September 19, 2009. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had just successfully completed my very first Rosh Hashanah as a Student Rabbi at the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in California. After singing the final blessing and wishing everyone a Shana Tova, I was heaving a huge sigh of relief and was giving myself a pat on the back for a job well done when it happened.
A man named Carl caught my eye from across the room and came over to talk to me. Before I could say anything, he abruptly asked, “Did you notice that I took my keys out during services today?” “Well, no…” I said. Services are kind of a busy time for me. “Well I took my keys out during services and shook them,” he said. “Because I noticed that you were off-key when you were singing one of the prayers, and I thought that if I showed you my keys, maybe it would be a signal for you that you lost your key and you should find a new one. So during the service, I shook my keys at you several times to tell you to find a new key.”
To say that my jaw hit the ground and that I was rendered speechless would be an understatement. So yes, this is, in fact, a true story – you can’t make this stuff up. This is the story of my very first High Holidays at my very first pulpit as a rabbinical student. This is the story that I tell, this is the story that lives on in my memory.
Never mind that every single other person in the congregation said that it was a beautiful service. Never mind that I received a dozen emails telling me how meaningful the experience was. Never mind that I started singing in choir in Kindergarten and had been told on multiple occasions that I have a very nice voice. Nope: the keys are what stick.
That comment touched a nerve that I didn’t even realize was sensitive. It hit on a hidden insecurity and caused me to question all of the other nice things that people said to me. And so when I think of my first High Holiday experience, I don’t remember the compliments or the amazing feeling that I got when I stood in front of the ark to sing Avinu Malkeinu for the first time; I remember the keys.
It’s not a coincidence that the moments associated with pain, anger, sadness, and fear are the memories that stay with us. Scientists say that the human brain is exceptionally adept at making sure we keep track of negative and painful memories. This chemical reaction in the brain ensures that these memories do not easily fade.
“Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones…Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events—and use stronger words to describe them—than happy ones.” “This is an adaptive mechanism important for survival. When we are exposed to a real or perceived threatening situation, powerful things happen in the brain to memorialize aspects of the event.” Traumatic events are stress producers which activate the brain, alerting it to the importance of an experience and priming the brain to store the event as “high priority.”
Remembering the keys instead of the compliments is a natural tendency that we all share. We can all recall those times when someone has hurt us so deeply that it’s the only thing we can think about. Because even if we’ve received hundreds of compliments telling us how brilliant we are, how beautiful we are, how kind we are, how generous we are, that one painful insult somehow becomes the only thing that we can hear. Regardless of the praise, it’s the pain that stays with us.
Yom Kippur is a day of memory. As we take stock of our lives, we begin to sift through our memories of the past year. We look deep inside ourselves to think of how we can create new pathways in the coming year instead of falling into old habits. And, as we all know, a large piece of doing teshuvah involves taking an honest look at our relationships. We ask forgiveness from those we’ve wronged and grant forgiveness to those who’ve wronged us. It seems like a simple task, and yet we know that it’s not.
Asking for forgiveness is never easy, and always humbling. And as hard as it is to acknowledge our own wrongdoings, make amends, and ask for forgiveness, this may not be the most difficult task expected of us during these Days of Awe. Because as difficult as asking for forgiveness is, sometimes granting forgiveness can be just as hard.
So, why is that? Why is forgiveness such a monumental task? Why is it difficult even when we want to forgive and forget? Most of us forget things all of the time –mostly the things that we don’t want to forget. So why is it then, that painful memories are the ones that haunt us? On this Day of Repentance, when we are all trying to be our best selves and grant forgiveness, why is forgiveness so hard?
Even though Jewish tradition gives us so many tools that teach us both how to seek forgives and how to grant it, I would argue that we don’t always take our own advice.
If we think about what we can call “The Jewish Story” over the last many centuries, there seem to be two conflicting impulses: Exodus and Sinai. Rabbi Sid Schwartz argues that these are the most formative events in Jewish history, and they help us to explain how Jews have engaged, and continue to engage, in the world.
These two core memories, the memory of the Exodus from Egypt and the memory of standing at Sinai have become the seminal experiences of the Jewish memory and continue to direct how we act even today, generations later. These memories are so engrained in our stories, in our liturgy, and in our rituals, that even though we, ourselves, didn’t experience them, they become our truths and they become our memories.
The Exodus is the story of the Israelites’ bitter oppression in Egypt for 400 years. They were abused, worked to the bone, and forced to kill their own children. And then, one day, God freed the Israelites with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
Sinai on the other hand, is the story of how these very same Israelites stood at the foot of the mountain and received Torah. In accepting this gift and this great responsibility, the Israelites were called to live a higher purpose, to create a way of life in which each person came with their unique gifts to create a holy nation.
Two stories. Two core memories. And two very different emotional experiences. The experience of Exodus was an experience dominated by fear. Fear of persecution, fear of oppression, fear of death. Sinai, on the other hand, was an experience of joy. Joy in the wonder of Torah, joy in the holy community that was created, joy in the many generations of Jews that would get to live by these teachings.
So which is the dominant memory? Which memory do we more readily remember and act upon? We could argue that it’s both. We certainly try our best to live lives filled with holiness, purpose, and meaning with Torah as our guide.
But every so often, something happens that brings us back to the Exodus story. For many of us, this is the default. Especially in our world today, a world where we see anti-Semitism and white supremacy, a world where we feel vulnerable, we frame our actions through the lens of the Exodus narrative rather than the Sinai narrative. When we feel threatened or persecuted, our brains immediately bring back the memories of pain and fear that prime us to go into Exodus mode.
And so, in thinking about forgiveness, we need to ask ourselves why we always go back to the Exodus impulse. Is it perhaps because, we, as a Jewish people, are still holding on to the pain? Is it because we have never forgiven Pharaoh, or really any of our persecutors along the way, for the pain and suffering that has been part of our story? We, as a group, have work to do in the realm of forgiveness – because ONLY then will we readily go to the joy of Sinai rather than the pain of Exodus.
But we’re in luck – we have centuries of instruction on how to seek forgiveness and how to grant it. The tradition tells us that when someone comes to us to ask for forgiveness, we should grant it. In fact, we’re obligated to forgive a person who has done the work of true teshuvah because it would be cruel not to. And some of us have been lucky enough to have had experiences like that, where people come back to us and say, “I am so sorry and so embarrassed and so ashamed of my behavior, and here is all of the work that I’ve done, and here are all of the ways that I have changed.” And when that happens, when we can see that they have truly transformed, it becomes much easier for us to forgive.
But the truth is, most people don’t make it easy for us, do they? And so the question becomes: how do we move forward? What do we do when we are on the receiving end of all of this hurt and all of this pain? What about the times when the people who’ve hurt us either don’t realize the depths of our pain, or we can’t confront them, or they’re just not sorry for what they did? What do we do with the pain? How do we move forward?
In Genesis, we read the story of Jacob and Esau. As was the custom in ancient times, Esau, as the firstborn son, inherited the birthright and the blessing from his father. One day, when they were older, Esau was out hunting and came back famished. He saw his brother, Jacob, making a stew and begged him for something to fill his hungry belly. Jacob consented, but only if his brother would sell him his birthright. Convinced he would otherwise starve, he sold it.
Later in the story, when it becomes clear that Isaac, their father, is dying, Jacob tricks him into thinking that he is Esau and he steals the blessing. So now Jacob has both the birthright and the blessing, and fearing Esau’s retribution, he flees.
Many years later, the two meet. Esau comes out to meet Jacob with four hundred men, and Jacob is terrified, believing that Esau had come to kill him. He prepares an offering of rams, and goats, and camels, and cows, and bulls, and donkeys as a peace offering. When the time came to meet his brother, Jacob approaches him with tremendous fear. But Esau actually runs to meet his brother, embraces him, and kisses him. Not quite the ending you would expect, right?
It turns out that Esau had somehow let go of the pain and forgiven Jacob. He’s not living in the past, dwelling on the many ways – and there were many – in which Jacob had hurt him. Rather, he is living his life fully. Somehow, without Jacob ever having done the work of teshuvah and asking for forgiveness, Esau forgave.
How did that happen? How does Esau do this, and moreover, how can we? Rabbi Sharon Brous explains that there are two categories of forgiveness – one is forgiveness out of social obligation, and the other is forgiveness as an act of grace.
In Judaism, we call this chen, and chen is different than forgiving because you are socially obligated to, or because you know the other party has forgiven you in the past. Forgiveness as an act of grace is simply saying that I don’t want to carry this burden with me anymore. Because I am stronger than that, and I no longer want to be defined by something someone else did to me that they are probably not even thinking about anymore. Because in that case, I am the one who suffers. Because I refuse to be a passive participant in my own life. I don’t forgive you because you deserve it, I forgive you because I deserve it.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that “forgiveness is more than a technique of conflict resolution. It is a stunningly original strategy…In a world without forgiveness, evil begets evil, harm generates harm, and there is no way short of exhaustion or forgetfulness of breaking the sequence. Forgiveness breaks the chain. It introduces into the logic of interpersonal encounter the unpredictability of grace. It represents a decision not to do what instinct and passion urge us to do. It answers hate with a refusal to hate, animosity with generosity. Few more daring ideas have ever entered the human situation. Forgiveness means that we are not destined endlessly to replay the grievances of yesterday. It is the ability to live with the past without being held captive by the past.
Rabbi Brous reminds us that Rambam, a 12th century commentator, in explaining why we cannot hold a grudge or take revenge, quotes a verse from Leviticus. It says “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against others. Instead, love your neighbor as yourself.” She suggests that “the reason that these two ideas are paired with one another is [simple], because, what happens to us when we hold a grudge in our hearts? We’re not able to love fully. And I don’t mean love the perpetrator or the offender fully; I don’t think we ever need to or ought to. I mean that we’re not able to love fully. I mean that if you’re walking around…with a grudge against somebody else and the poison of the hurt someone else caused you, you cannot love your children fully, and you cannot love your friends fully, and you cannot love your partner fully, and we cannot love each other fully. Because that kind of pain in the heart diminishes who we are and what we’re capable of, and it makes us unable to love as we are fully intended to love.”
When we dwell on the pain of the past, we cannot fully engage in the present. If our default is the Exodus narrative of persecution rather than the joy of Sinai, then we are the ones who are hurt; we are the ones who cannot fully engage in the world around us; we are the ones who cannot live fully or love fully.
And so when we think about those two core memories, of Exodus and Sinai, what if we thought of them, just for a moment, through the lens of forgiveness? Because I don’t believe that we were meant to hold onto the pain of the Exodus for this long. I believe that we were meant to learn from it and grow from it, and that we are meant to forgive, but not to forget. Every year, we remember the Exodus and relive the journey from slavery to freedom at our Passover seders. But then we count the Omer, the fifty days between Passover and the receiving of Torah at Sinai on Shavuot. We remember the Exodus and tell the story, but receiving Torah was meant to serve as our cue to let go of the pain and hold onto the joy.
Our Torah continues to remind us that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. But there is always something that comes after that. A “therefore,” an action. We remember the past so that we can live fully in the present. We can’t do that if we have not done the work of forgiveness. Pharoah does not deserve our forgiveness but we forgive him anyway, not because he deserves it, but because we do.
When I think about my first High Holidays at China Lake, it’s the keys that I remember. At this point in my life, years later, I find this story to be quite humorous. But at the time, I was hurt. It was only when I was able to forgive Carl and let go of the pain that I was able to find humor in the situation and grow from the experience.
But it’s not just the “Carls” in our lives that we need to forgive. Relationships are hard, and many of us harbor deep wounds that continue to fester long after the initial insult. For these too, we grant forgiveness – not because they’ve earned it, but because we have. We have earned the right to let go of the pain of the past.
On Yom Kippur, we ask God to forgive us out of grace. We say Avinu Malkeinu, choneinu v’anenu, ki ein banu ma’asim. Avinu Malkeinu, give us grace and answer us even though we have little merit, even though we don’t deserve it. Bless us with grace and forgive us. On this Yom Kippur, may we have the strength to do the same.