Yom Kippur is known as the Day of Atonement, the day when we are forgiven for our sins. This not as simple as some magical ritual that wipes the slate clean. Judaism acknowledges that God can only forgive for sins between “Man and God,” for sins that occur between “Man and Man,” between a person and his or her neighbor, the forgiveness must happen between them.
Why do people need to forgive in the first place?
It says in the Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This mitzvah seems so obvious a child can understand it. “If I am just like everyone else then I shouldn’t do something to someone else that I know would hurt me.” Yet people do not always listen to this mitzvah, and they sometimes hurt each other. After being hurt, the pain, the lack of understanding why — why would someone do something so irrational as to hurt another human being!? — could make someone want to put up a wall against the person who hurt them.
It says in the Midrash (a body Jewish spiritual teachings written around 2,000 years ago) that Hashem created the world with the quality of Din and saw that no one could survive so Hashem threw in the quality of Rachamim. “Din” means strict judgment — if a person does good, they receive good; if a person does bad, they receive bad. If we lived this way considering the amount of mistakes people make they would not be able to stand for very long. “Rachamim” is the quality of mercy, it means having every right to be angry to exact justice, but instead to act with kindness. Forgiveness is taking the wall down that we have put in front of our heart.
After being hurt its easy to hold a grudge, to psychologically hold on to the thorn we believe was put in our heart by whomever hurt us, and to point the finger of blame at whomever we believe to be guilty. Besides individuals a person could also blame “the system” or “society.” What I have learned is that to hold a grudge against someone takes energy, like if I were holding a heavy object against a wall, I would have to exert effort to maintain the object there. If someone wanted to give me hug, or if I wanted to paint or cook, I wouldn’t be able to because my hands would be occupied holding that object there. So too, when I am holding a grudge against someone, I have to burn psychological calories to keep that grudge there. That is energy I could be using for something else, to be more loving in a relationship, to engage in acts of creativity or kindness, but until I put down that grudge, that energy is stuck maintaining a wound from the past. Forgiveness is putting down the thorn of anger in our heart, allowing that wound to heal and opening our hands.
There is a Midrash that says before God created the world, God created Teshuvah. Teshuvah has many meanings: On it most primordial level it means to “return”; on a more practical level it means to regret our mistakes and to turn toward goodness. People make mistakes. Sometimes we even do things we know are not best for ourselves. If we hold a grudge against ourselves and others for not doing what is best for us, we could spend a very long time being stuck over something that happened in the past. Teshuvah on its highest level means to return to the Infinite Source from which we all come. Teshuvah was made before the world, and therefore before time, this means Teshuvah allows us to start over and step out of being slaves to what happened in the past. The primacy of our ability to return, to fix our actions, was created even before our ability to act.
Yom Kippur is the day of “atonement” — of “at-One-ment.” When we forgive, we are also doing Teshuvah and are able to spiritually stand in that place before creation. Before the past, before the future, we are able to stand in the Infinite present moment in which God is re-creating the world — making “something out of nothing” — every single second. When we forgive, we are returning to God, we are returning to Love and we are setting ourselves free. We are affirming the possibility of goodness and life for whomever hurt us which is what we ourselves want even if we have made mistakes.
May Hashem bless us that this Yom Kippur we are forgiven by God, ourselves and each other and be written and sealed for a good and sweet year in the Book of Life!