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To Forgive Or Not To Forgive
Yom Kippur Sermon 5784 (2023-2024)
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shanah tovah! One day during the summer, when chatting with my husband and my friend, we came upon the subject of Mel Gibson and antisemitism. As you may know, in 2004, Gibson produced, directed, and co-wrote “The Passion of the Christ.” Both the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement calling the movie “troublesome,” and “anti-Semitic.” Two years later, Gibson was pulled over for drunk driving. During his traffic stop, Gibson used some choice expletives to describe Jews. He also told Sheriff’s Deputy James Mee, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Following this, he asked Deputy Mee if he was Jewish, which he is.
During this conversation with my friend, she informed us that in 2017, a news article came out, announcing that Gibson had been donating substantial funds to an organization called The Survivor Mitzvah Project, which helps Holocaust survivors living in the former Soviet Union, with home visits, financial aid, and medical supplies. Until this moment, I was unaware of Gibson’s donations. After this conversation, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was Gibson’s way of trying to do teshuvah. Was he seeking penance for his horrible anti-Semitic behavior? If so, are we obligated to forgive him?
When thinking about forgiving someone, we must first think about what actions the offender took to show they are truly repentant. In Judaism, this is called teshuvah. The Hebrew word teshuvah literally means, “turn” or “return.” In the context of the High Holy Days, we turn away from evil and turn towards good. We return to the path ofrighteousness. The rules regarding teshuvah are spelled out by Maimonides in his “Laws of Teshuvah.” According to Maimonides, there are three steps to teshuvah: 1. Confess; 2. Take action so that you learn from your mistake, and never do it again; and 3. Apologize to those whom you have wronged.
How do we know if someone’s teshuvah is truly enough, meaningful, worthwhile?I want to preface the answer to this question by saying that no one is perfect. We are all human, and teshuvah is supposed to be a deep and meaningful process for all parties involved. Since we are talking about a celebrity in this particular instance, let’s look at how other celebrities repented for their misdeeds. In 2022, Whoopi Goldberg was suspended from “The View” for two weeks due to remarks she made about the Holocaust. She said, “The Holocaust was not about race,” and, as we all know, the Nazis saw the Jews as an inferior race. In addition to issuing multiple apologies, Goldberg reached out to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Frederic L. Bloch, the chief growth officer of the ADL, said, “We criticized this misinformed statement and called for Goldberg to get her facts right and apologize. She did so, and graciously invited our CEO Jonathan Greenblatt to come onto The View to talk about the racial underpinnings of the Holocaust and the problems caused by comments like Goldberg’s.” By acknowledging her mistake, reaching out to the ADL to educate herself so that she will not make the same mistake again, and making formal apologies, Goldberg completed the necessary steps of teshuvah.
In 2020, Nick Cannon was temporarily fired as host of “The Masked Singer” as punishment for antisemitic statements he made on his podcast, “Cannon’s Class.” After Cannon issued an apology, he began a collaboration with the ADL CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt. They co-host a podcast called “2 Hate Or Not 2 Hate.” The purpose of the podcast is to talk “about the equation of our two communities from two different perspectives… We voice our side, or the perspective as a Black man, and then he voices his side from a Jewish man. Just even that alone is helpful and educational for both communities,” said Cannon in an interview with AllHipHop. By acknowledging his mistake, reaching out to the ADL to educate himself so that he will not make the same mistake again, and making formal apologies, Cannon also completed the necessary steps of teshuvah. In both Cannon and Goldberg’s cases, they also took steps to educate other people so that they will learn not to make the same mistakes they did.They both showed that they are truly remorseful.
After someone apologizes, it is up to the injured party to decide whether or not to forgive. What does it mean to forgive? In Judaism there are three levels of forgiveness: mechilah, selichah, and kapparah. Kapparah means “atonement” or “purification,” and is only granted by God. As we are talking about human beings forgiving other human beings, I would like to focus on the other two kinds of forgiveness: mechilah and selichah. Mechilah basically means “pardon.” The offender has taken all the appropriate steps for teshuvah, and the victim has deemed that they no longer owe them. This pardon is not heartfelt, but closes the chapter on the incident. It happened, it’s done, let’s move on separately. Selichah, on the other hand, means “forgiveness,” and is heartfelt. While the relationship between the offender and victim may have been altered, their relationship can move forward together.
Now let’s look at what steps Mel Gibson has taken on his path of teshuvah. After his anti-Semitic tirade, he did apologize for his behavior. In his apology, he said, “I’m not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one on one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing.” While this is a lovely sentiment, it is something Gibson did not follow through with. As far as I know the only step he has taken besides saying these words is donating money to The Survivor Mitzvah Project. While donating money to such a noble cause is important, Gibson has missed the mark. I have not heard him do anything to educate himself on Judaism or anti-Semitism. He has not taken the appropriate steps to ensure that he will never do or say anything antisemitic again. In fact, instead, he seems to have made himself the victim. In an interview with Stephen Colbert in 2016, he said, “it’s a pity, after 30 or 40 years of doing something, you get judged on one night. And then you spend the next 10 years suffering the scourges of perception.” He mentioned nothing of the suffering he caused to the Jewish community.
In order to be able to forgive someone, Judaism says that the offender must successfully complete all the steps of teshuvah. I’m not sure that Gibson has done that, and therefore, many of us in the Jewish community wrestle with forgiving him. We cannot accept hollow apologies, especially when it comes to antisemitism. That leads us down a dangerous path. Yet, we need to be able to find some sense of healing and wholeness, and so does Gibson. Today is our day of atonement. The word atonement is made up of three words “at-one-ment.” On this day, we are looking for ways to make ourselves one, whole again. While repentance and forgiveness can help, they are not the only ways to achieve wholeness and healing. In Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s book “On Repentance and Repair,” she quotes psychologist Martha Crawford, saying, “There are many ways to come to terms with harms and violations perpetrated by others. Forgiveness is only one of them. Holding people accountable is another.” We must hold Mel Gibson, and others like him, accountable. It is my hope that he will take further steps to educate himself and find the atonement that he seeks, so that we may find the at-one-ment that we seek. When he does, I will be ready to give the forgiveness that he will deserve.
As we reflect on the past year, may each of us hold ourselves accountable for our own misdeeds. Let each of us continue to learn and grow as we seek to do our own teshuvah, and let us hold others accountable for their misdeeds so that they may do heartfelt, meaningful teshuvah as well. The process of teshuvah and forgiveness is not easy, but it is important, as it helps to transform us from the person we once were to the person we hope to become in the New Year. Gemar Chatimah Tovah.
The Black Dot
Kol Nidre Sermon for September 25, 2023 (5784)
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shanah tovah! There is a story in the public domain that I would like to share with you tonight.
One day, a professor stood in front of his class, and informed them of a surprise exam. He held up a sheet of white paper with a black dot on it and instructed his students to write an essay describing what they saw. At the end of the period, the professor read each student’s paper aloud in front of the entire class. Every student described the black dot – it’s size, it’s shape, it’s location on the page, etc. However, not a single student described the rest of the paper – not it’s size, not it’s shape, not it’s color. Everyone focused solely on the black dot.
At the end of the class, the professor told the students that no one will receive a grade for this test. Instead, he wanted to give them some food for thought. The point of this exercise was to remind the students that there is more to life than just the dark spots. The black spots of our lives don’t define our lives. They don’t define who we are. We must look at the bigger picture, the whole picture. I think this story is very apropos for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur.
The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, which means the Ten Days of Repentance. During this time, we reflect on the past year, and we focus on the mistakes we made, our misdeeds, and take appropriate action to repent and seek forgiveness from those whom we have wronged.We focus on the black dots of our lives. We do this so that we can begin the new year with a “clean slate.” However, the truth is, none of us ever really has a clean slate. The black dots don’t disappear.
On Rosh Hashanah, many of us went to a body of water to perform the ceremony of tashlich, which means “to cast away.” When performing tashlich, we take birdseed (we used to take bread, but that is not safe for the wildlife), and symbolically cast away our sins of the past year by throwing the birdseed into the water. But the truth is that we don’t actually throw away our sins. They remain with us. Just like the black dot on the white paper, our sins cannot be washed off.
What is the point of doing teshuvah if we are never fully absolved of our sins? Does the fact that we never really get a clean slate mean that we are bad people? Are we forever punished for our misdeeds? Or is there something more for us to learn here?
It is disheartening to think that we never truly have a clean slate. Yet, we need to remember that no one is perfect. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in God In Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, “Should we… despair because of being unable to retain perfect purity? We should, if perfection were our goal. However, we are not obliged to be perfect once and for all, but only to rise again and again beyond the level of the self. Perfection is divine, and to make it a goal of [humans] is to call on [human beings] to be divine. All we can do is try to wring our hearts clean in contrition… To be contrite at our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection.”
No human being is perfect. Therefore, striving for perfection only sets us up for failure (as we are not divine beings). What we can do is strive to do better. Whenever we sin or make a mistake, the thing to do is pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and figure out how not to do that again.
On page 85 of our prayer book, Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur, there is a reading entitled, “Study Text on T’shuvah,” by Louis Newman. We read, “Resh Lakish said: ‘Great is repentance, for it transforms one’s deliberate sins into merits’ (Talmud, Yoma 86b). In general, we think of repentance as a way of achieving expiation for the wrongs we have done. But Resh Lakish’s teaching points us in a new and surprising direction… The focus is not on changing the past, but on defining a new direction for the future… Transgressions can become the springboard for tremendous moral growth, if only we do the hard work of t’shuvah that enables us to learn from our mistakes.” Newman then goes on to quote Rabbi Soloveitchik, who said, “Sin is not to be forgotten or blotted out… sin has to be remembered. It is the memory of sin that releases the power within the inner depths of the soul of the penitent to do greater things than ever before. The energy of sin can be used to bring one to new heights.”
The black dots of our lives, the sins we committed in the past, are not meant to be erased. They are supposed to stay with us, so that we may learn and grow from them. They are the impetus for us to make positive changes in our lives. They are the force to make us better people.
The only way these spots can help to make us better people is if we confront them head on. That is no easy task. Most people just wish they could go back in time and prevent their misdeed from ever happening in the first place. But unless someone invents a time machine, we do have to do the work of teshuvah. To quote Rabbi Amanda Greene of Chicago Sinai Congregation, Yom Kippur “is not only a day to examine who we are, but a day to examine who we are becoming… our regret is our reminder of the past, a symbol of how we can learn from our past, a symbol of how it is never too late to do Teshuvah,” (https://www.chicagosinai.org/worship/sermons/from-regret-to-comfort).
And here is the good news: the more we learn from the dark spots that we already have, the more likely we are to have less dark spots in the future. The regret of our misdeeds is not meant to be like a scarlet letter, letting everyone know we were wrong. Instead, they are more like warning signs saying “WRONG WAY” or “DEAD END.”
As we enter into the year 5784, let the dark spots of our past not impede the vision of our future, but instead, help us to get to a better future. Let us see ourselves for what we really are – a lovely piece of paper with a few smudges. We are not this (a piece of paper with giant splotches), but something more like this (a piece of paper with a smattering of dots). Let us remember that the dark spots are a part of who we are, and who we will be, but they are not all we are.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah!
A Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5784 (2023-4)
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shanah tovah! As many of you know by now, I started a tradition years ago of beginning at least one High Holy Day sermon with a section of a song from a Broadway show. Today, I would like to begin with “Seasons of Love,” from the musical, “Rent.”
Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments, oh dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?
Today, as we reflect on the past year, and prepare to welcome the year 5784, we think about how we measure our lives.
Earlier this year, our synagogue book club read The Measure, by Nikki Erlick. In this story, everyone in the entire world over the age of 21 wakes up one morning to find a box with a string inside of it. Each string is a different length. Without giving away too much of the story (SPOILER ALERT!), the strings determine the length of each person’s life. The book raises a number of questions: What would you do if you were given a short string? What would you do if you were given a long string? Would you even open the box to find out? How do you measure your life? Today, as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, and take a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, I ask the same question as they do in both The Measure and in “Rent”: how do we measure life/a yearof our lives?
In Judaism, counting is important. In the story of creation, we read, “There was evening, there was morning, the first day… there was evening, there was morning, the second day…etc.” all the way to Shabbat. We are taught to count the Omer (the days between Passover and Shavuot). We count to make sure there are enough people to form a minyan (a quorum of ten people). We even have the Book of Numbers in the Torah. However, sometimes counting has nothing to do with numbers.
Every Shabbat morning, we read a line from Psalm 90 during Pesukei d’Zimra, “Verses of Praise,” “Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.”Clearly, we are not talking about counting days like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7… otherwise, the line would end with “teach us to count our days.” What does it mean “to count our days rightly?”
Let us look to our fore-parents, Sarah and Abraham, for some guidance. In the first line of the Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”) (Genesis 23:1), we read, “And the life of Sarah was one hundred twenty-seven years, these were the years of the life of Sarah.” While Sarah’s age is repeated twice, the line is not redundant. Instead, we understand this line to mean that Sarah lived to be one hundred and twenty-sevenyears old and she made the most of each of these years – she made them count. With the passing of Abraham, we read “And these are the days of the years of Abraham’s life which he lived, a hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years...” The rabbis interpreted these lines to mean the same thing – the repetition of Abraham being old was meant to show that he made the most of every day. How can we make the most of every day?
According to the Talmud, we make the most of every day through acts of righteousness and lovingkindness. In a section of the Talmud called Berakhot (18a-b), we learn that those who are righteous in life are considered alive even after death. Their contributions to the world are so great that they live on. Take our matriarch, Sarah, for example. The Torah portion that begins with her death is called Chayei Sarah, which means, “the life of Sarah.” Even in death, she is thought of as alive because of all her acts of lovingkindness. Another example is Moses. Our sages said that Moses did not die, but instead, ascended up to heaven.
In teaching that the righteous never die, the Talmud goes on to say that those who are wicked in life are considered dead even while they are still living. I understand this to mean that those who are wicked bring negativity into the world, which kills the soul.
A righteous person will live on through others because of their righteous deeds. They brought good into the world, and it continues long after they are gone. The opposite is true for the wicked. No one wants to remember those who brought evil into the world. Remember, we are taught to blot out the names of Amalek and Haman. We wish to forget them.
A person’s life is not measured by how long they lived, but how they spent their time, the actions they took, the love they had. A person’s life is measured in good deeds, a person’s life is measured in love. As Ms. Erlick wrote in The Measure (AGAIN, WARNING, POSSIBLY ANOTHER SPOILER!), “perhaps the length (of the string) didn’t matter. That the beginning and the end may have been chosen for us, the string already spun, but the middle had always been left undetermined, to be woven and shaped by us.” We all know when our lives began (on our birthdays). In this book, everyone also has the opportunity to know when it will end. The point of both the book and our actual lives is not to worry about how many years we have on this Earth, but instead, to make our time on Earth matter.
In our liturgy this morning, we read, Utshuvah, utfilah, utzdakah maavirin et roahag’zeirah. “But repentance, prayer, and righteous acts temper judgement’s severe decree.” No one is perfect. This line reminds us of that. However, this line also reminds us that we have the opportunity to change, to make our lives better, to give our lives meaning and purpose, by doing good deeds. Those good deeds are the true yardstick by which we measure our years, not the number of days. Love is how we measure our years.
“Seasons of Love” ends with the line, “Measure your life in love,” (which I will not sing, because it is in an extremely high note!). That is what Judaism teaches us to do. As we enter into 5784, let us fill our days with acts of righteousness and love. For when we do, our lives will be full. Shanah tovah!
The Last Day
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5784/2023-4
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shanah tovah! A few weeks ago, I watched a webinar from the Central Conference of American Rabbis called, “Sermons For 5784: Preaching To The Heart And Mind.” One of the teachers of this webinar, Rabbi David Stern (Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Dallas, Texas) began his segment by asking the following question: “Would you plant a seed if you knew that today was the last day of Earth’s existence?” Rabbi Stern was inspired to ask this question by poet and philanthropist, W. S. MerwinIn the late 1970’s, Merwin took steps to revitalize a large section of land in Hawaii that had been destroyed by deforestation and improper care of the land. By 2010, Merwin and his wife created the Merwin Conservancy, which covers over 19 acres, and protects over 3000 trees that had been planted in the place where the deforestation had occurred. This question really piqued my interest, as my daughters have been expressing their concerns over the environment more and more over the last few months. However, I also think this question can be applied to more than our environmental concerns. So today, on Rosh Hashanah, Hayom Harat Ha’olam, the birthday of the world, our day to take a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, I throw this question to all of us: Would you plant a seed if you knew that today was the last day of Earth? Why or why not?
Why would someone want to plant a seed on the last day of the Earth anyway? If it’s the last day, that means there is no future, and therefore no need for planting anything new, right? Yet, I cannot help but wonder if I would (or at least have someone do it on my behalf, as every plant I touch dies). I asked my older daughter, Peri, what she would do, and she told me that she would go ahead and plant the seed. When I asked her why, she said, “Because why not? Until it’s gone, it is still our Earth. Also,what if something changes at the last second, and today is not the last day? What if the change is the seed?’
When Peri said this, she reminded me of a saying by Rabbi Hillel: “B’makomshe’ayn anashim histadeil lihiyot ish,” which means, “In a place where there are no people, be a person,” (Pirkei Avot 2:6). What Rabbi Hillel meant by this is in a place where there’s no humanity, no compassion, no love, no care, be the one to bring it.Literally and figuratively, “be a mensch!” In planting a seed on the last remaining day of Earth’s existence, Peri would be bringing humanity, compassion, love, and care to an otherwise sad and desperate time.
It is easy to give up, especially when there seems to be no hope left. Places and times devoid of hope tend to be devoid of humanity. Yet, when we heed Rabbi Hillel’s words, and “be people,” we bring back hope and at least the notion, the possibility that we can come back from the brink. In 2020, we faced a global pandemic, and yet, here we are today, back in person. Our first responders, our healthcare workers (and many others) were the ones to bring humanity in the face of death and destruction. As Jews, we have stared annihilation in the face multiple times, and yet, here we sit, celebrating Rosh Hashanah 5784. Those who stood up and continue to stand up to antisemitism, both Jews and righteous gentiles, have always brought humanity when others have chosen to not act with love and compassion.
Growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s, there was a global crisis: a hole in the ozone layer (the ozone layer protects the Earth from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet light). Scientists discovered this hole in the atmosphere over Antarctica. It was caused by CFC’s – chlorofluorocarbons – manmade chemicals that can be found in things like aerosol cans, refrigerators, and air conditioners. So why don’t we hear about the ozone layer crisis today? Because it is no longer a crisis. In the late 1970’s a meteorologist named Jonathan Shanklin discovered the hole. While he was sure that something was wrong, his bosses were not convinced. By 1985, Shanklin and two of his colleagues,Joe Farman and Brian Gardiner, published their scientific findings. They were the ones who initially suggested that CFC’s were to blame. Ultimately, as a result of their findings, something unprecedented happened. Every country in the world agreed to something called the Montreal Protocol, which was a plan for all the countries to phase out all CFC’s. To this day, it is the only universally ratified treaty. As a result, the hole in the ozone is on track to be completely repaired by 2066. If Shanklin hadn’t acted on his findings, by 2050, there would be ozone depletions all over the world, wreaking havoc not only on the Earth itself, but on the health and wellbeing of all its inhabitants. One person’s actions can make a difference. Shanklin and his colleagues planted a seed, and it made all the difference. They brought in humanity.
We live in uncertain times. Climate change, fires in Hawaii, the war in the Ukraine, poverty, mass shootings, prejudice and racism… the list goes on. With all these terrible things going on, with all the uncertainty we face, why should we take action when it seems like no matter what we do, it doesn’t seem to make enough of a long-term global impact? I bet Mr. Merwin didn’t think he’d be saving an entire section of an island, and Mr. Shanklin didn’t think he would be saving the world by reporting his findings, and yet, they did. Now, I know that holding the door open for someone whose hands are full may not be on the same scale as fixing the hole in the ozone layer, but that doesn’t mean it is insignificant. Donating a dollar to someone in need may not seem like much, but to someone who doesn’t have a dollar, it could mean the whole world.
Today is the birthday of the world. It is our day on which we reflect on the past year of our lives. What did we do right? What could we have done differently? What seeds (either literal or metaphorical) could I have planted to try to make a difference?We often hear people say, “live each day as if it were your last.” Maybe, we should say, “live each days as if it were your first.” Every day is a chance to start over, a chance to be a mensch, a chance to plant a seed. As we begin the year 5784, I say, let’s grab a watering can, some soil, and a seed. Let’s plant something wonderful for today, and for tomorrow. Shanah tovah!