As anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship knows, long-term relationships depend, more than anything, on…. forgiveness. People of a certain age–ish, may remember those immortal words from the 70’s move Love Story – “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” As a Unitarian Universalist, this is an exciting moment for me personally because I’m about to say a sentence that, in our open-ended, accepting faith, is exceedingly rare. That “love means never having to say you’re sorry” – that is exactly wrong. Love definitely means having to say you’re sorry. Also love means having to mean it when you say it. Love requires the practice – and not the perfection, thank goodness – but absolutely the practice – of forgiveness.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins tonight, followed by the 10 Days of Awe – a time of reckoning, concluding with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Taken together, this time is the most important in the Jewish calendar, filled with ritual, reflection, and renewal. They are grounded in a theology of forgiveness that offers much to all people, regardless of heritage or religious affiliation.
As much as I like eating apples with honey to invoke a sweet new year, my favorite thing about these days is definitely this theology of forgiveness. It’s not the traditional Christian take, which offers turning the other cheek, or indirect absolution through confession, or private acts of contrition, and puts the burden of forgiveness on the person or people who have been wronged. No, in Jewish theology, the only way to get ourselves back in right relationship with everything and everyone is to do it directly. And if we want – and believe in – any kind of divine or larger forgiveness or redemption, that can’t happen until and unless we make things right with those we’ve wronged here on this mortal plane.
Back when I was in Divinity School and just beginning to learn to preach, I preached a deeply inept sermon in preaching class one week. It was so inept that it was actually hurtful to another student, who had a much more nuanced understanding of the topic. The student was a fellow Unitarian Universalist and someone I liked and was friendly with. After I was done, she let me know in no uncertain terms that my sermon had been ill-conceived and hurtful. I was shocked and upset at the impact it had on her, and I apologized profusely. But she was still hurt and still mad, and was in no mood to accept my apology. And that was it. We stopped speaking to each other. We went from friends to strangers. We would pass each other in the hall with no acknowledgement. After graduation we would often see each other at General Assembly – and still pass each other with no acknowledgement, or pretend not to see each other in that painfully obvious way that fools neither of you. But that was the pattern we landed in for years, and then decades. And I was still sorry for what had happened and for this pattern we’d fallen into, but there seemed no way out of it.
Then a couple of years ago, at a ministers’ conference we were both attending, she came up to me. You could have knocked me over with a feather. After all those decades of skating our eyes over or past each other, she looked right at me. She spoke to me. Her voice was gentle and her eyes were steady. She told me she wanted to talk and asked me to meet her for a meal. I agreed, full of trepidation but also full of completely unexpected hope. And when I met her the next day, she thanked me for meeting her and told me she wanted to apologize. She’d heard a sermon at that conference that made her think of this painful estrangement between us, and she wanted to end it. She knew she’d been unforgiving all those years ago, and that I hadn’t meant to hurt anyone with that ill-considered sermon, that we were students trying to learn, including from our mistakes – but it had cut deep and been to hard to move past at the time. She regretted that she’d been so unyielding and harsh, our friendship had mattered to her, and asked if we could move past what had happened and be in better relationship, right relationship, going forward. I immediately said yes, that I had regretted what had happened all the time since then, and that I really appreciated her largeness of spirit in coming forward after all this time – because time has that way of making things worse, the more time that passes, the harder it is to fix the problem, apologize or explain or reach out – until it goes from awkward to impossible and then becomes fixed, set like a statue in the landscape of our life. I’m still humbled now, thinking of what it took for her to reverse the paralysis of decades and make this change. I’ve had a couple of occasions to be in touch with her since then – and I was so glad, so glad, that I could talk to her, and work with her. Even incidental exchanges between us now are beautiful to me because of what had been overcome to make them possible.
This is that regret “That Lonesome Road” is all about – but the song’s prescription is meant for living with regret. That’s a road we’ve all walked some time or other. But the high holy days about to begin are predicated on the understanding that regret is not supposed to be a way of life; regret is a symptom we are supposed to pay attention to. In fact, we should turn our head and look back and think about what we are dragging along in our wake – what we have accepted instead of addressed. The traumas and struggles that have left emotional, spiritual shrapnel inside us, and instead of moving through the procedure that will get it out of us, we let our bodies grow around the shrapnel, even though it keeps hurting, even though it keeps us from moving freely through our lives, even when we owe it to ourselves to engage what would be healing, both for our own living and because we owe it to anyone we have wronged. And Judaism holds that no one is blameless – and that that’s alright – we don’t need to be perfect, we need to be real and doing our best, and if we’re being real and doing our best, then we can acknowledge that all of us have done something in the past year we can try to make right. In the traditional Jewish liturgy, the congregation beats their breast while reciting together that “we have lied, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have hurt others” – but guilt is a famed part of that culture and theology. It’s not for me to say what anyone else has done, or that all of us have lied, stolen, betrayed, but I think we can agree that there’s always some hurt we’ve been part of in the past year that could be better. This holiday tells us it could be way better, it could be healed, it could even be holy and we can be whole. No one has to walk a lonesome road, that’s not what we are here for.
While the responsibility for earning forgiveness lies with the wrongdoer, the responsibility for moving towards that wholeness lies with both parties. In traditional Judaism, there are, of course, traditions and rules for how apology, atonement and forgiveness unfold. If someone apologizes, fully and authentically, and offers meaningful atonement, then the person who has been wronged has to look within and see if they can forgive. If they can’t, then the wrongdoer should try again, apologize again. According to the guidelines, this needs to happen at least three times, the apologizing. And if that doesn’t work, then of course, the wrongdoer can go to the rabbi and ask for their help with the process – because it matters that much. You can’t just let it go. When my friend and colleague rejected my apology, I should have tried again. And again. But I didn’t. Maybe if I had – any time in the last couple of decades – we could have healed a long time ago. But I didn’t, I let it lie, and that’s on me. Even when I preached about these holidays and the onus to keep trying for forgiveness, I never connected to dots to that blow up and injury between me and this colleague so long ago. Even as I called family and friends every year to apologize for any hurt I’d caused and ask for forgiveness, year after year, it never occurred to me to call that colleague. The shrapnel was in too deep, or I’d become too accustomed to it. I didn’t even think about it until I would see her or hear something about her, and then I’d feel the pain – and shame – all over again. But I would never have done anything more about it if she hadn’t come forward to me.
When we turn our vision, the lens of these holidays, on ourselves and our relationships, what do we see? What do we see we could do better? What does it show us about the amends we need to make, and the life and relationships we could have, healing, wholly, from within?