Let’s Get Engaged!

Okay, let me clarify. That’s not meant to be a marriage proposal. But it is an invitation to take a few steps closer to a truly meaningful, inspirational and—yes, engaging—prayer experience here at Oheb Shalom Congregation. Communal prayer lies at the heart of what happens at a synagogue. True, we could each pray privately, at home or at the beach or in the reservation, and such prayers would likely be heartfelt and profoundly meaningful. But praying together with a congregation is fundamental to being Jewish. In whatever place in the world we have lived, in every century and generation of our existence, we have gathered together to pray.

The impulse to pray comes naturally to us. We want to pray, we need to pray, we need to express our deepest yearnings and to acknowledge our place in the world. And we need to pray with others. Communal prayer is a transformative experience in ways that prayer in isolation cannot be. We draw inspiration from being with each another to pray, to sing, to learn and to celebrate. If you prefer an analogy from the world of sports, there is an obvious difference between watching a baseball game by yourself in your home and watching it in a stadium with 40,000 other people.

But it’s not always easy to pray with a congregation. Numerous obstacles to meaningful communal prayer get in our way, including the absence of Hebrew language skills and experience with the complexities of Jewish prayer, disagreements with the theology expressed in the prayer book, the inability or lack of inclination to express ourselves spiritually, and the way we choose to allocate our time. We often feel so pressured by the pace of our lives that we crave leisure time, private time, time to decompress and relax. In all the frenzied busyness of life, many declare Shabbat to be a time of personal rejuvenation that doesn’t include spending the morning in the synagogue.

I’m seeing the effect of some of these obstacles on our worship here at Oheb Shalom. Fewer people are showing up for Shabbat morning services than in prior years (there are similar challenges to our Friday evening services, but the two settings are very different from each other and need different solutions). And people arrive well past the 9:30 AM start time, which delays the enjoyment of the benefits of having a full congregation until much later in the service. Can this trend be reversed?

I want Oheb Shalom Congregation to be more of a place where you come to join your voices in prayer and express your yearnings joyfully and meaningfully. We can help to make that happen by creating a setting for prayer that is spiritual, beautiful and peaceful. A new committee at Oheb Shalom, the Tefillah Committee, has been meeting for months to find ways to make our worship services more engaging, meaningful and uplifting for all. We’re guided by the desire to make our worship more spiritual and transformational, more relevant both spiritually and intellectually, more participatory, more welcoming and more realistic about the length of time people seem to want to spend in the synagogue on a Shabbat morning. Innovations designed to enable you to connect more powerfully to the liturgy and to the Torah reading will be introduced into the service. This Shabbat, in particular, we’ll focus on “opening up” the Torah reading so that its message, and the actual experience of hearing the weekly portion read, are more accessible.

What do I ask of you? First, ARRIVE AT OHEB SHALOM BY 10:00 AM, since the Torah reading will get underway very soon after that and we don’t want you to miss any part of the experience. We’ve designed the service so that it concludes just before 12:00 PM (and possibly earlier than that). And second, come with an open heart and an open mind to pray, to sing, to learn. Bring us your hope, your optimism, your worries and your dreams and combine them with those of the other members of our congregation. Come with your desire to shake off the tumult and pressure that builds up within us during the week. Come to take your place in our congregation, to join your voice with the voices of fellow congregants who wish to pray together and to search for God together. Come to be with us and you will be richly rewarded.

Why We Say Kiddush Over Wine

It’s a tradition that is deeply embedded in our celebration of Shabbat. When we sit down to dinner, we begin with the recitation of the Kiddush, the sanctification of the day accompanied by words of blessing and a cup of wine. But have you ever stopped to wonder why we use wine to make Kiddush? It’s true that other beverages can be used, especially non-alcoholic grape juice, but wine is preferred. Why?

One answer is the wine “gladdens the heart.” In the Talmud, (Berachot 35a), we read:

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: What is the proof that the Levites’ song of praise to God is sung only over wine? From the verse (in Judges 9:13) that says “But the vine replied, ‘Have I stopped yielding my new wine, which gladdens God and man?’” We understand how wine gladdens men, but how does it gladden God? We must therefore conclude that the words “gladdens God” refer to the song of praise, which is to be sung only over wine.”

In other words, wine makes us happy and God likes to see us happy. When we’re in a good mood, we’re inclined to sing praises to God. It may sounds simplistic, but our tradition calls for Kiddush to be said over wine because it relaxes us, makes us feel joyful, and God likes that.

Another reason that we make Kiddush over wine is that it gives us an opportunity to display restraint. A midrash explains the potency of wine to color our judgment (as if we needed a midrash to understand such a thing!). Playing off a verse in this week’s Torah portion in which we read that one of the first things Noah did after coming off the ark was to plant a vineyard, make wine, drink it and become intoxicated (Genesis 9:20-21), the midrash says:

When Noah began planting, Satan came, stationed himself before him, and asked: “What are you planting?”
Noah answered, “A vineyard.”
Satan asked, “What is its nature?”
Noah answered, “Its fruit, whether fresh or dried, is sweet, and from it one makes wine, which gladdens a man’s heart.”
Satan said, “Will you agree to let both of us plant it together?”
Noah: “Very well.”

What did Satan do? He brought a lamb and slaughtered it over a vine. After that, he brought a lion, which he likewise slaughtered. Then a monkey, which he also slaughtered over it. Finally, a pig, which he again slaughtered over that vine. And with the blood that dripped from them, he watered the vineyard. The charade was Satan’s way of saying that when a man drinks one cup of wine, he acts like a ewe lamb, humble and meek. When he drinks two, he immediately believes himself to be as strong as a lion and proceeds to brag mightily, saying, “Who is like me?” When he drinks three or four cups, he immediately becomes like a monkey, hopping about giggling and uttering obscenities in public, without realizing what he is doing. Finally, when he becomes blind drunk, he is like a pig, wallowing in mire and coming to rest among refuse.
(Midrash Tanhuma, Noah 13)

In Rabbinic texts, Satan is an evil angel who does things that God does not approve of. Satan is often depicted testing the resolve of a human being to be faithful and to behave properly. In this midrash, the Rabbis use the character of Satan to show that human beings are easily susceptible to becoming drunk if we do not practice restraint. Drinking wine is not prohibited, but Jewish tradition considers drinking to excess and abandoning restraint, at least more than infrequently, as incompatible with proper behavior. So why put a glass of wine in our hands on Shabbat? The rabbinic sages seemed to feel that we are absolutely capable of displaying restraint, of respecting boundaries and of making good choices, and that Friday night was certainly a good time to demonstrate that capability. Rabbi Aharon Greenberg quotes a medieval scholar who makes that point in his volume Itturei Torah:

When one of the opponents of the chasidim asked Rabbi Naftali of Rotshitz what the basis for elevating drinking to such a degree of importance was, he answered: “We base ourselves on Noah, the first righteous man in the Torah, and he knew the secret of wine.” On this, Rabbi Yaakov of Sadigora said: “The drinking of wine is sometimes a commandment, but every commandment has a built-in prohibition against exceeding the requirements of that commandment.

In other words, we’re instructed to drink wine on Friday night, to enjoy ourselves, to relax and be in a good mood. But the commandment comes along with a built-in prohibition against going overboard, and we’re asked to demonstrate that we can enjoy ourselves within reasonable limits.

So pour yourself a cup of wine, perhaps even two, and enjoy Shabbat. But keep in mind that every good thing has a limit.

The Limits of Human Knowledge

When Samuel Morse first sent a message in 1844 using the telegraph he had invented, he was so impressed and overwhelmed by what had just happened that famously said, “What God has wrought!” More than a century later, when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, he famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” (Armstrong later divulged that in the pressure of the moment he had misspoken, and should have said “That’s one small step for a man…”). What’s the difference between these two statements made by such notable men, one a painter and brilliant inventor, the other an explorer for the ages? Morse gave credit for his achievement to God (as a Calvinist, he was a religious man). In Armstrong’s statement there was no mention of God, no attribution of any aspect of the achievement of walking on the moon to a higher power who endowed human beings with the skill and ability to learn and to make discoveries.

What we can learn from this contrast is that, at our best, human beings not only achieve great things but also live and function with an awareness of the finiteness of being human. We do not know all that there is to know, nor will we ever rival God’s omniscience. There is a limit to human knowledge.

We find this idea within the story of the Garden of Eden in Parashat Bereshit, the first portion in the Book of Genesis that kicks off the annual Torah reading cycle this Shabbat morning. In chapter 2 of Genesis, we read the story of how God instructed Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad that had been planted in the middle of the garden. In verses 16 and 17, we read: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; But of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you shall not eat; for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” How should we understand the phrase “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad?” Gunther Plaut z”l, a brilliant scholar and author of the Reform Movement’s commentary on the Torah, writes that the story can be interpreted as God’s warning to human beings not to attempt to rival God’s knowledge. The fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad” can be understood as containing the seeds of all knowledge (just as the phrase “the long and short of it” means all the sum total of an explanation). By eating the fruit of the tree, Plaut suggests, Adam and Eve were attempting to gain the knowledge of all things. By disobeying God’s orders not to eat the fruit, they committed an act of hubris, of defying God and striving to become Divine. Thus, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden and condemned to die, put into their proper place as mortals who could never become like God.

Human beings are capable of many things. We can invent, engineer, create and design almost anything. The Jewish religion, at its best, teaches us two things. First, while human beings can do many things, there are some things that we cannot do and will never be able to do. Second, while we are capable and brilliant, there is a ceiling to our knowledge and understanding. We do not know everything, and when we pretend that we do we get into trouble. We should strive not only to deepen our knowledge and expertise, but to grow in our humility as well.

When we do or see something remarkable, we would do well not to praise and admire ourselves but to say, “What God has wrought!”

Weeping Willows

To preserve or not to preserve…that is the question. Well, at least it’s the question for people who fulfill the mitzvah of “waving the Four Species” on Sukkot. In case you’re not familiar with the practice, the Torah instructs us to take four specific plants, group them together, and “wave” them once a day during the days of Sukkot. Here’s the relevant verse from the Torah: “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of the Hadar tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). It’s a truly fascinating ritual that has been practiced for thousands of years on this festival. People acquire a “Lulav and Etrog” set, which includes specimens of all four plants mentioned in the Torah (one of them, the Etrog, is a fruit, not a plant). Waving the Four Species not only is a way of connecting to nature, it has a rich and deep meaning as well.

For those who acquire a Lulav and Etrog set, the question is whether or not to preserve the plants during the week long holiday. The Lulav—the tall, skinny palm branch, doesn’t need to be preserved, nor does the Etrog fruit, for they decay very slowly. The myrtle branches, the ones with small, oval leaves, also decays fairly slowly. But the willow branches, the ones with the long, thin leaves, turn brown soon after the holiday begins. So people have to decide whether or not to preserve them. Some take them out of the holder that comes with the set and place them each night in a vase with water like flowers. Others put them in the refrigerator, and still others place them in a slightly damp towel. All of these efforts are for the purpose of keeping them fresh and green.

On the other hand, it’s possible to simply let the willow leaves wither and die. First, they will start develop dark brown spots, which will grow larger. Then the weakest and most starved leaves will fall off the branch. By the last day of the holiday there might not be much to the willow branches. Anyone who uses the Four Species during Sukkot faces this same choice: To preserve the willow branches, or not to preserve them.

Personally, I choose not to preserve them. I am not bothered by watching them turn brown and fall off the branch. In fact, I see the deterioration as an important part of the Sukkot festival. For me, Sukkot symbolizes the fading of the earth as we move toward winter. Watching the willow leaves turn brown and fall of their branches is like watching the leaves turn and fall of the trees all around us. It’s a part of the fall season, a reminder that autumn will soon turn to winter and its cold desolation.

Why do I embrace the fading of the willows? Because I know that soon after winter we will welcome the spring with its new life, new growth and all the blessing it will bring. Sukkot is an expression of faith that while the earth may fade and grow dark for a while, light and the emergence of new life are not far off. I can embrace the night because I know that soon a new day will dawn. That expression of faith that the world God created is a place of order and not chaos, a place where life is continually reaffirmed and reborn, is fundamental to my faith as a Jew.

Preserve or not preserve? On Sukkot, I let my willows fade and die and I am stronger for doing so.

Kol Nidrei Sermon for 5775

Kol Nidrei Sermon Delivered at Oheb Shalom Congregation on October 3, 2014

Tsav Shemona: A Call to Action

This summer, I learned a Hebrew phrase from some of the Israelis who work at the Ramah Day Camp in Nyack that I had never heard before. I knew at the moment I heard it that I had to find the right time to share it with you and tonight, on this very special night, I’d like to tell you why it caught my attention. The phrase is Tsav Shemona—loosely translated it means “command number eight”—though it’s likely that, at the moment, that doesn’t mean much of anything to most of you. The phrase is important for Israelis, especially to those who have completed the mandatory 3-year period of active military service but are still in the reserves. Israel’s army, as I’m sure you know, is a true people’s army that relies heavily on mandatory reserve duty, especially at times of war. Men between the ages of 21-45 must leave their jobs and the activities of their regular, daily lives and report for duty one month each year. Most of the time, reservists spend their days guarding checkpoints, training and reviewing skills, repairing and maintaining equipment, and checking inventory on supplies. At times of war, reservists are summoned to join their units and head to the frontlines for battle. That is part of the agony of war—men and women going off to fight, not knowing if they will return to their homes whole or even return at all, leaving behind spouses, children, parents and friends who can only hope and pray that the war will be short and that it won’t exact its painful toll on those they love.

There are times that a call up notice for miluim—what Israelis call their military obligation in Hebrew—can be deferred and reserve duty can be rescheduled. If a reservist is out of the country, on vacation, is in the midst of a difficult family situation or even has an important business commitment scheduled for a particular month, reserve duty can potentially be postponed. But what about times of national crisis and emergency? What happens when the army can’t afford to give its reserve soldiers the luxury of postponing their service? What happens in times of war when the army needs a large number of Israel’s citizen-soldiers to answer a call to arms? In such cases, the army often issues an order to the most urgently needed reservists called Tsav Shemona—“tsav” from the Hebrew word “to command” and “shemona” (Hebrew for eight) referring to the highest and most urgent level of reserve orders. When a reservist receives a Tsav Shemona notice, he knows that he has to drop everything and answer the call within a maximum of 24 hours. It doesn’t matter what else he has to do or whether or not he wants to make the transformation from ordinary citizen to a soldier in the IDF, he has to report for duty. Throughout Israel this summer, many Israelis received a call up notice marked Tsav Shemona. Counselors serving in camps and staff members working with groups of American teenagers spending the summer in Israel abruptly changed their plans, left their work with their kids, put on uniforms and went off to fight in Gaza. Tsav Shemona—when an Israeli receives the ultimate call up notice from the army, he answers the call immediately.

A summons to action from a higher authority—such an idea actually sounds familiar. We know of it, of course, from the Bible, from the stories about Jonah, about Moses and about Abraham. Each of these three Biblical characters received a Tsav Shemona call up notice of sorts, not from a military commander but from God, and each responded in a different way. We can learn something from the way each of these men responded to their Divine call up notice. From their stories, we can begin to determine how we should respond when we receive our own Tsav Shemona.

The story of the prophet Jonah is neatly woven into our experience of Yom Kippur. We read all four chapters of the book as the Haftarah at the Mincha service during the late afternoon, near the end of our marathon of fasting and of prayer, when we are weary yet hopeful that this day can be a meaningful turning point in our lives. The story tells of Jonah son of Amitai, who was a prophet dispatched by God to the city of Nineveh, a city filled with sinners and slated for Divine destruction. Jonah receives a summons from on high- a Tsav Shemona from God, a call up notice stamped in red and virtually hand delivered—summoning him to go to Nineveh and deliver God’s message that repentance would work to change alter the Divine decree. Jonah, who appears to us throughout the story as cynical, punitive, close-minded and cold-hearted person, refuses to go to Nineveh and instead runs away to Tarshish.

Jonah does not get very far, of course, for one cannot really escape the presence of God. God finds Jonah hiding on the boat he has boarded and again summons him to service. Jonah finally delivers God’s message to the people of Tarshish, who apparently appreciate it and repent, but he seems to do so only half-heartedly. The last passages of the book are devoted to God’s attempt to cleanse Jonah’s spirit and teach him that all human beings matter in the eyes of God.

A divine Tsav Shemona delivered to Jonah. We can plainly see Jonah’s response: to evade his responsibility to his fellow human beings and to God.

The story of Moses occupies most of the Torah. He is the dominant figure in our people’s tale of redemption from Egyptian slavery and their 40-year trek through the desert as they seek to forge their common experience of slavery and yearning for freedom into a covenant with God that will lead them to blessings and fulfillment in life as individuals and a nation. Moses, too, receives a Divine summons: a Tsav Shemona to report for duty immediately. Raised in the Pharaoh’s palace and pampered as a child, shielded from the brutality of slavery even though he was born to Israelite parents, Moses nonetheless possesses the gift of a sensitive soul and a yearning to help others. He is a shining example in the Bible of an activist for social justice. He sees a taskmaster assaulting an Israelite slave and takes it upon himself to balance the scales of justice by killing him. He is outwardly a prince but inwardly his heart is with the downtrodden and destitute. He stands by the side of the oppressed; he is one with his people.

God summons Moses at the bush engulfed by Divine fire—intense and brilliant, but it does not consume or destroy what is around it—in the sweltering heat of the desert. He calls on Moses to go to Pharaoh, together with his brother Aaron, to begin the process of liberation of the Israelite slaves. He is commanded to go before Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler on earth, and demand in the name of God that the oppressed slaves be set free. This is his Tsav Shemona, his urgent call to action, for the Israelite slaves are desperate for relief. Moses cannot delay, for the hour of deliverance and freedom is near.

Moses’s response is surprisingly uncharacteristic, given what we already know about him. He tells God that he’s not sure he’s the right person for the job. “I think you’ve made a mistake choosing me, God,” we hear him say. “I cannot speak clearly, for words do not come easily to me.” Perhaps Moses means that he has a speech impediment, and perhaps he means that he cannot stand before the Pharaoh and speak with the passion and fiery anger that are required to be God’s prophet. Either way, he questions the appropriateness of God’s summons. In the end, it doesn’t matter what Moses tells God. “Don’t tell me you’re not ready and don’t tell me you’re not up for this task, Moses. I created you and I know your potential. I need you now and you will indeed represent me to the Pharaoh.” And so it is that Moses reports for duty, answer the Divine summons to bring freedom to the Israelite slaves.

Abraham, too, was called to service by God. “Lech lecha mei-atzecha umi-moladetcha mi-beit avicha el ha-aretz asher areka… Leave your native land, your home town, the place where you were born, your parents’ home, and all that is familiar to you and go to the Land that I will show you. There I will make of you and your descendants a great nation that will change the course of history.” That is Abraham’s Tsav Shemona, his call to action. God summons him to be a moral force in the world, to stand for goodness and for sanctifying life. Abraham is summoned to bring God’s message to his family and to those around him, to demonstrate his convictions that there is great virtue in living a moral life. Abraham is summoned to show the world that God asks of us only one thing: to live lives of decency and goodness, that the God of Israel is interested neither in meaningless rituals nor in empty prayers, but in elevating the sanctity of every living thing in this world.

How does Abraham respond? Hineni…here I am, Lord. I am ready and willing to be a person who brings God’s presence into the midst of our world. I am ready to respond to Your call to action, for I believe that the world is waiting for your message. At times, Abraham needs to be reassured that God is with him. He has periodic doubts. But mostly, Abraham believes that he is living in the presence of God. He eagerly answers the Divine call. With his Tsav Shemona in hand, he heads for a new Land, a place that will one day be called Israel and where his descendants will flourish.

My friends, on this night of sacred gathering, we need to confront a reality, a truth that cannot and should not be avoided. The truth is that we’ve all be handed a Tsav Shemona notice. We have all been summoned, by the words and spirit of the prayers we recite on these High Holidays, by the messages of the Torah, by the sound of the shofar. We’ve all been summoned to act, and to act urgently, for the sake of our spiritual homeland and for the sake of our people. We’ve been summoned by the reality of the times in which we live, by the headlines in the newspaper and the lead stories on the news, to act and to act urgently, for the sake of our world and all the people who live in it. We’ve all been given a Tsav Shemona, the ultimate call up notice, a message that the reserves are needed to do important work, a message that none of us can entitle ourselves to the luxury of letting someone else serve on the frontlines.

You don’t need me to tell you that there is work to be done all around us—you know it already. There is a plague of poverty that seems to increase before our very eyes. There is oppression everywhere in our world. There are needy people and sick people and victims of abuse and neglect. There are people who need help to make their way in life, to get an education and make for themselves a beginning to a new and productive chapter in their lives. There are the ever-present needs of our people who live in the Land of Israel, who this year are recovering and healing from a brutal summer of war, many of whom were handed a Tsav Shemona from the army and left their families to go to war. We have plenty of ways for you to answer your call up notice and countless suggestions for how you can advocate for and support Medinat Yisrael. And we have plenty of ways for how you can fulfill the mitzvah of tikun olam.

One of those ways is the sacred work of our Social Action Committee. This committee is part of the culture and fabric of our Congregation. As I suggested on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the work of Tikun Olam, undertaken by our Social Action Committee, may be the most important, the holiest endeavor that we can do here or in any synagogue.

The Social Action Committee has a number of events planned for the coming year, one or more of which should draw each of you. And I know firsthand from the chairs of this committee, Miriam Nelson, Michele Hilzenrath and Louise Finkelman, that there is a need for additional committee members, especially those who have school-age children, and those who would like to help to lead an event. Planned activities include opportunities to volunteer on Thanksgiving, working at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, an Environmental Sustainability Project, an event to advocate against Human Trafficking, and a chance to help build affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity. In the past few years we have decided not to hold an ethical appeal on Kol Nidrei night, so let these words be our appeal. Please step forward to help our congregation fulfill the mitzvah of Tikun Olam.

My friends, the most pressing question to ask yourself tonight is not whether you are needed to respond to the Divine call to heal the world. And the question is not whether the needs around us can wait for a convenient moment to be satisfied, for they cannot. The most pressing question, the one I put before you tonight, is how will you respond to the Tsav Shemona you’ve been handed.

Will you be like Jonah, who, gripped by indifference and judgmental rage against others, ignored the summons he’d been given and tried to flee? We know the moral of that story: a person can try to run away, but the one who runs will stumble in the search for peace of mind or contentment in life. We cannot find contentment by running away from our duty to heal the world.

Will you instead respond to your Tsav Shemona like Moses, who, while believing in principles of social justice, thought someone else was better equipped to take on the task? We know the moral of that story too: if we assume someone else will do the important work needed to be done, it’s likely that no one will do it.

Or will you instead respond like Abraham, who, while he had some quiet reservations and probably could have thought of other things to do with his time that would have made his own life better, answered his Tsav Shemona with the immortal words Hineni…here I am, Lord, here I am, ready to make this world more worthy of Your blessing.

This Holy Night, the eve of Yom Kippur, is the moment of decision, the moment to answer the Tsav Shemona we’ve been handed. As we pray on this sacred night, let us each summon the strength, the determination and the courage to respond Hineni, here I am.

Can You Forgive, and also Forget?

The story is told about two monks who were driving a horse pulled cart to the market. Along their way they see a young woman who is unable to cross a deep, muddy patch because it was impassable by foot. The monk driving the cart stops and goes over to pick up and carry the woman across the mud so she can continue on her way. He then returns to his brother on the cart to continue his own journey, but his partner isn’t speaking to him. A couple of hours later, he asks “Why are you so silent? Is it because I picked up that woman a while back?” “Yes,” replied his companion…you know that is against our rules.” “I am sad for you, my friend,” said the first monk. “I put that woman down two hours ago but I see you are still carrying her.”

As we approach Yom Kippur, we are each called on by our tradition to consider what baggage we carry with us through life. What resentments, hurt feelings and moments that we got angry at someone are we unwilling or unable to put down? And what effect does it have on us when we continue to carry around that kind of emotional baggage? We would be better off, live each day with a cleaner, healthier state of mind, as if we had lost a noticeable amount of weight, were we able to jettison such feelings of bitterness?

No doubt, it’s a tall order to let go of such experiences and feelings that weigh us down and cause us to feel resentment, annoyance and even anger at others for things done to us, said to us or spoken about us. Our ability to do that is surely connected to the severity of what was done to us and the nature of the offending person’s relationship to us. But letting go of old resentments, and forgetting them, should be our goal. We should aspire toward true forgiveness, which entails releasing the claim we have on people for what they have done to us, not only because it seems like the right thing to do to let someone out of the prison of being resented, but because it is what is the most emotionally healthy thing we can do for ourselves. We may, perhaps subconsciously, want to embrace the role of the injured party, but we would do better feeling clean and unfettered by such feelings.

Each Yom Kippur, we pray these words during the Al Chet, the Long Confessional: “V’al Kulam Eloha Selichot, Slach Lanu, M’chal Lanu, Kaper Lanu… For all these sins, God of Forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” These terms may seem like synonyms, but they actually mean different things. M’chila (as in M’chal Lanu) means to pardon, which can be understood as accepting someone’s apology for what they did but not overlooking their transgression. S’chila (as in S’chal Lanu) means to forgive, which can be understood as not only accepting someone’s apology but also overlooking what they did, not remembering it, and not feeling emotionally weighed down by it every time we encounter that person. Kaper Lanu (as in Yom Kippur) asks God for “atonement,” which could also be translated as “reconciliation.” To achieve “at-one-ment” is to be reconciled with another person, or with God, to return to the state of being that existed prior to a transgression being committed that hurt the relationship.

On Yom Kippur, we pray to God not only to be pardoned, but also to be forgiven and to be reconciled with our Creator. And we pray for the capacity not only to pardon those who have hurt us but for the emotional ability to forgive them and to overlook what they have done to us, and to be reconciled with those we love and care about. We will feel better, lighter and cleaner for doing so.