By Rabbi Shohama
Gut Yuntif! You might not expect the following question and answer on such a solemn evening, but it is both humorous and at the same time very serious.
Question: “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?”
Answer: “One, but the light bulb has to want to change.”
This poignant joke lights up the essence of our challenge for Yom Kippur, our holy day of repenting and forgiving.
The end of the Kol Nidre prayer asserts that God has already forgiven us – salachti kidvarecha, but that our work is not finished. There is still so much forgiveness to give and receive – with ourselves, God, Life itself, and people who have inadvertently or purposely hurt us. And forgiveness is not the end. Where there is hurt there needs to be repair. We say the prayers but we have to want to change, and to be change, and to be changed.
Let us visualize the Magen David, our Jewish star, the logo of our congregation which is shown on the covers of our prayer book as two interlocking triangles, one pointing down and one pointing up, each having three sides.
This may be seen as a diagram of how love and forgiveness work. Each triangle has three sides, one for Seeking and Receiving Forgiveness, the second for Giving Forgiveness, and the third for Making Amends. The triangle pointing down represents the Flow of God’s Love, and the triangle pointing up the Love that our Creator implanted in our hearts, that with God’s help we can open – to flow out to others. This Magen David shows a visual of how we are partners with God in this holy work of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a key mitzvah, because it unlocks love that oh so often becomes shut away. To be able to forgive and be forgiven means to be able to start afresh. It is our responsibility to ourselves, our communities and our world to forgive people close to us, while still taking action against injustice. Not that we must give up anger, because anger can empower right action, but we should be wary of hostility, which is anger that remains stuck, an emotional toxin, continuing to pollute relationships just as fires and smog pollute our air.
Some relationships are difficult to repair and some are easily fixable; we won’t know until we try. My rabbi of blessed memory, Maurice Davis, taught as follows: “When you point the finger of blame at another person, turn over your hand, and you will see three fingers pointing back at you.” Blame is not a two way street in every instance, but forgiveness is so important in Judaism that a traditional bedtime practice called the Bedtime Shema reads as follows: “Ribono shel Olam, Ruler of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me—whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine; whether accidentally (b’shogayg), willfully (b’ratzon), carelessly, or purposely, whether through speech, deed, thought, or idea; whether in this lifetime or another.”
This powerful prayer has been omitted from many of our modern prayer books, but it carries ancient mystical wisdom. To recognize and let go of anger at bedtime is to promote peaceful sleep. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or won’t take corrective action the following day or days, but it means that we will act out of thoughtful behavior and not hostility.
A friend and teacher of Jewish spirituality, Linda Zelizer, told me recently of an indigenous Hawaiian prayer that is uncannily similar in words and values. It says,
“Divine Creator, if I, my family, my relatives and ancestors, offend your family, relatives and ancestors, in thought, facts, or deeds, from the beginning of our creation to the present, we ask Your forgiveness. Let this clear, purify, release and cut off all negative memories, blockages, energies and vibrations. May they be transmuted into light.”
This prayer is part of a practice for healing relationships called Ho’oponopono. Ho’o means “to make” and “pono” means “right,” and pono pono is to make doubly right. To practice Ho’oponopono is to put oneself and others in a relationship of balance, to make a relationship with self or others doubly right, and to bring healing to a wider group of people.
The practice is simple. It has four steps, repeated over and over, day after day, as the thoughts and sounds work their way into body, heart, mind and soul. Thoughts may also reverberate through the air to the person to whom they are directed, and so this prayer may have the power to subtly change the quality of a troubled relationship, and open the door for both sides to send and receive forgiveness.
Step 1: Repentance – SAY: I’M SORRY. …
Step 2: Ask Forgiveness – SAY: PLEASE FORGIVE ME. …
Step 3: Gratitude – SAY: THANK YOU. …
Step 4: Love – SAY: I LOVE YOU.
REPEAT: I’M SORRY. PLEASE FORGIVE ME. THANK YOU. I LOVE YOU.
Perhaps this practice feels too difficult. What might keep us from using it? Almost anything—pride, fear, numbness… Moreover, we can see that Ho’oponopono works best when everyone practices it. Openness to forgiveness needs to be on both sides for it to work its full blessing. At first we might not be able to mean all the words. That takes willingness, perhaps even courage, to change emotionally and to take action. That willingness may come out of guilt, or Love, or lovingkindness—of feeling the God spark, of yearning to be in right relationship with the other, and with oneself. And if we don’t feel that? Then perhaps realizing the benefits of forgiveness will power our taking forgiveness seriously.
Ancient Hawai’ians knew what modern medical science has since verified; holding a grudge affects us not only emotionally, but can also affect our physical health. This is not to say we are to accept abuse, or avoid seeking help when needed. Dr. Matt James, a contemporary teacher of Ho’oponopono, teaches that Ho’oponopono it is not just about forgiveness but also about release; release from pain in the past that enslaves one during the present.
The 18th century poet, Alexander Pope, wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” This is based on Torah: ”B’tzelem Elohim bara oto” (Gen. 1:27); we humans are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. In closing, let us recall what we read at the end of our Kol Nidre prayer, “We ask the holy power of Love to open us, turn us and return us.”
As we have said, so may it be!