God Forgives. Do We?
By Rabbi Shohama
Good Yuntif, friends. This is the night, the most solemn night of the Jewish year, when we face our faults and our failings. Just after the Kol Nidre prayer, we heard some of the powerful words in our liturgy, “Vayomer Adonai Salachti ki’dvarecha. And God said, I – God – have forgiven you as you have asked.” I, God, have forgiven you. That’s it. We are forgiven. Fifteen minutes into the service we are forgiven.
Why then do we have 24 more hours of praying and fasting to go?
To answer that let’s look carefully at the dialogue of this day of repentance and hope—hope for forgiveness.
God says, Salachti ki’dvarechi. “I, God, have forgiven you.”
But we say, “We have broken our vows, and we know we will break them again.”
God answers, “ I am the One who took you out of Egypt to be your God.”
We say, “We don’t deserve it.”
We confess our guilt, several times, during this Holy Day of Yom Kippur.
Ashamnu – we recognize our failures.
Bagadnu – we have not lived up to our potential.
Gazalnu – we have stolen, if not goods then valuable time that might have been spent in worthier ways.
Dibarnu dofi – we have spoken falsely.
The litany goes on and on.
But the Holy One has said, Salachti ki’dvarecha: “I, God, have forgiven you.”
Salachti ki’dvarecha. I, God, have forgiven you.
Why is it so hard for us to accept? Why do we not feel worthy of this great love, this ultimate forgiveness? My colleague Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that it is because our inner committee, inner voices in our head have not let up. Perhaps they are the voices of our parents or siblings, or schoolmates from long ago. We have not stopped them because we have not forgiven ourselves. So we need the full night and day of Yom Kippur to convince ourselves.
As the day goes on we soften and say, “Ki anu amecha v’atah Elohenu. We are your people and You are our God.” That is, even though we haven’t earned your forgiveness, we accept Your love, because we are like family.
There is a story in the Talmud, written down almost 2,000 years ago, that illustrates this point. (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 25b). There once was a drought in the land of Israel. Rain did not fall, and the crops did not grow. Starvation was at hand. The sages pleaded with God for mercy, but the rain did not fall. Finally, Rabbi Akiva prayed, addressing God as Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King. It was then that rain began to fall, nourishing the parched earth.
You see, until then the sages had been praying to God as Lord, as King, as Ruler distant from them in their hearts. They were praying out of fear. But when they realized that the Transcendent One was also a God of infinite love, like a loving father or mother, or grandfather or grandmother, or best friend, they were able to open their hearts wider.
That is our challenge. Can we shift our relationship to the Infinite One and accept our inherent purity? In our morning liturgy we say, Ha-neshamah shenatata bi tehorah hi: “The soul You have given me is pure.” That is our theology. We are born with a pure soul. That pure soul remains pure inside us, no matter what we have done. In the words of my beloved teacher of blessed memory, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, we have only to “wipe the hard drive clean.” Gone then, the memories, the residue of shameful thoughts and deeds. Gone.
Of course, that is an oversimplification. We must have an open and contrite heart—we have to want to change. That is the portal, the opening to being forgiven and feeling forgiven. We also have to ask forgiveness from those we have wronged, to make amends, and change our ways that are hurtful to others or ourselves. But the experience of instant forgiveness, that is possible now! That’s the promise of hope of Salachti ki’dvarecha. Many spiritual seekers have written of an instant of “enlightenment,” when suddenly everything around them looked brighter, and they were filled with an overflowing feeling of love. It has happened to me on occasions. It can happen to you.
Recently I’ve been reading a book called For Giving LOVE: Awakening Your Essential Nature Through Love and Forgiveness. (Star of Light Publications 2016, p. 14). The main author, a Jewish physician named Leonard Laskow, had an experience 40 years ago that changed his life and his career. He was meditating in a dark room and “suddenly it felt like someone had turned on the lights.” He felt as if he heard a voice saying, “Your work is to heal with love.” He began to experiment with bringing in golden light through his head and heart, and sending in out through his heart and arms to those in need. The results were so encouraging that developed a process called Holo-energetic Healing, based on forgiveness and love.
I’ll share just the outline—and you’ll see how it is similar to not only our Jewish mystical teachings about love and forgiveness, but similar to other systems of healing you may know.
Step 1. Recognize what you want to change.
Step 2. Find an image or a bodily feeling for that which you want to change (e.g. a red ball or a sense of fear).
Step 3. Strongly breathe out that image.
Step 4. Replace it with an image of feeling loved.
Let’s take a few moments and try this now.
- Pick one small personal behavior or feeling you would like to change.
- Ask for an image or bodily feeling to come to your mind that represents this.
- Hold that image or feeling and breathe it out with a very strong breath or breaths.
- Allow an image of feeling loved to fill that empty space where the image was.
Hopefully you’ve felt a positive shift. But if you haven’t, don’t despair. This doesn’t work for everyone on the first try. (This talk will be posted on our website and Facebook page, and you can try again on your own time.)
Salachti — “I have forgiven” — is the promise awaiting us. Let us have hope in God’s promise. Let us open our hearts wide and feel the abundant love that is here for us. As our theme song “Kavei el Adonai” says, “Find your true hope in the One hope.” When we resonate with the One, with the Oneness of all life, we will feel clear and clean. God’s promise of forgiveness will be realized.
Ken yehi ratzon. May this be now.