Monday, October 10, 2011

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5772




“Who is great?” ask the sages of the Talmud.

“The man who turns his enemy into a friend,” is the reply.

For this reason, I have always considered Nelson Mandela to be a great man. This past year we quietly celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his long walk to freedom. A friend shared with me a recollection of that historic moment written by Bill Clinton. I knew as soon as I read it that these words would commence my next Yom Kippur sermon. And so they do.

“Early on the morning of February 11, 1990,” writes Clinton, “I woke my daughter, Chelsea, and took her down into the kitchen of the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas.”

“I wanted Chelsea, who was then ten years old…  to watch his release. I felt it would be one of the most important political events in her lifetime, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was one of the most important in mine. ”

“So I sat her up on the kitchen counter and turned on the television. I still remember it like it was yesterday—Mandela walking slowly toward that gate and then waiting; Chelsea, like so many millions of others, moved by the power of his unbreakable dignity and strength. As I watched him walking down that dusty road, I wondered what he was thinking about the last twenty-seven years and whether he was angry all over again.”

“Many years later, when we were both Presidents of our nations, I had the chance to ask him.  I said, “I know you are a great man. You invited your jailors to your inauguration. You put your persecutors in the government. But tell me the truth. Weren’t you really angry all over again?”

“And he said, “‘Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all, I had not been free in so long. “But,” he said, “when I felt the anger well up inside of me, I realized that if I hated them after I got outside the gate they would still have me.’”

“Then he smiled and said, ‘But I wanted to be free, and so I let it go.’”

“I wanted to be free, so I let it go. ”

Clinton said that hearing these words was “an astonishing moment in my life.”

He goes on to say that these words helped him during a time of trial in his own life.

I know these words have helped me during a period of intense challenge in my life.

Mandela’s circumstances were exceptional.  For a man to let go of his anger and bitterness and resentment after twenty-seven years in prison is astonishing. To leave behind a quarter century of captivity and emerge free of recrimination is inspirational. If he could do it, can’t we?

Mandela did not forget the past, but forgave the past, so as to embrace the future. He did not deny the anger, but conquered it. He walked out of the prison of concrete, but likewise the prison of the mind. Only then could he fulfill the destiny that awaited him.

I believe that the liberating power of forgiveness is the central theme of Yom Kippur, our most holy day, and our most difficult day.

What is so hard about Yom Kippur?

     Is it the fasting?  Not easy, but no.

     Is it asking God for forgiveness for our mistakes? Not easy, but no.

     Is it asking other people for forgiveness for our mistakes? Even harder, but no.

What is hardest about Yom Kippur is forgiving others when they don’t deserve it.

What is hardest is letting go of anger; letting go of entitlement; letting go of vindication.

As a marriage counselor told me many years ago:  “Sometimes I have to look a husband or wife in the eye as ask them:  Do you want to be right, or do you want to be married?”

“If you insist you are right, and you may be, you will probably divorce. If you demand justice, you will get it, with a broken heart and broken home. If you are willing to compromise, you may begin to reconcile. If you are willing to show compassion, you may begin to heal.”

Rashi, the greatest of the classic commentators, writes concerning the very first verse of the Torah:

God first thought to create the world with justice alone. But God saw the world could not endure. So first God created with compassion, and then added justice. So the world could endure.

The sages of the Talmud ask a daring question:  If God was to pray, what would God say?

Their answer: “May it be My will, that My compassion suppress My anger.”

The remarkable passage goes on to express that of God’s many attributes, it is mercy that God wishes to see prevail when dealing with “My children.”

Our tradition urges us to be imitation dei; god-like in our aspirations.

We began this service, just after the Kol Nidrei, with words from the Torah:

Vayomer adonai salachti kidvarecha. And God said: I have forgiven according to your word.

Numbers, Chapter 14:  Upon hearing a pessimistic report from ten of the twelve spies just returning from Canaan, the Israelites turn against Moses and Aaron. They lose faith. They are ready to give up. They even say that it would be better to go back to Egypt than die in the wilderness.

God is portrayed as overcome with anger. “And the Lord said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me? How long will they have no faith in me? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them?”

Moses pleads with God to let go of His anger.

Have you yourself not said:  The Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and pardoning transgression…?

Selach na la’avon ha’am hazeh. Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your mercy, even as you have forgiven this people from Egypt until now.

And then God’s crucial reply:

Salachti: I have forgiven.

God saying, as it were:

I have let go of my anger.

I have pardoned this sinful and rebellious lot.

I have forgiven the past for the sake of the future.

Now, the stories of Mandela and Moses teach us something more. Letting go of anger to liberate ourselves and our loved ones is primary. Yes, that is our greatest challenge…  and most rewarding endeavor.

But remember that although Nelson Mandela forgave, he did not forget. Mandela wanted South Africa and the world to know what had happened.  A “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission was established. Hearings were held, in some cases trials. Pardons were indeed bestowed upon all but the most egregious offenders. Justice was tempered, not denied.

In the biblical story, there is a long history of understanding the term “salachti” as “pardon” more than “forgiveness.”  Nachmanides, in the Middle Ages, interprets the key phrase to mean “remittance of punishment” rather than full forgiveness. The great modern scholar Nachum Sarna comes to the same conclusion in the JPS Torah Commentary:

The Hebrew salach implies not the absolution of sin but the suspension of anger; that [the Israelites] not die immediately and their children may survive; that they live out their lives and their children inherit; that they not be destroyed and the covenant maintained.

 “Moses asks for reconciliation,” he continues, “for assurance that Israel will be brought to its land, and not that the sin of the Exodus generation will be exonerated.”

The second lesson from Mandela and Moses is that forgiveness is a journey, and it takes time.

Forgiveness is not an all or nothing proposition.

It unfolds in stages.

It is not forgetting the truth, but facing the truth so that the process of reconciliation can begin.

Forgiveness begins by stepping away from the kingdom of anger and proclaiming that mercy will have the last say.

Forgiveness begins with a declaration that if we must err, we shall err on the side of compassion.

Forgiveness is not black or white, but shades of gray.

It is not “happy ever after” but “let’s begin again.”

It is not the end of hurt, but the beginning of hope.

It is not the hug of “all is fine, ” but the embrace that the worst is past.

The road of reconciliation is rocky but the journey begins with a letting go.

Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, was once reminded of an especially cruel thing that had been said to her years before. Clara seemed not to recall it. “Don’t you remember?” a friend asked. “No,” came the reply, “I distinctly remember forgetting that.”

Nagib and Moussa were two dear friends, according to a classic Persian folk tale. One day Nagib rescued his friend from near drowning in a mountain stream. Moussa inscribed on a nearby rock: “Wanderer! In this place Nagib saved the life of his friend Moussa.

Several years later they returned to that very spot, and during a very heated argument Nagib struck his friend in the face. Moussa inscribed in nearby sand: “Wanderer! In this place Nagib broke the heart of his friend Moussa.”

Coming upon the scene, one of Moussa’s men inquired: “Why did you record your friend’s heroism in stone but his cruelty in sand?”

 “I shall recall his cruelty temporarily,” came the reply, “but cherish his goodness forever.”

And so on the Yom Kippur let us affirm the liberating power of forgiveness.

Like Mandela we yearn to be free of body, but also of spirit.

 “So I let it go.”

Like Moses we must plea for pardon, and like God, we must grant it, if there is to be a future toward the Promised Land.

On this Yom Kippur we turn to those we have hurt, but as importantly, to those who have hurt us, and say:


I have let go of anger.


I offer the hand of reconciliation.


Let us go on living.

Let us take the first steps together.

Let us reclaim a relationship.

Let us restore hope for the future.

To you, my husband, my wife, my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, my son, my daughter, my friend, my colleague, my acquaintance, my neighbor, my fellow:


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