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Yom Kippur: A Day to Forgive Ourselves (Kol Nidre 5784 09/24/23)

Yom Kippur: A Day to Forgive Ourselves

If you play golf, you’ll get this story:

A man goes to the confessional and tells the priest, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I took the Lord’s name in vain while golfing.”

“I understand, my son,” the priest says. “I play the game as well, and it can be frustrating. Tell me what happened?”

“Well,” the man says, “I hit my drive on the fifteenth green, and it sliced right into the trees.”

“Was that when you did it?” The priest asked.

“No, the ball bounced off a tree and onto the fairway. But then it bounced into a sandtrap.”

“And then you cursed?”

“No, I pulled out a wedge and chipped the ball right out of there. It rolled down the green and stopped two feet from the cup.”

“Ah, that was when you blasphemed,” the priest nods.

“No, Father,” the man replies.

“My God,” the priest yells, “You missed a two-foot putt?!”

We’re going to be admitting our sins numerous times over the next 25 hours, but we are not going to a priest in a confessional. We are the confessional:

Our God and God of our ancestors; let our prayer come before you, and do not ignore our supplication. For we are not so brazen-faced and stiff-necked to say to you, “We are righteous and have not sinned.” But, indeed, we and our forefathers have sinned.

אָשַֽׁמְנוּ. בָּגַֽדְנוּ. גָּזַֽלְנוּ. דִּבַּֽרְנוּ דֹּֽפִי

Let me ask you, why are we publicly admitting our sins?

Furthermore, we do more than just admit them; we sing them. Shouldn’t confession be done humbly, privately? Aren’t we trying to gain forgiveness from God?

Now, that could definitely be our goal, and I’m sure many rabbis would concur.

Yet, if we look through the Bible, most of the time, God is very forgiving.

God places Adam and Eve in Paradise, and they have just one prohibition: Don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Well, you know the story:

Telling some people not to do something is as good as saying, do it!

Yet, we don’t see wrath from God.

וַיִּקְרָ֛א יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ אַיֶּֽכָּה׃

And God called out, “Adam, where are you?”

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־קֹלְךָ֥ שָׁמַ֖עְתִּי בַּגָּ֑ן וָאִירָ֛א כִּֽי־עֵירֹ֥ם אָנֹ֖כִי וָאֵחָבֵֽא׃

Adam replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מִ֚י הִגִּ֣יד לְךָ֔ כִּ֥י עֵירֹ֖ם אָ֑תָּה הֲמִן־הָעֵ֗ץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר צִוִּיתִ֛יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֥י אֲכׇל־מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אָכָֽלְתָּ׃

“Adam, who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?”

God sounds like my grandfather scolding me for touching his tools!

After the repercussions are listed (the women will have labor pains, and the men will have to work by the sweat of their brow, etc.) God becomes a softie:

Well, you can’t live outside of Paradise without any clothes, so

וַיַּ֩עַשׂ֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְאָדָ֧ם וּלְאִשְׁתּ֛וֹ כׇּתְנ֥וֹת ע֖וֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵֽׁם׃

“And God made garments of leather for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”

Now, if we were God, we’d be like: “One thing, one thing I told you to keep, and you blew it.” But God did not rub it in.

Likewise, in the story of Cain and Abel, God is forgiving.

After Cain murders his brother, he is afraid that all of Abel’s friends are going to avenge his death and kill him. Now, don’t ask me where they came from, that’s a secret!

וַיֹּ֧אמֶר ל֣וֹ יְהֹוָ֗ה לָכֵן֙ כׇּל־הֹרֵ֣ג קַ֔יִן שִׁבְעָתַ֖יִם יֻקָּ֑ם וַיָּ֨שֶׂם יְהֹוָ֤ה לְקַ֙יִן֙ א֔וֹת לְבִלְתִּ֥י הַכּוֹת־אֹת֖וֹ כׇּל־מֹצְאֽוֹ׃

So God said to him, “I promise if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be exacted.” And Hashem put a mark on Cain so that people would know not to kill him.

So, even without Yom Kippur, Cain finds forgiveness.

Now, I’m not saying that in the Bible, God doesn’t get upset. Yet, even after the catastrophic sins of the Golden Calf and the Spies, Moses begs for compassion, and God acquiesces.

Therefore, If God’s not a grudge holder and is easy to forgive, then why are we going through the repentance process five times today?

I suggest that perhaps it is not to appease God, but it’s for our sake. That we need a day to forgive ourselves.

In early July, I saw the Tony Award winner for Best Performance by an Actor.

And that was…

Correct, Sean Hayes playing Oscar Levant in “Goodnight, Oscar.”

Now, Oscar had just snuck out of a psych ward to be a guest on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show. Yet just because he escaped the ward doesn’t mean that he escaped his personal demons. As he says about himself: “I’m controversial. My friends either dislike me or hate me.”

What are Oscar’s demons? Self-hate and regret.

He yearns to perform his own music. Oscar’s been a prodigy from his youth, yet he’s mostly known for playing Gershwin. And he resents living in Gershwin’s shadow.

When he first hears Rhapsody in Blue, he calls Gershwin and tells him that he gets it. He hears all its colors and hues. Levant’s recording of it actually sells more copies than Gershwin’s version. But now Oscar feels imprisoned by it.

How many of us go through life living with anger and regret? Levant is not alone.

For many years, I was angry that I spent so much time in yeshiva. All of my twenties were given to studying the Talmud when I should have gone to medical school or studied something that would have led to a more stable, better-paying career.

Yet, in the end, I forgave myself, for I came to understand that, given my situation, I was where I needed to be. I’ve come to embrace my role as a rabbi. Furthermore, I needed all those years of learning to be married to such an erudite woman.

At the end of Goodnight Oscar, Levant is about to perform his own composition. However, he succumbs to weakness and plays Rhapsody in Blue. He hates himself for it. And nonetheless, all the colors and hues are clear and bright.

We, the audience, come to understand that Oscar is not piggybacking on another artist’s composition. Rather, he understands it better. His version is a self-reflection, it’s truly his own.

Instead of hating himself for copying Gershwin, he should be loving himself for improving the composition.

Modern spiritual teachings tell us not to bemoan ourselves, for it’s natural to feel insecure.

When we are born, our soul comes from a spiritual world of unconditional love and unity into this harsh material world, a world of separation and division. Of course, it’s disturbing for the person.

Sonaya Roman writes, “The first order of business for all of you is to heal yourselves, for you have come into vibrations and energies that were much more turbulent than those you existed in before you were born. Do not make yourself wrong for feeling doubt, guilt, grief, or fear. Realize that these are the feelings that come with being in a physical body at this stage of humanity’s evolution.[1]

Edgar Cayce, a great twentieth-century spiritual teacher, stressed that healing comes from self-forgiveness. A sin is simply a mistake that produces consequences that operate as our teacher to help us move out of error and into truth.

Carl Rogers was an innovative psychotherapist. He turned psychotherapy on its head by no longer offering advice and consultation to his clients. Instead, he “merely listened” to them and watched as they unraveled their problems and found a healing source from within.

Because of his actively listening, reflecting back to the person what that person is expressing, but with an accepting tone and devoid of judgment, individuals came to be more accepting of their feelings.[2] As they came to process more of their previously unaccepted feelings, they came to understand and accept themselves.

So, I’m not saying that 5 Ashamnu’s over the course of one day will be as good as a few sessions with Carl Rogers, but I believe Yom Kippur is leading us in the same direction.

God is forgiving. On the other hand, we, sometimes, are not. And most of the time, we’re harsher on ourselves than on others.

We sing Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu…, to let go of our guilt. To recognize that we’re all sinners. We all make mistakes and need to forgive ourselves.

We have tonight and all day Monday – that’s plenty of time to contemplate what’s bothering us and what’s holding us back. Let’s utilize the day to review what’s still eating at us. Then, let’s forgive ourselves and gain self-acceptance.

If there is any aspect of God being upset with us, then we’re promised:

וסלחתי כדברך

“I have forgiven you as you asked.”

Now, it’s up to us to forgive ourselves.

Good Yom Tov.

[1] Roman, Sanaya. Spiritual Growth: Being Your Higher Self (Earth Life Series Book 3) (p. 173). LuminEssence Productions. Kindle Edition.

[2] Todeschi, Kevin J.; Reed, Henry. Contemporary Cayce: A Complete Exploration Using Today’s Science and Philosophy . A.R.E. Press. Kindle Edition.

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