Jhos’ Yom Kippur Drash
by Jhos Singer
Jewish Tradition teaches that there are 50 gates of understanding. The first 49 are opened by our intellectual questioning and inquiry. But the 50th—the gate of heaven—requires a unique key: your heart.
Ten days ago, several million people from around the world, including all of us in this community, responded to Judaism’s call to show up with our open, broken, beautiful, bountiful hearts……to stand in community and unlock the gates of heaven with the truth of our lives—the horrible bits and beautiful moments; the lived failures that we miraculously survived and our hard won successes that we jubilantly celebrated; the human errors and earthly delights that through their sheer truth crack open the mystical vault.
Each one of you present tonight walked a rugged path to be here, now, with this community. And tonight, through our collective effort, the great, gothic, celestial gates stand unlatched, gaping, creaking and swinging slightly—beckoning us to step in.
And I hope each of us will. But be apprised, Judaism’s sacred realm isn’t a spiritual tourist attraction—it’s not entertainment or a contest; it’s not a trophy nabbing diversion or an action packed adventure. Rather, tonight we enter a court of spiritual law. And we are here to examine our failings and weaknesses, our intentional or unintentional missteps, the messes and pain we have left in our path, and to litigate for ourselves before the heavenly court, pleading for mercy and forgiveness. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a capital case? Death looms over the proceedings.
Yom Kippur is called the little death. We, who choose this ritual, are instructed to refrain from eating, drinking, washing, or having sex—we are told to show up in court unadorned, barefoot, wearing shroud-like clothing; we are asked to shed all signs of our social status, so that, should we lose our case and be left out of the book of life, we’ll be prepared.
And, we are encouraged to argue tenaciously and prove that we are sincere in our efforts to transform. We come together to take responsibility for the pain we have caused, and to demonstrate that we are committed to return to a life of righteousness, to restore our soul’s truth, and to respond to life with a heart of compassion.
Tomorrow, in the late afternoon, when we are well into our fast, the first signs of actual death start to appear amongst us. Many of us will experience headaches, fatigue, and irritation. Our breath will be hosting the stench of hunger, our stomachs empty and growling, our energy weak. Right around that time the heavenly court will adjourn to deliberate, and while we wait, we honor those who have died.
Then, the verdict comes in, and—spoiler alert—all are forgiven! The gates our broken hearts opened, begin to close. Exhausted and trembling, we will shuffle out of God’s gated community to re-enter our messy, earthly sprawl. At Ne’ila, the gates will click shut behind us, and we will arrive back home, acquitted, safe and sound, having been granted a reprieve by the Source of All Being for the crime of being human. God, it turns out forgives easily and often.
And, according to Jewish tradition, God will pretty much forgive anything. The Bible depicts the Hebrew king Menashe as a man who is disrespectful, crude, corrupting, culturally destructive, and blasphemous—his reign is basically one abomination after another. God tries talking to him directly, but Menashe ignores the Divine message. So, The Holy Blessed Oneness has him captured—it isn’t until Menashe finds himself in hooks and fetters on the way to exile in Babylon, that he breaks down in prayer, begging God for mercy!
There is a midrash in the Jerusalem Talmud that says the Angels knew that if God heard Menashe’s prayers he would be forgiven. So the Angels try to block Menashe’s prayer, to no avail. When God hears the confession and entreaty, Menashe is immediately forgiven. And the Angels are scandalized.
“Master of the Universe,” they cry out incredulously, “after all the terrible things he did, are you really going to accept his repentance?” God answers, “If I reject his repentance, I will slam the door in the face of all who are trying to return.”
By forgiving a scoundrel like Menashe, the barriers to spiritual transformation are removed for the rest of us—because if Menashe could be forgiven, anyone can be forgiven. God’s capacity for forgiveness is boundless.
Being the word nerd that I am, I scoured the entire TaNaKh, our Hebrew scripture, for the Hebrew word for forgiveness, salach and its variations. And I discovered something both comforting and troubling: the only references I could find were situations in which human beings were asking for or receiving Divine forgiveness. There was not one instance of a person offering slicha, forgiveness, to anyone. The 18th C poet, Alexander Pope, summed it up in a quip from his Essay on Criticism: “To err is human, to forgive, Divine.” And so, by extension, when we humans forgive, we are tapping into our deepest Divine essence.
Forgiveness between people is complicated. Like God, it is easier to define forgiveness by what it isn’t rather than what it is. It isn’t condoning or excusing crime or cruelty, and it isn’t forgetting or overlooking the pain that has been inflicted. It isn’t a sign of weakness or resignation. And it certainly isn’t passive approval.
What happens if we reframe the idea of forgiveness as an abstention from, or emancipation of, the source of ongoing pain? What if forgiveness is a way to say, “I don’t want to live with this open wound any longer, and I know that if I don’t stop touching it, it is never going to heal”?
But how do we know when to renounce the source of our pain, or when to face it head on? Sometimes we need to analyze and probe our trauma to get through it, and sometimes once the dust settles we need to walk away. It’s hard to know when to tend to the wound, and when to leave it alone. There is simply no “one size fits all” approach—forgiveness is more art than science. Every situation, every cast of characters, and every chapter in our lives will influence how—or if—we are able to forgive.
That said, no matter when, where, how, or why, mastering forgiveness is one key to spiritual freedom, healing, and strength. Even when anger or pain lingers, forgiveness can transform those feelings from being an anchor to being a sail.
Among the most inspirational stories we tell are those that involve deep acts of tshuvah, the return to righteous living, and slicha, forgiveness. Sites including The Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance and The Forgiveness Project share mindboggling testimonials including war zone stories, tales of reconciliation between criminals and their victims, and the healing of self-hate. These epic stories are painful, and beautiful; incomprehensible and terrifying. None of us knows how we will react if our lives were to be impacted by travesties of justice, or senseless violence, or ruthless cruelty. But these things happen everyday—and ordinary people have to respond to extraordinary challenges. And may of them discover the risky, sometimes harrowing path of forgiveness is the best way forward. And what about the smaller stuff? The pain generated from garden-variety pettiness, selfishness, rudeness, and disregard?
As many of you know, when I was in elementary school, I had an unconventional way of dressing. In those days there was a school dress code: pants for boys, dresses or skirts for girls.
And there I was, a transgender kid, whose only way to properly express myself was by wearing clothes I was legally forbidden to wear.
So every day after school, I would race home in my skirt or dress, effect a wardrobe change, and run back in jeans and a t-shirt to play on the playground (because in those days we actually had free, state-funded, supervised afterschool playground programs).
I was in 5th grade, and one day as I was walking home after the playground closed, I was accosted in a vacant lot by a 6th grader named Mary Ann Haney and her younger henchman, Alex. Mary Ann grabbed me by the shirt and said, “Why do you wear these clothes?” Alex, stood menacingly at her side.
I was scared and silent.
Mary Ann “Huh? Why do you wear those clothes? You wanna be a boy or something? ”
I think I may have responded by rolling my eyes or raising an eyebrow.
The next thing I knew there were 4 hands all over me, pulling at my clothes, and punching. I got knocked down, instinctively rolled onto my belly and crossed my ankles. My face was in the dirt, my arms tucked neatly under my chest. They were hammering me, and screaming. The ruckus alerted someone living next to the lot, who stuck their head out and yelled, “Whattaya you kids doin’ out there? Cut it out. Get outta here.” Mary Ann Haney and Alex, realizing their sin had been witnessed, dashed off.
I lay there for a moment. The neighbor yelled, “You alright, kid?” I got up, brushed myself off, and yelled back, “I’m OK, thanks.”
What I most remember about that day is the texture of the dirt in that lot. It was very powdery and a rich coffee color and it had a kind of sweet smell, sort of briney with notes of fennel. That’s it. I got a cut on my thumb from a piece of glass in the dirt. I don’t remember feeling scared, or angry, or sad. I don’t remember crying. I just remember that I didn’t say anything…and the color, smell and texture of the dirt. Sometimes trauma makes us numb.
And though I didn’t fight back and didn’t get angry then—I also did not stop wearing jeans and a tee shirt after school. And while there may have been a few sideways glances, Mary Ann Haney and I had no further encounters.
Until a few years later when who should be waiting at my bus stop on my first day of Jr. High School but Mary Ann Haney. At first my stomach dropped. This was not good. But then I noticed her attire. It was 1971, the Los Angeles Public School District had updated the dress code, and now I was legal. And you probably won’t be shocked, but Mary Ann Haney was dressed in jeans, a tee shirt—OK, it was a cap sleeve, but come on—and sneakers. I pulled myself up, took my place at the bus stop, chest up, spine erect, and stood next to her. Mary Ann looked at me and said, “Hey.” I said, “Hey.”
She said, “Scrub?”
I said, “What…?”
She said, “Scrub. You know, you’re a 7th grader right?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m a scrub.” I said.
“OK, well look, stay away from the hall bathrooms, you know that right?”
I was thrown off my game, and muttered, “Uh, no….”
Mary Ann explained, “Oh yeah, it’s pretty much a death trap for scrubs.”
I stuttered, “Um, OK…”
She continued, “Far out. Just pee when you go to gym—there are always teachers in there, never use the hall bathrooms.”
“Um, yeah, OK. Thanks.”
“Yeah, well, cool.”
The bus came and we got on. We didn’t sit together.
There on a foggy fall morning, adolescent tshuvah and slicha, restitution and forgiveness filled the air.
Whether we struggle and sweat to find our way to forgive, or if it comes easily—whether the pain we have experienced is cataclysmic or trivial, the reward is the same: Forgiveness prevents the past from burying the future.
Ultimately, forgiveness is about recognizing that human beings are wild, dangerous, beautiful, unpredictable, flawed and complicated, ever-changing, and often fragile beings. Yesterday’s scoundrel could be tomorrow’s saint. Our childhood heroes might turn out to be monsters. The people we trusted might betray us. And a person we once feared might end up being a friend. The essence of forgiveness is recognizing the bald truth that nothing we do, and no one we encounter is simple, one dimensional, purely good or purely evil. That’s why the Master of the Universe always forgives us: because we are just being who we are.
Look, the Soul of Souls knows that human beings stray, that our appetites and weaknesses take the wheel, that we worship false Gods, that we do cruel things. And we know that we make terrible, terrible mistakes, we hurt each other, and we hurt ourselves, and we always have. It’s not really all that shocking. But the fact that we have managed to find our way back, that we’ve carried on and moved forward is remarkable, inspiring, even awesome.
Generation after generation, we have been learning and slowly mastering the art of forgiveness. So that when we find ourselves, sitting in a red-hot mess of pain, full of remorse and anger…..our hearts break, and somewhere deep inside we feel a holy key slip inside a sacred lock, and it turns, and the lock snaps, and the gates of love and redemption, of forgiveness and peace, swing open, and welcome us in.
Take a moment now. Breathe. Get comfortable.
Are you holding any shame, guilt, remorse or regret in your heart? Imagine being told:
I know what you did.
It’s not OK.
But I know you are more than just that.
I don’t want us to be trapped by this thing anymore.
I can heal myself.
And I don’t need anything from you.
I’m moving on now.
And now bring into your mindseye anyone who has hurt, shamed, or wounded you.
And, can you imagine saying to them:
I know what you did.
It’s not OK.
I recognize that you are more than just that.
I don’t want us to be trapped by this thing anymore.
I can heal myself.
I don’t need anything from you.
I’m moving on now.
Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva
Chadeish yameinu k’kedem.
Call to us, our Center, and we will return.
Make our days new again.