Excerpted from Yom Kippur Drasha 2022
When something breaks, something that was precious to us, is it ever possible to put it together again so that it’s as good as new? If it’s broken and repaired will it ever be quite the same again? Won’t we always see the crack no matter how finely it has been mended? If it’s a heart that has been broken, can it ever truly be repaired? A heart broken by betrayal, a spirit crushed by shame will surely always carry the sting.
Yes, it is true that some shattered pieces can never be made whole again. The tablets that Moses broke on that awful day were never put together again, not even by all the king’s horses or all the king’s Levites….
Sometimes an object is beyond repair, a relationship irretrievable.
But is this always the sad and unchangeable reality? In what is called shame cultures they would say yes- a wrongdoing is like a stain on the person, it will always linger like a bad smell, an odious odour; you simply can’t get it out of a garment or a soul. As Macbeth laments, ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?’ And as Lady Macbeth cries out in her guilt, ‘out damn spot …All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’
In this kind of shame society, you should cover up your wrongdoing and try not to be found out because once you are found out there is no way back. There is no place for forgiveness.
That’s the kind of unforgiving culture we are living in today. A chance remark or silly joke can destroy a brilliant career; an impulsive youthful indiscretion can destroy a respected reputation built over a lifetime. Today even the perception of wrongdoing can have you cancelled, cast into what is called no platforming – the banning of certain speakers from university campuses on the grounds that they have expressed opinions with which some or other group of students disagrees. Some of the most famous campaigners against prejudice and intolerance in our time have been banned from speaking at universities including activist Germaine Greer, writer Margaret Atwood and Canadian activist and psychologist Jordan Peterson. It goes without saying Israeli ambassadors, even from the left, are shouted down.
There’s a very different kind of message, a counter culture (sometimes called a guilt culture) that frames the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar. The message of Yom Kippur is that we believe in the God of second chances. The same Moses who had shattered the first set of tablets lovingly inscribed by God himself, gets another chance on the very first recorded Yom Kippur. He can’t repair the broken set but he can create a new one. This time he will have to carve it out himself. But what the “God of Second Chances”, to use Elliot Melamet’s felicitous phrase, what this God does, is make it possible that you’ll end up with something in its place that will be even stronger and better than the original. It’s like the line attributed to Hemingway, ‘sooner or later, life breaks us all, but we heal stronger at the broken places.’
I think this is beautifully encoded in the evocative thoughts of our rabbis when they asked what happened to the broken pieces from the first set. Were they merely thrown away discarded? No, they say, they were lovingly collected and placed together with the new set in the Holy Ark. It reminds me what the archaeologists in Israel are doing today as they carefully collect every broken shard and stone from temple times around the kotel. Each is numbered and tenderly placed in a special spot. This is an incredibly powerful message: if you’ve gone through a crisis in your personal or professional life, in your marriage or family and you’ve come through it, that relationship can be stronger than it was before. It will heal stronger at the broken place. Just like new green shoots appear in the burnt stunted tree stump after a bush fire.
At the heart of Judaism’s atonement ethos it is not only God who grants pardon, but that we too can and indeed should forgive others. Of course the corollary is that we can and should say sorry and ask others to absolve us.
This doesn’t mean we should forget the past, or that people should not be held accountable for it. Rather, it’s that individuals should be allowed to learn and grow from their mistakes.
That is, after all, the entire point of Yom Kippur. It is not a day on which we forget our sins, but on which we repent for them. It’s also a day we dig into ourselves to discover our own capacity to forgive. Says Maimonides: If someone asks you to forgive them you should not be cruel and if you are asked more than three times and you don’t forgive, the problem probably rests with you…
There is a strength in memory but there is also a power in forgetting. The inability to forgive can exact every heavy price. It has been said that to forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover the prisoner was you (Lewis Smedes).
Nelson Mandela knew this in his bones; he said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Critics of forgiveness correctly argue that it can entail real costs when improperly bestowed; insincere offenders can take advantage of society’s grace to perpetuate their abuse. This is a legitimate concern and underscores the need for accountability. But erring too far in the opposite direction carries a steep price as well.
Think of the confused teenager raised on the prejudices of his parents or peers who is most hurt by our collective resistance to granting second chances. When we don’t provide a path for a person to progress beyond their past, we prevent them from reaching their potential and risk locking them into a life of moral mediocrity. Indeed, and ironically, it is often profound flaws that motivate people to reach moral heights.
Forgiveness it’s not only personal it’s also political and can change the social order of a society. It is what happened in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is what should happen in Australia and in Israel. It’s why National Sorry Day was such a good beginning. It was Nelson Mandela on a visit to Australia a few years before his death who reminded us that life is an adventure in forgiveness, both terrifying and thrilling.
Speaking at the inaugural world reconciliation address an event which was incredibly inspired by a group of boys from Trinity Grammar, he said, “I can only humbly exhort Australia to continue following the route of frankly and forthrightly confronting and tackling the overt and hidden hurts of its past. Leaving wounds unattended leads to them festering and eventually causing greater injury to the body of society.” Denial of the hurt of the other is even more damaging than denial of one’s own transgressions
Life is a process of forgiveness because it is based on the recognition and acceptance that perfection is too much to expect of human beings. The challenge we face is this: can you replace the dream of perfection with a more realistic one, a vision that will make allowances for human frailty, to think who in your life you’ve been resistant to giving a second chance? Try and find a way to forgive or at least to move on if they show no awareness or ownership of what they have done. It’s about forgiving yourself and it’s about granting penance to your sister or your friend.
Let us learn from the first forgiver of Jewish history- Joseph- that those closest to you hurt you most, but if you can’t forgive them you will never grow. Let us learn from the other fabulous forgiver, Moses, that to forgive is to love, to forgive is to grow, that to forgive is to live with more sweetness, that it is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it (Mark Twain). It is the catalyst for a fresh start and a new beginning (Martin Luther King Jr). It is the tonic for today and the promise for a better tomorrow!!