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Judaism: Video Series: Preparing for the New Year

Lessons for the New Year: To say sorry to those we've harmed; to forgive those who have harmed; to avoid anger --and more.
Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 11:22 AM


The sound of selichot. Of saying sorry. The special prayers we say at this time of the year as we come close to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish new year and the day of atonement. And there's something so powerful about the ability to say sorry.

Out there in secular society we live in a non penitential culture. When was the last time you heard a politician say, I'm sorry. Or a rabbi, say, I got it wrong. Or a pundit say, I made a mistake.

Yet we're always getting things wrong. That's what it is to be human. So to be able to say, I'm sorry, I was wrong, forgive me, is important. It's a moment of honesty in a lifetime of keeping up appearances; of trying to look infallible. And I can say sorry to God because I know he forgives me. I know that because that's the kind of God he is. That's why he gave us Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So try saying sorry to God. It might just help you, as it's helped me, say sorry to the people I've hurt. Saying sorry is the superglue of interpersonal life. It mends relationships that would otherwise be broken beyond repair. You won't be sorry that you said, I'm sorry.

Think of what could happen in some of the most intractable conflicts of the world if both sides could acknowledge the pain they’ve caused one another; if they could accept responsibility instead of saying, it was your fault; if they could truly face and forgive one another. Improbable, yes. But impossible? No.

To say sorry to those we’ve harmed and to forgive those who’ve harmed us is the most difficult moral challenge in the world. But they alone have the power to heal the wounds of the past and build a better future together.

To be free...you have to learn to forgive -

Have compassion on your works. Forgive. That's what we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the days between. But it cuts both ways. We can't ask God to forgive us if we don't forgive others. We have to forgive those who've offended us, however hard it is, because life is too short to feel resentment. Lo tikom velo titor, says the Torah. Don't bear a grudge and don't take revenge. 

At the end of his life Moses said to the Israelites, Don't despise an Egyptian, because you were strangers in his land. Strangers in his land? They persecuted the Israelites, enslaved them, tried to kill half their children. Don't despise them? They were despicable. But what Moses was saying was: if you continue to hate, you will still be slaves: slaves to the past and your resentment. If you want to be free you have to let go of hate. And that's still true. 

Our energies are too precious to waste on a past we can't undo. No one can offend me without my permission, and I refuse to give bad people the victory of knowing I care about what they say or do. On these holy days, we have to let go of hate. We have to forgive. And we will then travel lighter through life, with less grief, more joy. 

Don't Get Angry

In wrath remember mercy. So we pray when we say selichot or tachanun. And what a line that is. Did you ever lose your temper with someone, say something in anger you shouldn't have said? Did you ever make someone cry? There's something about anger that makes it the most destructive of the emotions.

Maimonides said: in most things follow the middle way but not in anger. Even a little bit of anger is bad news for you and those around you. They used to say about one of the Lubavitcher rebbes that whenever he felt as if he were about to be angry he'd get out several volumes of Talmud and jewish law and look up if it were permissible to be angry on such an occasion; and by the time he'd done all that research how could he be angry any more?

Berogez rachem tizkor. In the coming year, when you feel angry, that's the time to remember mercy. Kindness achieves what anger never can.

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