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D'var Torah September 23: Themes of the High Holy Days

09/30/2016 01:44:50 PM


Rabbi Elisa Koppel

A story told by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Over fifty years ago, the rabbi of Brisk, a scholar of extraordinary renown, revered also for his gentleness of character, entered a train in Warsaw to return to his hometown.  The rabbi, a man of slight stature, and of no distinction of appearance, found a seat in a compartment.  There he was surrounded by traveling salesmen, who, as soon as the train began to move, started to play cards.  As the game progressed, the excitement increased.  The rabbi remained aloof and absorbed in meditation.  Such aloofness was annoying to the rest of the people and one of them suggested to the rabbi to join in the game.  The rabbi answered that he never played cards.  As time passed, the rabbi’s aloofness became even more annoying and one of those present said to him: “Either you join us, or leave the compartment.”  Shortly thereafter, he took the rabbi by his collar and pushed him out of the compartment.  For several hours the rabbi had to stand on his feet until he reached his destination, the city of Brisk.


    Brisk was also the destination of the salesmen.  The rabbi left the train where he was immediately surrounded by admirers welcoming him and shaking his hands.  “Who is this man?” asked the salesman.  “You don’t know him? The famous rabbi of Brisk.”  The salesman’s heart sank.  He had not realized who he had offended.  He quickly went over to the rabbi to ask forgiveness.  The rabbi declined to forgive him.  In his hotel room, the salesman could find no peace.  He went to the rabbi’s house and was admitted to the rabbi’s study.  “Rabbi,” he said, “I am not a rich man.  I have, however, savings of three hundred rubles.  I will give them to you for charity if you will forgive me.”  The rabbi’s answer was brief: “NO.”


    The salesman’s anxiety was unbearable.  He went to the synagogue to seek solace.  When he shared his anxiety with some people in the synagogue, they were deeply surprised.  How could their rabbi, so gentle a person, be so unforgiving.  Their advice was for him to speak to the rabbi’s eldest son and to tell him of the surprising attitude taken by his father.


    When the rabbi’s on heard the story, he could not understand his father’s obstinacy.  Seeing the anxiety of the man, he promised to discuss the matter with his father.


    It is not proper, according to Jewish law, for a son to criticize his father directly.  So the son entered his father’s study and began a general discussion of Jewish law and turned to the laws of forgiveness.  When the principle was mentioned that a person who asks for forgiveness three times should be granted forgiveness, the son

mentioned the name of the man who was in great anxiety.  Thereupon the rabbi of Brisk answered:


    “I cannot forgive him.  He did not know who I was.  He offended a common man.  Let the salesman go to him and ask for forgiveness.”


I long understood this story to be about how we ask for and find forgiveness from others.  But, as I’ve grown and gained experience, I see it differently—as a story about how we forgive.  The rabbi in the story needed not forgive because he was not wronged—he can let go of the incident because it had nothing to do with him.  The person that was wronged, however, is the one that needs to forgive.  And, in this case, that person does not even exist, and so cannot be asked for forgiveness.  Just as importantly, the salesman needs to forgive himself.  Perhaps this is a story, instead, about how we find forgiveness ourselves, outside of or even despite the other party.


    When we are wronged, when we are hurt, we feel anger, resentment; we blame the party that hurt us.  Sometimes that hurt was intentional, but often it was not.  Sometimes the other party knows they hurt us, other times, they do not.  Sometimes the other party is someone we can approach and work towards repair, but often—perhaps too often—that’s not the case.  Perhaps we are angry at the universe, angry at God.  Maybe we have been hurt by someone that no longer wants anything to do with us or with whom we’ve cut off contact.  Sometimes, we need to forgive someone who is no longer alive and cannot forgive us or accept our forgiveness.  


    I think this leads to an important conclusion—forgiving someone else is not about them.  It’s about us.  It doesn’t really matter if they are sorry or if they have repented.  It does not matter is they are no longer there to ask forgiveness or to hear our forgiveness.  And, more often than not, their hurting us was, even if intentional, not really about us, but about them.  Forgiving also is about us.


    When we forgive, we let go.  We do not necessarily forget, but we move beyond.  We are able to take a situation and accept that it happened. Know that it happened.  And acknowledge that it happened. And, even if we do not condone the behavior that led to the situation that hurt us, we can accept that it happened and allow ourselves to move on.  That’s what forgiveness is really all about.


     And that’s how our own healing really begins. The story is told: 


Two monks were on a pilgrimage. One day, they came to a deep river. At the edge of the river, a young woman sat weeping, because she was afraid to cross the river without help. She begged the two monks to help her. The younger monk turned his back. The members of their order were forbidden to touch a woman.


But the older monk picked up the woman without a word and carried her across the river. He put her down on the far side and continued his journey. The younger monk came after him, scolding him and berating him for breaking his vows. He went on this way for a long time.


Finally, at the end of the day the older monk turned to the younger one. "I only carried her across the river. You have been carrying her all day.”


    How often do we carry these things? The wrongs of ourselves, the wrongs of others even.  How often do we hold back forgiveness? But these holy days remind us that we must.  Because forgiveness helps to bring us to wholeness.  Forgiveness helps us to heal.


    Forgiveness is about us.  It’s not about the one that we are forgiving—it’s about us.  We often think of it as easy to forgive another—think that it’s just a matter of accepting an apology.  But, truly, it’s more than that.  It’s about us not just vocalizing but truly believing and feeling that we accept the current reality. Someone may have hurt us, but we are still ok.  We can move on and we will move on.  To forgive is to accept our own possibility of moving forward.


    When we hold on to hurt, we allow the other to continue to hurt us.  When we move on from that experience, when we forgive, we enable ourselves to begin to heal.  As we enter the season of the High Holy Days, I invite all of us to challenge ourselves to allow ourselves to begin this new year with with a reborn spirit—one that has started to heal.  One that has forgiven and therefore started to move forward.  To heal. To learn.  To grow.


    Forgiveness is about us.  It’s about the internal process.  And by engaging and embracing that process, we ourselves become more whole.

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779