex formula related to the severity of the wrong committed, the sincerity of repentance and the ability of the person wronged to get over the pain. What is clear is that an apology followed by a stint in rehab should not be considered as a formula for immediate forgiveness.  The penitent and the person wronged must both travel their own journey and sometimes those paths don’t intersect when we would expect. Sometimes a penitent deserves to be forgiven before the aggrieved party is able to do so.  Sometimes the pain is just too great.  The closer the relationship and the greater the violation, the greater the pain.

I have had many people in my office who just can’t forgive the wrong committed by another person.  They are often able to let go of the anger.  They can even get past the pain that they suffered.  They just can’t interact with the other person, because their repentance does not seem sincere.  Forgiveness for me, means that the relationship is reset with new possibilities for growth.  It can never be the same, but with honesty and rebuilding the relationship can become strong again.  Never the same- we can’t undo the harm we have caused.  But it can be different, and sometimes different is what we have to accept.

            Today, in a world of text messaging, Amazon same day delivery and instant everything, people often expect instant forgiveness.  But as I have discussed, forgiveness requires a sincere process of repentance and that takes time.  We want to see that the person has taken the time to change his ways.  That, in fact, she is a changed person.  We want the wrong that he or she has committed to result in some good of a changed life.  That is often the price of our forgiveness; that our pain has resulted in another’s change.

            But what about our society?  Have we become too harsh in our judgement?  Too unforgiving of people being able to change?  Too punitive to allow for repentance?

 

CREATION

A rabbinic midrash teaches that before God created our present world, God was about to create a world based only on absolute righteousness and judgement – a world without compassion.  But then God realized that this kind of world couldn’t exist very long. God then considered a world consisting only of compassion, with no judgement, but realized that that too would not be a viable world.  God then decided to create a world with both judgement and compassion and gave priority to the attribute of compassion.             

            Our world, our society can only exist when we allow for compassion.  This means believing that people have the capacity to change.  If we don’t believe that people can change, then these High Holy Days are a farce.  If we don’t believe that repentance is possible then why should we even try changing.  These Ten Days of Repentance are predicated on the idea that teshuvah, repentance is a possibility. 

 

CONCLUSION

Rabbi  Charles Klein explains in his book on Forgiveness, “We forgive, not because we believe that what was done was unimportant, but because we are prepared to put aside our anger long enough to hear words which reflect remorse, long enough to begin to believe that people have the potential to grow.”

Another rabbinic midrash states that even before God created the world, God created teshuvah.  Teshuvah has many meanings: on a most basic level, it means to “return”; on a more practical level, it means to regret our mistakes and to turn toward goodness. People make mistakes. Sometimes we even do things we know are not good for us.  Without the possibility of teshuvah our world would not be a worthy one; a society that does not allow for repentance and forgiveness is not a world that God imagined.

I believe that James Gunn should be forgiven.  Ten years is a long time to walk the repentant life.  We must hold people accountable and yet we must also provide a place to recognize that repentance is possible.  By giving forgiveness, when it is deserved, we demonstrate the very hope of humanity; that we have the ability to change, and in doing so, make the world a better place.

Is there somebody you need to ask forgive of?  Do you have the humility to ask that person for forgiveness?  And if there is work necessary to achieve that forgiveness are you ready to change and live a repentant life?  Initiating the process of forgiveness requires us to overcome our fear of beginning the process. 

These are the questions and the reality we confront on Rosh Hashannah.  The symbolic Book of Life is opened, our deeds and our misdeeds tell our story.  How do we deal with our misdeeds?  It is so easy to put them behind us, but only by confronting them can we become free of their shackles.  It takes a great act of courage to approach someone you have wronged to begin a personal journey of rehabilitation.  The paths of repentance and forgiveness can sometimes feel equally daunting.  They are not for the faint of heart.

            Let today, the first day of the Ten Days of Repentance be the beginning of your journey.  Do you need to begin a path of repentance for something you did?  Do you need to work on forgiveness of someone else?  May you have the courage to embark upon your necessary path and may this be a year of repentance and forgiveness for us all. 

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