“Forgiveness is a funny thing. It warms the heart and cools the sting.”
These words by William A. Ward, suggest that forgiveness brings comfort, similar to a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day or a Band-Aid with Benadryl cream carefully placed on a cut or scrape. It sure sounds good, but as we prepare for the solemn day of Yom Kippur, we know that it is not that simple.
In our prayer book, we read the words of our sages:
“For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for the transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”
We cannot come before God to ask forgiveness for what we have done to another human being until we have approached that person to make amends. The rabbis understood that we might be inclined to shirk our responsibility, to try to avoid the often difficult and painful process of coming before someone we wronged.
Perhaps the fear of asking for forgiveness stems from our belief that we have to be perfect. It seems that we carry the assumption that we are all good or all bad, completely perfect or severely flawed. If we have done something wrong, if we have hurt someone, especially those close to us, then we must be bad. This shame paralyzes us from approaching others and asking for their forgiveness. We expect too much of ourselves, and demand perfection — thereby forgetting our human limitations.
But we are not perfect. And we do not have to be. Our tradition assumes that each of us has flaws and foibles. Our task then, is to recognize that what we are searching for is, not perfection, but humanity. Only when we realize this can we begin the hard work of seeking forgiveness.
It is difficult work. Saying “I’m sorry” is not easy. Those simple words just do not come naturally to us. It means admitting that we did something wrong — that our actions hurt someone we love. Saying “I’m sorry” and truly meaning what we say is a task that takes inner strength. And yet, we must do it. Why? Because saying “I’m sorry” gives us the means to mend our broken relationships. Saying “I’m sorry” heals us; saying “I’m sorry” helps us to become whole.
As we conclude this High Holy Day season, may we take advantage of the opportunity Yom Kippur gives us to bring wholeness and holiness into our lives.
G’mar Chatimah Tova. May we be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)