Yom Kippur is not actually today, it’s on Saturday coming. At the moment, our Jewish brothers and sisters are marking what is called, ‘The Days of Awe’, or ‘The days of repentance’ - ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year, which was on Wednesday, when they celebrated their 5778th year; years from the traditionally held creation of Adam and Eve. It’s not a coincidence that it’s at this time of year, with us having our Harvest service next week, Rosh Hashanah corresponding to the beginning of the sowing, growing, and harvesting season in the ancient Near East. Adam and Eve are brought to life, and the ground brings forth its bounty, and the cycle continues. In the West, we tend to mark our new year’s by looking forward, making resolutions for the coming year. These ‘Ten days of Awe’ in the Jewish Calendar is to do the opposite, to look back over the mistakes of our past year, and say sorry for them. Days of self-reflection in which we discover where one needs to ask or offer forgiveness. And, as we say in our communion services, Jesus said - if you are bringing your gift to the altar and there remember that your neighbour has something against you, leave your gift before the altar, first be reconciled with your neighbour and then come and offer your gift. For in the Jewish tradition one first forgives, before asking for forgiveness. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I did a service on forgiveness: don’t merely forgive 7 times, but I tell you 77 times. The focus today though is slightly different - whereas that service was on one’s private commitment to being a more forgiving person, today’s is about our collective commitment to forgiveness. Setting aside days to collectively expunge our debt with one another, not by forgetting, but by remembering. Last week I spoke about the purpose of community, and I said religion is really made up of rituals and practices to help us remember. ‘The Days of Awe’ give us cause to remember together, and forgive together. Not to forgive and forget, but to forgive and remember. So there we go, three services that follow on from each other so well, it’s almost as if I planned it this way.
The very idea of ‘forgive and forget’ is quite a silly one. Who can really forget profound hurt? To just forget would be to lie ourselves, to not be true. No, we must forgive, which is to say, not hold anyone in our debt, but not forget. Much of the time, remembering is an important part of real forgiveness. And refusing to forgive may well be doing us more harm than anyone else. One of the sayings of the Buddha is, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.” And so, we forgive, that we may begin to heal, we forgive collectively, that we as community might heal, and move forward together. Forgiveness is not something to be rushed. It takes time to heal. The story needs to be told, be voiced. What the hurt really means needs to be grappled with, and then after the fact, we need to appreciate the gift we have given ourselves and one another in forgiving. I came across an advice list by the Stanford Psychologist Dr. Fred Luskin on forgiveness. I think it is quite helpful, so I’ll share it. It goes:
1. Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then, tell a trusted couple of people about your experience.
2. Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.
3. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that upset you, or condoning of their action. What you are after is to find peace.
4. Get the right perspective on what is happening [now]. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering [in this moment], not what offended you or hurt you two minutes – or ten years –ago.
5. At the moment you feel upset [rising again,] practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight response. [Forgiving does not mean that magically, everything will be better. You may still recall the suffering. What it does offer is a new way to deal with the pain, and less attachment to it.]
8. Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you.
9. Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.
I think that last one is particularly powerful - having forgiven, we change the story, the script we tell ourselves. The story doesn’t end with the hurt, but with the forgiveness we offered in this building, the new person we have been able to become, released into new ways of being in this world. Or to put it another way, we forgive to rescue the most valuable part of ourselves. So, in recalling the most painful things, we can begin to find new meaning or hope. The reason these simple truths must be expressed with such frequency is because in the real world, in reality, we rarely follow this kind of advice, opting for a middle road between forgiving and forgetting. We move all too quickly to ‘it’s okay’, but secretly nurture deep hurt in our hearts. We grit our teeth as this reluctance burns our hands, and hampers our relationships. It grows up amongst us like a poisonous weed. Within Unitarianism we often think of what our own personal opinion is, what we as individuals think of this idea or that. And that approach certainly works up to a point. The trouble with it of course is its insular nature; we all too easily overlook how such pain may be hurting not just ourselves but our community. As another said it, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to discover that prisoner was yourself.”
In ancient Israel, they marked this collective act of forgiveness through a ritual. On Yom Kippur, the high priest would take a goat, a scapegoat, and lay his hands upon it, ritualistically transferring the sins of the people onto the goat. The goat would then be sent off into the wilderness, carrying the sins of the people out into the desert to die a slow lingering death. I think it’s useful to mark, in a ritualistic way, an act of communal forgiveness. I’m going to suggest we don’t kill a goat though, but rather light candles… You may have noticed that we didn’t have our usual period of silence this morning, and that’s because following our musical interlude, we will keep together three minutes of silence, after which we will have a chance to light a candle, a candle to release someone who has hurt us. This might be something that happened a long time ago, or very recently, this might be someone here or someone from our past, it might be something very big, or something very small which we’re struggling to let go off. In these days of Awe, as we move towards the Day of Atonement, celebrated the world over, let us each consider our lives and our hearts. Let us look in the very depths of our interior selves. On this journey, may we find the help of many friends who have travelled this road beside or before us. Because this, like so much of life, is a work best accomplished in the company of friends. May it be so for you.