By the time you receive this message, the weekend of Labor Day 2021 will have already begun. Rosh Hashanah, 5782, will commence on the evening of Monday, September 6. We will gather in person and online to usher in the New Year with solemnity, seriousness and high purpose. A difficult year lies behind us and a still unknown future is unfolding in front of us with twists and turns in the road that we cannot even begin to imagine at this point. Some us will be in the sanctuary together, some will watch at home, others will participate from the Jersey Shore and beyond. Together, live and virtual, we will listen to the Shofar, offer our prayers and hopefully, be renewed, individually and collectively by the prayers, music and rites of the New Year.
We began our New Year celebrations last Saturday night, August 28, with a live Selichot service in our Sanctuary. The Cantor and her musical team presented the entire repertoire of holiday classics from Kol Nidrei to Shema Koleinu. The music was solemn and stirring. For my part, I helped lead the prayers, most importantly the “Confessions” and gave a talk on the theme of Forgiveness. Forgiveness, as you know, is central to the High Holy Days. On the holidays, we begin by asking God to forgive us for our hidden sins against God and then move on to ask for forgiveness for our personal sins and, lastly, our sins against other people. However, if we have actually hurt other people, we must ask them for forgiveness directly or offer them restitution of some sort. As the Mahzor, the holiday prayer book states, “Yom Kippur [only] atones for sins against God.”
Forgiveness is a complex subject. Today, it is actually studied scientifically in Psychology Departments in universities around the world. To say, “I forgive,” is no easy matter. Do you forgive and give amnesty for sins against you, do you forgive without amnesty to simply achieve a cold peace, and do you forgive and forget? These are just some of questions psychologists are asking about forgiveness today. The range of forgiveness is immense.
I remember a crime committed in my college town of Lancaster, PA, a few years ago when a killer murdered a young Amish girl. She had actually offered herself to protect her little sister. The Amish community not only collectively forgave the killer but also brought gifts of reconciliation to his family. On the other hand, there is the challenging 1969 book on forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal who tells of a wounded and dying SS soldier who had committed unthinkable crimes in the Lemberg Concentration Camp who asked to be forgiven before he died. Wiesenthal asked 53 people to respond and their answers cover an immense range of possibilities from exoneration to the impossibility of forgiveness. The respondents were basically equally divided between those who would have forgiven, those who would not forgive and those who were uncertain as to what to do.
The ambiguity of forgiveness is exactly why we need the high holy days as we work through this moral and spiritual challenge from Selichot to Yom Kippur. Only God’s forgiveness of us for our sins against God alone is guaranteed. The rest of the process is dynamic, difficult and, ultimately, necessary.
Why concentrate on forgiveness? Because it offers us, an opportunity to start the New Year with a clean slate on life, a pure heart and a reset on our moral and spiritual lives. In my opinion, the goal of the holidays is to enable us to begin our new year with a renewed focus on the Jewish value of Hesed or love, kindness, lovingkindness, mercy and charity. To be less conflicted on the outside and more caring on the outside toward others, society and the world around us.
This year for the holidays, we will be concentrating on the theme of Hesed. Our goal is make our congregation a better community; a more caring and loving place, to be a beacon of the light of love to our neighbors, the world and us. That process has already begun with Selichot. Soon it will be Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur. We have much to do together, inner work, spiritual work, the work of renewal and recommitment to one of Judaism’s core values, Hesed, lovingkindness.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.