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“I forgive, but I won’t forget.” I have reached a point where I shudder when I hear those words. What it really means is, although forgiveness is granted, there are conditions. In other words, it can be brought up and used to browbeat you at any time. Here is what I mean.

At one time during Saul and Ida’s marriage, Saul did something really stupid. Ida let him have it for the deed. Saul apologized and they made up. However, from time to time Ida would mention what he had done. Finally, one day Saul said, “Honey, why do you keep bringing that up? You always tell me that you forgive and forget.” “That’s right,” Ida replied. “I just don’t want you to forget that I’ve forgiven and forgotten.”

Here we are on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. We are at the end of the season of our teshuvah, the process of doing repentance for our wrongs and seeking forgiveness for them. The Talmud teaches us that God always forgives us for sins against God. Yom Kippur is our means to ask for and to receive forgiveness from God for those sins. However, the Talmud then states that for sins against another human, God cannot forgive and Yom Kippur cannot atone unless you go to the person you harmed and seek their forgiveness. If you do that process, God will forgive you. What about the person you harmed? Very little is taught about the requirements of that person to forgive you.

Indeed, we are completing a process that speaks extensively about our relationship with God. Our teshuvah is oriented towards a conclusion in which we can realistically hope to gain God’s forgiveness. However, with all due respect to the ever presence of God, it is not God with whom we have to live. It is not God with whom we must interact every day, at work, at home, at social gatherings and at school. It is other people. I do not worry about God’s mood when I go to bed at night. I do worry about my wife’s mood. It will be a long night if we are not right with each other. I can know with a great degree of surety that God will forgive me for my wrongs. I am not always so sure about my wife, my children, my friends, my congregants, my colleagues…you get the picture. For the truth is, getting forgiveness, real, complete, clean forgiveness from each other is not guaranteed. It is very hard.

You see, we humans are very stubborn. We like to cling to our hurts as they justify our subsequent behavior. Too often we bear our wounds from each other pridefully, like Purple Hearts. We want folks to conform to our standards of behavior. When they do not, even if they apologize, we remember that they did not really live up to our expectations. So we might deign to SAY we forgive them, but in fact, it is just information filed away to use when we see their past transgression working to our advantage. Well, people really do try to change. Many really want to do better, to turn their path, but too often we doubt their motives, their sincerity, and thus dismiss their efforts. We cling to the memory of a hurt they caused, a wrong they did, a statement they misspoke, a promise they forgot to keep. We keep score. We hold grudges.

While there is little in the way of formal halachah, actual Jewish law about the obligation to forgive, there are some great Talmudic stories that teach about the power of forgiveness. I would like to share and discuss one of these stories.

Ta’anit 20a

The rabbis taught, “A person should always be as pliant as a reed, and not be hard like a cedar.” It once happened that Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. He was riding very tall on a donkey, meandering along the banks of a river, and he was exceedingly happy. He had an inflated opinion of himself because he had learned much Torah. As opportunity would have it, he met a man who was exceedingly repulsive. He said to him, “Shalom Aleichem, my teacher.” He did not return the greeting to him. He said, “Oh worthless one, how ugly is this man. Perhaps all of the people of your town are as ugly as you!” He said to him, “I do not know; rather you should go and say to the artist who made me ‘How ugly is this vessel that you made?’” As soon as he knew that he had sinned, he got down from the donkey and prostrated himself flat on the ground in front of him. He said to him, “I have afflicted you, expunge my sin!” He said to him, “I will not expunge your sin until you go to the artist that made me and say to him, ‘How ugly is this vessel that you have made.’” He was traveling after him until he arrived in his town. The people of his town went out to call to him. They said to him, “Peace be with you teacher, teacher, master, master.” He said to them, “Who are you calling teacher, teacher?” They said to him, “To the one who is traveling after you.” He said to them, “If this is a teacher, may there not be many like him in Israel.” They said to him, “Because of what?” He said to them, “Such and such he did to me.” They said to him, “Even so, expunge his sin, for he is a man great in Torah.” He said to them, “For your sake, here, I will expunge his sin only if he will not regularly act this way.” Immediately Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon entered and expounded, “A person should always be as pliant as a reed and not hard like a cedar. Therefore the reed merited that a quill pen be taken from it with which to write the Torah scroll, tefillin, and mezuzot.”

What do you see as the central point of this story? Is it about the sin committed by Rabbi Elazar or the refusal of the ugly man to grant forgiveness after Elazar repents? There are hints pointing at both. Rabbi Elazar is a newly minted rabbi, travelling from his place of learning to his first assignment. Migdal Gedor literally means a “fenced tower” which implies how the place of learning can be an ivory tower. Rabbi Elazar is infatuated with the high thoughts of Torah learning he has carried away from his teacher. So much so that he is disturbed by the interruption of the ugly man and lashes out at him. How many times have we done that? How many times have we been so preoccupied by our lofty thoughts that we verbally strike at the person who dares to intrude on our mental space? By referring to the artist who made him, the ugly man is reminding the rabbi that it is God who creates everyone.

This is like cold water on Elazar’s face, and he quickly realizes his sin. He gets down off of the donkey and literally prostrates himself on the ground in front of the ugly man. The Hebrew indicates it is full prostration, much like you will see me do at the end of Neila this afternoon. The ugly man, however, refuses to forgive him. Instead, he insists that Rabbi Elazar go ask the artist, i.e. God, about his ugliness. This, of course, is an impossible condition for forgiveness. The story hints at who has the moral high ground at each stage. When Rabbi Elazar is on the donkey, thus physically higher than the ugly man, the ugly man is on higher moral ground. BUT, when Elazar prostrates himself, doing full teshuvah, and the ugly man refuses to forgive him; their physical and moral positions are reversed! We begin to think the ugly man is being unreasonably stubborn. It takes the community to convince him to finally forgive the rabbi.

Rabbi Elazar, having learned an important lesson, closes the story by repeating the maxim that opens it, but adds an additional element. The importance of the reed is highlighted by its connection to being the material for a pen that writes Torah, tefillin and mezuzot. Why the reference to those three things? Because each contains the same passage from Deuteronomy 6 – the Sh’ma and V’ahavtah, which begins you shall love Adonai your God. How do we show love for God?   By following the commands of Torah about how to properly treat each other. So we get a complete lesson. We are to be flexible like a reed, ready to learn, both when we are wrong and do teshuvah as well as when we are ready to forgive another who is sincerely repentant.

But is that really the end of the lesson?

Like so many of the great Talmudic stories we are challenged to consider who we are in the story. Are we the unthinking rabbi, who is so enamored with his own self importance that he spews an insult at an innocent man? Or are we the stubborn man – in truth ugly because he is refusing to forgive the person who hurt him but is now truly repentant.

There is another, very powerful way to read the story. Notice that the ugly man is unnamed. Notice also that Rabbi Elazar is named only at the very beginning of the story as well as the very end. When you read the story, the pronouns become quite confusing as to whom they are referring – the rabbi or the ugly man. Perhaps, then, they are one and the same. The rabbi, riding blissfully along the banks of a river, confronts the ugly part of himself, the part that contains doubt about his ability to serve a community. He can forgive himself only after arriving in the community and sees he must act on their behalf.

Each of us has our ugly man, our dark side, our regretted actions, our warts, our pits of despair. We cringe from confronting them, afraid that they are too terrible to forgive. On my 31st birthday, I received a phone call from my childhood friend, Helene. While growing up our families always had seder together. Helene was like the sister I did not have. She called ostensibly to wish me a happy birthday, but I noticed that her voice sounded strange, flat, unaffected. This was a person who was usually joyful, animated. When I asked her mother what was wrong, she said that my friend was in depression, but not to worry as the therapist said all was under control. A week later she turned up missing. After a day of no news I suggested to her sister that we fly up to Boston, where Helene lived, and start to look for her. So we did. Before leaving a friend who was a psychologist told me what to look for in her apartment that would be signs of a possible suicide. When we walked into her apartment, it looked like a textbook case of someone suicidal. The place was in shambles. Coins piled everywhere, multiple checkbooks and bank accounts strewn around. I found a journal in which she berated herself for her perceived failures. On the second day of searching we got the news. Helene had returned to her mother’s house, sneaked into the basement when no one was around, and shot herself in the head. I see her call to me as a cry for help. To this day I wonder if I could have changed her fate by reaching back to her more quickly and directly.

Yes, we have a hard time forgiving each other. But sometimes the hardest person to forgive is our self. Sometimes that ugly aspect of the self erupts at the most inopportune moment, pushing us into doubt, anger, even depression. Sometimes what angers us about the actions of others is that they reflect something embarrassing or difficult in ourselves. Our inability to forgive their action derives from our own shame, our own anger at being reminded that WE have that flaw, that defect, that need. So we tell them we forgive them, but cannot forget! We cannot forget because that shame is one we are bearing. We cannot forget because our own actions mirror the hurtful deeds of the other.

So here is the third aspect to the story. Rashi says the ugly man is actually Eliyahu Hanavi, zecher letov, sent by God to teach the rabbi a hard lesson. Perhaps the ugly man is not merely Rabbi Elazar wrestling with the ugly aspect of himself. Perhaps the ugly man is there to show Rabbi Elazar that all of the ugly aspects he sees in others are actually present in himself. When the ugly man tells Elazar to go talk to the artist who made him, he (Eliyahu) is trying to teach Elazar that God made them both, and they are dopplegangers – mirror images of each other. Elazar needs to do that work on himself. He needs to reflect on himself, to understand himself, and finally, to accept and forgive himself. Then, and only then, can Elazar, indeed can any of us, truly forgive the others around us.

Today is Yom Kippur – the day of atonement. But the word kapeir not only means to atone, but to forgive. We have been working hard on our teshuvah, our process of getting right with God. Many times we will recite the words, V’al kulam Eloha selichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kapeir lanu, “for these things God of forgiveness, forgive us, expunge us, grant us atonement. May we come to see Yom Kippur not only as our day of Atonement, but our day of forgiveness as well. May we not only gain forgiveness from God, may we also forgive ourselves, leading us to forgive each other. Kein yehi ratzon, may that be God’s will.

 

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