My colleague, Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles, posted an amazing story a few months ago on Facebook, which inspired me to write this sermon. Her story is of repentance or Teshuvah in Hebrew - and it captures the very essence of which the High Holidays are about. When I read her family’s experience of the power of repentance, and the healing that comes from making right past wrongs, it moved me to tell the story tonight. It is the age old hope that we too will be inspired to heal through the process of Teshuvah.
Rabbi Miles - Zoe - told the story of how in 1970, her father, James Grashow, was commissioned to illustrate an advertisement in The New York Times for Barton’s Chocolates.He made a beautiful woodcut, called “Abraham, the first Jew,” along with 100 prints, signed and numbered.
A Swedish art dealer saw the newspaper ad, loved it, and offered to sell the prints in Europe and send her father the money. Her parents agreed to this arrangement, and saved one print for themselves, giving the art dealer the rest of the copies. Her parents were naive and trusting and guess what? They never heard from him again. And although they always wondered what happened to that art dealer, Zoe’s father didn’t remain resentful abut it - he went on to have a successful career as an artist. When Zoe got ordained, they gave her the one framed copy they’d kept of Abraham, for her to hang in her office. Every time they saw the print, they wondered what had happened to that art dealer. There was a feeling of unfinished business.
Don’t we all have something that feels unfinished in our lives? Isn’t there a relationship or a situation which just doesn’t feel quite complete? This is our job during the Days of Awe. We are to examine our deeds and fix what is broken what doesn’t feel quite right. To repair where we’ve gone wrong in our lives - especially in the case of those whom we’ve harmed. It is said that Yom Kippur does not atone for sins between an individual and God until the individual has gone before the person he has harmed and asked for forgiveness. This is similar to what Rabbi Akiva said in the Mishna in Yoma, “even as a ritual bath purifies the unclean, so does the Holy One purify Israel.” A person cannot purify themselves only partially - like by submerging only one limb. The person has to be totally surrounded by the waters of the Mikveh. This is a stated prescription, set down by the ancient sages of Babylonia, who compiled the Babylonian Talmud. They understood that asking for forgiveness is complex and frightening, but it is so cathartic, that they couldn’t overlook its inherent benefits. Like the example of the Mikveh, we have to fully commit to the process of Teshuvah.
There’s a great book, “The Four Things That Matter Most” that helps us with the process of Teshuvah by beseeching us to have difficult conversations. In his book, Dr Ira Byock suggests saying the four things as soon as possible. However, he acknowledges the difficulty of sharing them with those whom we have complicated emotions. However, if the words are said, and the risk is taken, the rewards can be enormous.
The four things are:
Please forgive me
I forgive you
Thank you and
I love you
He invites the reader to engage with the idea that repentance and forgiveness can be extremely cathartic and life-giving. The book gives instances where people who are in various phases of decline, have taken the risk to apologize, to open themselves up to giving and receiving love and to show their gratitude to others. His book is fraught with instances of how people overcame their past abuse, their past hurt, their pain and their fear of asking for forgiveness and love and finally giving it. From this process, lives heal, people heal and it enriches the rest of the time we have in this world, even if that time is short. There is nothing that is too big for God to make right. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven by God. But what about by us?
But please understand, forgiving someone for harming you does not mean you condone the behavior - it just means you are ready to release the anger and resentment you’ve been holding about that situation. It does not mean you give the person the opportunity to hurt you again. But it means you are willing to let the past go and move forward for your own spiritual growth.
There’s a congregant who told me that story of how years ago, he was ripped off by his business partner. His partner, an alcoholic, embezzled so much money, that they had to shut down part of the business. My congregant, after some time and processing - forgave his partner. He didn’t hold onto the anger. And even though the partner died a few years later, from alcoholism, my congregant was able to attend the funeral to honor the family of the deceased. He resisted the temptation to harbor ill will toward the man, even though he’d have been justified to do so. Instead, he released the anger, moved on, and lives a free person. He did not allow his life nor his business to be defined by that situation.
In a few minutes, we will hear Kol Nidre chanted, and after we chant this ancient melody, we say the words that God says, “Salachti Kid varecha” And God has granted us forgiveness as we have asked. So, we know, God is forgiving. But what about we as people to other people? Have we done the work to ask others whom we’ve harmed to forgive us? Are you open to emulating God by forgiving others for their transgressions? What would our reaction be if someone came to us, asking for our forgiveness, would we be gracious enough to receive it? Our liturgy, shows us how we are to act when this happens - That we too are to act in a forgiving spirit to others, as does God to us, even if they never offer an apology nor acknowledge their wrongs. It’s not always easy, but perhaps there is even more value when you have the choice to be resentful and right, and instead you can forgive and choose to be free.
Going back to Zoe’s story; a year ago, her father got a random email, ‘Our parents … passed away a couple of years ago and when we cleaned out their estate, we found a series of almost 100 “Abraham” prints, do you know the story of these prints? My three siblings live in Europe and California. We look forward to hearing from you.’
Her parents responded to them that they had wondered what had happened to the prints that had been taken 47 years before. It turns out, their father the art dealer had become a minister after being in the art business, but although they loved the print of Abraham - which had hung in their childhood home, but they never knew it’s origins. The three children traveled to Connecticut to meet Zoe’s parents. They carried a big weathered suitcase which contained the original cardboard box of prints. There were 87 prints left. And when her parents saw them, they cried. They described the moment as a moment of ‘true redemptive’ Teshuvah - a literal return. Although they’ll never know why the art dealer did what he did, the children made it right.
After a shared afternoon with Zoe’s parents and the art dealer’s children, they parted ways. The next morning, her parents heard from those kids who said, “ Yesterday will stay in our memories for all our lives, and we’re so happy that we were able to correct one of our father’s mistakes.”
Making amends and changing our ways is difficult But simultaneously, it is so life giving. Maimonides said back in the 10th century: “I committed iniquity before You by doing the following. Behold, I regret and am embarrassed for my deeds. I promise never to repeat this act again” (Hilchot Teshuva 1:1). Doing Teshuvah restores our soul to original factory defaults. It also heals others.
Although Zoe’s parents never knew why the art dealer did what he did, they now had closure. And they had the returned prints. They wanted them to have a good home. So, they offered them to be sent to Synagogues across the country. They wanted Abraham to be remembered for his deeds. That he was, the first monotheist, who was brave enough to risk everything to follow God, and to forge his way to a new land and new beliefs. They wanted his likeness to be an inspiration for those who see this print to seek forgiveness, to forgive others, to love and to offer their gratitude to those whom they’ve not done so. To forgive is as brave, as leaving everything you know behind and going off to a new land, as did Abraham.
I have a copy of this print, which will be displayed here at the Congregation as a reminder of the power of Teshuvah - of return and repentance. And it is my hope that when we see it, we will be inspired to act in accordance of completing the work of what feels spiritually unfinished in our lives, in our relationships and in our souls.
On this holiest of Holy nights, May we be blessed with the clarity to know the work of our soul that will lead to greater fulfillment and wholeness. May we be given the strength to face the past and heal any transgressions we may have caused. May we be given the willingness to forgive the harm that has been done to us. May this be God’s will. Good Yontif.