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Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness

September 4, 2013 By:
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We Jews are a sorry bunch. It must be so — our holiest holiday is dedicated to atonement. But it’s not just Jews. The headlines are filled with the misdeeds of former heroes and their subsequent apologies. Does God forgive them? Do we? Do we forgive ourselves and seek forgiveness from those we have wronged? Why should we even attempt it? And when we do try, why is seeking and granting forgiveness so difficult?

“Atoning and forgiving is only difficult if you are doing it right,” says Rabbi Eli Hirsch of Mekor Habracha, a Center City synagogue. “Offering quick and easy apologies means that you probably are not taking responsibility for the pain you’ve caused. And it’s interesting that we can sense when an apology is insincere.”

Rabbi Moshe Brennan of Penn Wynne Chabad says that his congregants struggle with what constitutes atonement. “They ask, ‘So all I have to do is sincerely apologize and God will forgive me?’ and I say, ‘Yes. But how many times in your life have you sincerely apologized? Do you know what that even means?’ ”

Shouldn’t it be easier? Can’t we just confess, say a few prayers and get on with it? “We are not the ‘turn the other cheek’ religion,” Hirsch says. “Part of the problem is that the intent of Yom Kippur has morphed under the influence of Christianity’s version of forgiveness.”

Brennan agrees. “We are not the religion that says, ‘I must forgive everyone automatically.’ Our religion says, ‘I need to see that you understand that what you did is wrong, have taken steps so that you don’t repeat it, and are making a sincere apology to me. Then, I’ll consider forgiving you.’ ”

Indeed, there is no commandment that we must forgive. “That is because each sin is unique and each sinner’s approach to atonement is unique, as is each relationship and its circumstances,” explains Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox organization. “But God wants us to make amends because he cares about our relationships with each other. He demonstrates that by forgiving us again and again.”

That’s how Yom Kippur originated, explains Hirsch, who thinks of the holiday as one part of the whole of the Jewish calendar. According to tradition, it begins with Shavuot, when God made his covenant with the Jewish people. Just 40 days later, God found the Jews worshipping a golden calf. “Imagine that God has just ‘married’ the Jews, and then they commit adultery by worshipping another god,” Hirsch says. “God gets very upset and wants to destroy the Jewish people. He wants a divorce. Moses is like the marriage counselor. He pleads with God to reconsider and points out the Jewish people’s good qualities. Finally, God forgives us and that day, the 10th of Tishrei, becomes our most holy of holiest days. It’s kind of like renewing your marriage vows and promising to be a better husband — except we still make mistakes.”

That is why Jews need Yom Kippur. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, darn, I have to go to shul,’ ” Hirsch says. “It’s that we get this one day to tell God how much we love Him and how sorry we are if we have hurt Him — and He will listen to us. It’s also demonstrating atonement by not eating or drinking because all of our attention, on this one day, is on God. It is our day to show Him our devotion.”

One of the ways we can demonstrate that devotion, says Germantown Jewish Centre’s Rabbi Annie Lewis, is to repair the relationships in our lives, to follow not just the spirit of the law, but the very letter of it. “ ‘Yom Kippur’ comes from kapporet, which means to cover over something,” she explains. To draw on God’s abounding compassion, she says, we have to cover over the holes in our lives caused by past failings. “God will not grant us forgiveness from something we have done to another person until we seek forgiveness ourselves from the person. Yom Kippur is a powerful time to work on these relationships.”

For Brennan, Yom Kippur is primarily about asking for God’s forgiveness. Making amends with humans is a separate thing. If someone has caused financial damage, then financial compensation must be made and the Torah has a formula for calculating the amount. But neither money nor anything it can buy qualifies as atonement unless it is accompanied by an apology. And people really need that apology. “We want the recognition that harm was done and pain was caused,” Dratch agrees. “A lot of money can be spent on gifts when what is actually required is an honest, ‘I apologize for hurting you.’ ”

What if the person wronged never forgives? The Torah addresses that, too. The offender has to offer sincere apologies three times, Brennan explains. If he or she is not forgiven after that, then the atonement may be accepted by God. Some scholars say that if forgiveness is not granted after three attempts, the sin reverts to the person not accepting the apology. Dratch considers that a bit too strong of a statement, but says, “We need to be the example for how we want God to treat us. It would be hypocritical of us to ask for God’s forgiveness but not give it to others.”

But some things seem impossible to forgive. As the founder of JSafe, a Jewish organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence and child abuse, Dratch should know. How could atonement be made for those crimes? How could forgiveness ever be granted?

“Repentance is the obligation of the perpetrator and forgiveness is the prerogative of the victim,” Dratch explains. “In many cases, abusers follow the same steps as those who have committed other wrongs: admitting guilt, taking steps to make sure that the behavior is not repeated and sincerely apologizing to the victim. Those three things can take a lifetime to accomplish. Many abusers will not even admit their crimes and so can never earn forgiveness.”

Whether or not the abuser asks for it, victims often try to forgive as part of their healing process. “Jewish law does not oblige a victim to forgive,” Dratch clarifies. “But when you hold on to hurt or anger, you hold on to the crime and allow it to define you. By forgiving, people who have been controlled by others take control over their minds, bodies and self-images. They say, ‘I will not allow your actions to influence me any more. I will be the person that I want to be.’ ”

Forgiveness is very different than consequence, Dratch says, and one of those consequences is punishment. “Someone may hurt you and you may forgive, but perhaps you don’t want that person in your life anymore, or perhaps not in the way they were before,” he says.

Lewis also believes that forgiving is the key to Yom Kippur, even if there can be no concomitant forgetting. “What happens in the past doesn’t go away,” she says, “but we find a way to integrate it into the new people we become through the work ofteshuvah, seeking to repair our relationships with ourselves, with God, with other people.”

The cycle of forgiveness has been constant for thousands of years, and has applied to all Jews, regardless of their importance. God loved Moses completely and forgave his sins, but that forgiveness did not mean that Moses was allowed to go into the Promised Land. That exclusion was the result of the wrongs he committed.

That’s the other purpose of Yom Kippur, Hirsch believes. “It is a cautionary tale that we carry with us,” he says, “because when it comes to forgiveness, God has the final say.” o

Melissa Jacobs is a contributing editor to Inside, This Summer and other publications of the Jewish Exponent. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine.

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