Sunday, October 9, 2011

ask not (kol nidre 5772)

The Talmud teaches that for all but the most grievous sins against God, if a person repents come Yom Kippur he or she will be forgiven. In fact, for some sins (the “thou shalts,” where you didn’t do something you were supposed to do), forgiveness comes immediately, before you’ve even had time to move. Whether or not you believe that, or whether or not you believe in a God who can forgive sin, or a God who can be sinned against, or a God at all, the possibility of that kind of forgiveness – that grace, really – is pretty damn compelling. That simply by feeling bad about the stuff I feel bad about, and saying so, I can be relived of having to feel bad about myself…well, who wouldn’t want that?

And so as Yom Kippur approaches, we seek it out, if not from a God we might not believe in, we ask one another for that grace. “I’m sorry that I hurt you,” we might say to a friend, neighbor, or colleague, “I hope you’ll forgive me.” Or, “If I hurt you, I hope you’ll forgive me.” We might even broadcast it, posting on our Facebook pages, or on our listserves, or tweeting it out: “If I’ve hurt any of you, I hope you’ll forgive me.”

But in doing that, we forget. We forget what the Talmud teaches, that if I hurt another person I’m responsible for all kind of reparations: for physical harm and emotional harm, for long-term effects as well as short-term ones. And we forget what we learn from the ketubah, that when someone becomes vulnerable to me, I become responsible for guarding that vulnerability. In short we forget that the business of atonement is not so that we won’t feel bad about what we’ve done, but so that we can make better what we’ve done.

When we do that, not only do we miss the point of atonement, and lose an opportunity to bring some healing, some repair to our screw-ups, we forget that we can bring some repair to our screw-ups. What we do is more deeply inscribe a story in which all we are, are helpless screw-ups in need of forgiveness.

So I wonder what if we focused less on the grace we want, and more on the healing that those we’ve hurt need; if we started saying “If I’ve done anything to hurt you, I hope you’ll tell me what you need from me to begin to be whole.” It might help us be a little less selfish. And it might actually help out some people who need it. And we might discover that while we may indeed be screw-ups, we are screw-ups who can do some good, who can still – in spite of our brokenness, in spite of our screw-ups – bring some healing, some repair to the world. Which realization is itself a kind of grace.