The Work of Forgiveness
This is a bittersweet time of year. I look forward to the stirring sounds of Breisheit and Kol Nidre, the intensity of large communal prayer, a time and place for introspection, apples, honey and new fruits shared with family and friends. Yet I also know that before me is the work of forgiveness, a tricky business that is not always black and white. The same questions emerge: What happens when we want to hold onto our grudges?
What about those times when we can’t change our own hurtful behavior because we know it is just a defense against someone else’s hurtful actions towards us? And what if someone’s sin against us isn’t a casual transgression or insensitivity but reveals a fundamental character flaw that we don’t know if we still want in our lives. What if that person has asked for forgiveness but the cumulative effect of their actions has fundamentally altered how we see them, how we feel about them. Isn’t it our duty to forgive? Do the words “I forgive you” change the way we feel in our hearts? And what if our own sins are hard to change because they are telling us that something is not right in our lives? What work needs to be done to strengthen our most sacred relationships? These weighty questions return with the season. Some years I have answers; other years I’m lost in the dark.
A few years ago, when the concept of sin and forgiveness felt particularly murky, I began Tashlich at the beginning of the month of Elul instead of on the traditionally observed time of Rosh Hashana—or the during the Days of Awe. On the first day of Elul a rabbi friend led me and a few other women to the shores of Lake Michigan to begin the process. She brought along blank paper and green markers and asked us to make a list of all that we wanted to discard that was getting in the way of being truly at peace. We then tossed our white pages with green letters into the lake and watched our words float to the surface. The lake swallowed some of them. We lifted the now faded green letters from the water and while less easy to read, the words were still there to contemplate for the rest of the month. Which words still spoke to us. Which seemed to be erased by the act of articulation? What letters still bled down the page?
We had had a chance to begin the hardest work: articulating our struggles. As the days of contemplation continued, we had time to think about what were the stones that needed to be tossed back into the water. What were the sins that needed to be cast off. And what were the gems that we would continue to hold in our hands, waiting for the answer.
This poem was born after that ritual. It helped me find answers for 5770.
I’m still working on the answers for this year.
Shanah Tovah v' Metukah,
We dipped our words in water
wondering what the lake would give back.
We dug up the odd gems
of the passing year.
We did not throw sins into the wind.
We wrote them down in green ink on white paper,
let water wash over them
as letters faded to shadows.
We had written down a year
of inadequacies, frailties, iniquities.
In my left fist I kept the imperfect
stone of my heart.
I did not toss it in
to the waves that know
what we cannot give back
we will keep.