We have to come an important time of year in the Jewish Calendar. We are currently in what is known as “The Days of Awe,” the period of time between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish “New Year”) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). The Days of Awe are set aside for reflection and preparation for solemnity of Yom Kippur. A key feature of this time and for Yom Kippur is forgiveness. And, as is the case in many concepts in Judaism, forgiveness is a bit more complicated than one would think.
One of the interesting aspects of forgiveness for Jews is that forgiveness is a mitzvah. While often mistranslated as “good deed,” mitzvah actually means “commandment.” In other words, Jews are commanded to forgive; if you seek my forgiveness, I am obligated to forgive you. This obligation, in and of itself, is not what is interesting; after all, Jews are commanded to do a lot of things that seem to be optional, such as visiting the sick or giving to charity. What is interesting is the reasoning behind making forgiveness a commandment. I am obligated to forgive you not for your sake but for mine. I am not forgiving you in order to remove your feelings of guilt, I am doing it so that I do not hold on to an old hurt. Forgiveness heals the giver as well as the seeker.
There is, of course, a caveat to this act of forgiveness: I can only forgive someone for an offense which directly impacts me. My forgiveness only covers personal grievances. For example, for years you have been an exemplary neighbor. You keep an eye on my house when I am away, you trim your lawn a little over the property line, and you never party too late at night. However, you have misspent your youth as a virulent anti-Semite, and until recently, you did not know I was a Jew. As is usually the case with most prejudice, when you get to know someone, you reevaluate your attitudes toward the group to which they belong. So, you come to me one day and ask me to forgive all the nasty things you have said and done to the Jews who had crossed your path many years ago. I wish I could. But, as you have never said or done anything to me, I cannot. I cannot forgive you for an offense done to someone else.
As mentioned above, forgiveness is an important component of The Days of Awe. During The Days of Awe, we prepare to stand before G-d and be judged for our behavior during the previous year. On Yom Kippur we ask G-d for forgiveness and promise to return to his ways. But, just as with the case of me and my reformed anti-Semitic neighbor, G-d only forgives my transgressions against mitzvot. G-d cannot forgive my transgressions against people. Only those people can. And, this brings us to the significance of The Days of Awe. These ten days are dedicated to seeking forgiveness of others.
In that spirit, Dear Reader(s), to those of you whom I have offended or hurt in word or in deed, through action or inaction, I now seek your forgiveness.
לשנה טובה תיכתבו
L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu,
May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a Good Year.