Selach Lanu…Mechal Lanu…Kaper Lanu…Pardon us, Forgive us, Grant us atonement
(High Holiday Machzor)
These words are likely familiar from the Yom Kippur prayer “Al Chet,” the long confessional recited throughout the Day of Atonement. Does this signature line in one of the most important High Holiday prayers reflect a poetic use of language, using three synonyms to help us articulate our desire for forgiveness? Or is there some difference between these three terms- selicha, mechila and kapara? The prayer is indeed poetic, but these three terms represent three different forms of forgiveness and three different human responses to being hurt or offended.
The first, melicha, represents the most basic type of forgiveness. Assuming that the offending person has accepted responsibility for what they’ve done and asked to be forgiven, the offended person is obligated to offer “mechila,” or forgiveness. Mechila doesn’t require that we reconcile with the offending person, or change our view of them. It’s a simple act of letting go of the hurt that was inflicted. Mechila involves not only forgiving but also forgetting, a willingness to cash in a hurt done to us in exchange for peace of mind.
The second kind of forgiveness, selicha, is more complex, for it involves an intentional act of understanding the nature of the offending person. Granting selicha requires that we endeavor to understand what motivated the offender and even try to empathize with them. It requires that we acknowledge the frailty, vulnerability and imperfection of others around us. Selicha can be an act of compassion and good will, and demands more of us than does mechila. Selicha does not necessarily require us to reconcile with the person who offended us, though such an outcome would be positive.
The third kind of forgiveness, kapara (as in Yom “Kippur”), is best described as atonement, achieving a state of “at-one-ment” with God. Our tradition teaches that while human beings can forgive and pardon offenses committed against other people, only God can renew our lives, and that happens after we have acknowledged our transgressions and asked to be forgiven.
The process of forgiveness is thus a complex emotional response to having hurt others and to having been hurt by others. At times, it is necessary to simply forgive and forget, to let go of an act that was hurtful or disturbing. That is mechila—it’s fairly easy to do and is important for our own mental health and that of the person who has hurt us. At times, we ought to strive to understand the person who offended us, or perhaps hope that the person we hurt will try to understand that people are sometimes prone to make mistakes and will sometimes behave in ways that are callous or insensitive. That is selicha—it can be hard to empathize with someone who hurt us and to try to understand their actions. But it is noble and worthy to perform an act of compassion, and we should try to do so whenever we can. And when we have done what we can to acknowledge our mistakes and asked to be forgiven by those we have hurt, we turn to God and asked to be renewed and restored. That is kapara—in a way that is meaningful and real, it is the focus of our prayer and meditation on Yom Kippur.
Our tradition teaches that we must prepare ourselves to seek and to offer forgiveness, and that we must invest effort and time into understanding ourselves and others. We cannot and should not encounter the Days of Awe unprepared spiritually and emotionally. Thus there is a custom of devoting the days leading up to Rosh Hashana to prayer and reflection- traditional Jews recite “selichot” prayers early each morning during the week prior to the New Year. Here at Oheb Shalom, we honor that custom by gathering on a Saturday night a week or so in advance of Rosh Hashana for a Selichot service, during which we recite some of the High Holiday prayers.
This Saturday night (September 5), we will experience “Selichot Under the Stars” at the new home of Bob Sandor and Louise Weingrod (151 Montrose Avenue at the corner of Halsey). Come at 8:30 PM for wine, light food and conversation. At 9:00 PM we’ll move outside for Havdalah and a Selichot experience that will include music, prayer, poetry and reflection. I hope you will be there!