Everybody Needs a Little Forgiveness

Elul Day 18

Forgiveness–an overused and misunderstood concept. Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement, but the word atone has acquired overtones and undertones of guilt, shame and blame; and forgiveness implies that a hurtful occurrence is condoned. I emphatically disagree. 

Actually, many self-help books have been written on the topic of forgiveness, one of which is by Stanford psychologist Frederic Luskin. There are also some useful spiritual resources, some of which specifically focus on this auspicious time in the Jewish calendar. I also know that my colleagues and friends from other faith traditions have their own rich theological understanding of forgiveness. 

Any spiritual practice for the High Holy Days, includes a thorough immersion in asking forgiveness, and forgiving ourselves, at several levels:

Mechilah–releasing the other's indebtedness
Selichah–a deeper, more humble letting go, a genuine heartfelt empathy
Kapparah or Tahorah–renewal, purification, transformation

The Ashamnu prayer recited on Yom Kippur is an alphabetically organized collective confession for the entire community. Rabbi Burt Jacobson has written a version which brackets our confession with affirmation of our essential goodness: 

"Who are we? We're light and truth/ And infinite wisdom, eternal goodness/ Yet we've abused, we've betrayed/ We've been cruel, yes, we've destroyed…"

As the list of sins continues, it is traditional to pound your heart with your fist as each sin is named; hardly a gesture of light and truth and eternal goodness.  
Some people instead make a hand gesture of releasing something from the heart, while others refrain from any hand motions whatsoever.  

I prefer to give a little tap with my fist, imagining myself knocking on the door of my heart with each recitation. The rhythm of this prayer gives me a feeling of flow and movement, a reminder that forgiveness and atonement are incomplete without action. We are moving through a healing process individually and collectively. 

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin says:

"Does this text imply that each of us is guilty of the entire list [of transgressions]? Of course not, it means that each of us may have committed only one or two of these acts, but we are capable of committing all of them, and we may even be complicit in their commission by another. We cover for each other…and it [this prayer] is an equalizer. It teaches us not to judge another's misdeeds more harshly than we would judge our own."
–from The Tapestry of Jewish Time, p. 76-77.

The intention is not to cultivate shame and blame; rather it is to release anything that is weighing us down, interfering with our full and complete restoration, purification, return to wholeness. Whatever you want to call it, we get a fresh start. This practice not only connects us to the tradition, but can also be understood as egalitarian, if not revolutionary, since we all get our fresh start together, unequivocally, as a collective community. 

Let's take a walk on the bridge

Right over this mess
Don't need to tell me a thing, baby
We've already confessed
And I raised my voice to the air
And we were blessed
Everybody needs a little forgiveness

–Patty Griffin