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The Weight of Forgiveness – 9/23/3012

There is an old story that takes place in a shtetl – a Jewish village in Eastern Europe – that was afflicted one year by a terrible drought. Crops were withering in the field, nothing new could be planted in the dry, dusty earth; the people were desperate for rain. The holiest folks in the town, the rabbis and sages, had prayed and bowed for days and days, and yet the sky was empty of clouds. The leaders, and the wealthy folks in the community joined the gathering in the synagogue and traded their fine clothes for sackcloth, but still the rains did not come.

Finally, the drought ran so long and grew so bad that the whole community was assembled in the place of meeting. Each took their turn at the front of the congregation, to offer prayers for the wellbeing of the town. And so it was that one of the poorest people in the shtetl, a butcher, rarely seen in the synagogue, an illiterate man who could not read the prayers in the prayer book, came to stand with his neighbors behind him to argue their case before G-d.

“Holy One,” he said, “I am a simple man. I am not learned or wealthy, I do not pray to you daily, or practice every one of your commandments. I do not know all the words in your book, or even much more than a few. But I know my profession; I am a butcher,” he said, and he held aloft the smallest of the scales he used to measure the produce he sold. Two bowls hung from either side of a lever, balanced equally with each other. “My scales are true, Lord. I deal fairly with all who come to my shop. I do not weigh out one amount and charge for another. So you must deal fairly with us, Holy One. So that no one must say that the Lord of Hosts is less honest than this humble butcher.”

There came no immediate answer to the butchers challenge to G-d. He took his seat again in the congregation, and later in the evening the people went home again, still wondering when the terrible drought would end. But privately, in the quiet of the night when no one else could see them, people all through the village were busy at work. Merchants made secret deliveries, under cover of darkness, to repay customers whom they had shorted. Farmers moved fence posts they had moved once before, to return land that rightly belonged to their neighbors. Accounting ledgers were opened and corrected, and the scales of many other shops were set aright, as every person who had been shamed by the butcher’s declaration was determined that before the sun rose again, they would be at least as fair and as just as the most humble of their neighbors. And on that night, it rained.

We human beings are imperfect. We are capable of great kindness and we are also all too capable of causing injury and suffering to those who share the earth with us. We make mistakes, yes, but we also make choices, and sometimes the choices we make do harm to other people. And when we do harm, we need to be forgiven, just as a dry field needs rain to water it. Like the people in the butcher’s village, we may not always know that we need it – the force of habit, the power of self-deception, and ignorance of how our choices affect others can keep us from recognizing our thirst for forgiveness, but is there nonetheless.

Because we are human beings surrounded by other human beings, we are both givers and receivers of forgiveness. There is a burden to carrying around someone else’s wrong, just as in the story of two monks who had taken vows of celibacy and sworn never to touch a woman. They came to a river and found someone standing there, trying to find a way across – a woman – and the older monk offered to carry her over on his back. After they had made the crossing together, and the woman had gone off on her own way, and the two monks had continued on their journey some distance, the younger scolded the older. “How could you break your vow so easily?” The older monk replied, “I set that woman down back at the river bank. Why are you still carrying her?”

This day is a sort of in-between place. Today is one of what is known in the Jewish tradition as the Days of Awe, the ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a time for taking stock of and settling accounts, though not so much in the financial

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as in the moral sense. Rosh Hashanah marks the ending of one year and the beginning of another, and the days that follow it serve as a sort of grace period. The Days of Awe are a time to make amends, restore relationship and seek forgiveness for the wrongs and failings of a year gone past. It is an opportunity to earn forgiveness – and to grant it.

The individual practice of taking stock of and making amends for the wrongs you have done to others is not limited to Judaism, of course. Many religious traditions make some formal practice of it, and in particular it calls to mind numbers eight and nine of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps. The theme is common; it is the details that are specific. There are many particular features to this sacred time in the Jewish tradition, and one of these is that this is not a practice that one person does alone. Each member of the community seeks forgiveness from those they have wronged; everyone, all at once. As the first seeks the forgiveness of a second, the second will have at heart a desire for forgiveness from a third, and all the while each will be looking to the Source of forgiveness, the Source of compassion, to find the strength to live the next year better than the one before. Each person, and the community as a whole, seeks to make itself more worthy of forgiveness, both before and after receiving it.

Sometimes we imagine the act of forgiving or being forgiven as taking away the weight of the wrong that we have done, or that someone else has done to us. But forgiveness does not take make the weight disappear. Whatever happened, happened. We cannot simply return to the world as it was before. This is why forgiveness, real forgiveness, is not a simple or an easy thing: it has a weight of its own. That weight is necessary in order to begin to balance the scale, and that is what creates a sense of a burden being lifted. So the weight of forgiveness must be matched to the heft and seriousness of the thing to be forgiven. It is not a passive thing; it is an active choice to begin the work that will restore some wholeness between yourself and another. It cannot be muttered quickly or grudgingly between gritted teeth; offering forgiveness is one of the hardest things we can do as human beings.

Yet it is something that we need to be able to do, again and again and again. The absence of forgiveness means the presence of sorrow, anger, or fear, and when we can truly remember the pain that we have felt when others have denied us their forgiveness, or when we have denied forgiveness to ourselves, it becomes very difficult to deny forgiveness to anyone. It is like the story of a group of people who were travelling together across a deep, wide sea. When one of them took out a drill and began to bore a hole in the bottom of the boat. The other passengers asked, “Why are you doing this?” But the one with the drill simply responded, “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling only under myself?”[i] Of course, one hole in the bottom, and the whole ship will sink. It matters to all of us how each of us fares, whether we sink or whether we float. Whether we can forgive, in ourselves and each other, what it is that needs forgiveness.

There are times, however, when forgiveness is beyond our ability. The writer, philosopher and holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel argues that there are some things terrible enough that not only can no one forgive them, but no one should. Forgiveness cannot come at the expense of the real and necessary feelings of grief and of anger at the experience of injustice. Sometimes we need the anger that we would start to let go of by forgiving: we need to use it in order to struggle for some greater transformation. The oppressed cannot be expected to continually forgive their oppressors, and if a blanket amnesty for systemic injustice is constantly offered, no system will ever change. And then sometimes, it is not that we need the anger or the grief exactly, but just that they are too great to find any counterweight for. When forgiveness becomes a burden for the person who has been wronged, when it is something society expects or demands of you no matter how great your suffering, then it becomes a force not for healing but for harm.

One of the scriptural passages read during the Days of Awe is called in Hebrew the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. In the story in the book of Genesis, the great patriarch Abraham is instructed by G-d to take his son Isaac to the top of a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. At the time and in the place that the story is set – about four-thousand years ago, in South West Asia – human sacrifice was a relatively common practice. At the last minute, Isaac is spared by God, and Abraham is rewarded for his unswerving faith and loyalty; and of course that does nothing to allay the horror inherent to the story.

There is much to study and explore in the Akedah, and for those who wish to read it in full and go deeper, please join in our scripture study session in my office after the service. But for now, take a moment to think of Isaac in this situation, who comes within a hair’s breadth of being killed by his father. It seems like exactly the sort of thing which would be impossible to forgive someone, and some commentaries imagine that at the end of the episode Isaac leaves his father’s company: in the book, it is the last moment when the two are seen “on stage” together before Abraham’s death.

But even in the cases of truly heinous and terrible crimes, there are still examples of the hard work of forgiveness being done. Six years ago, the nation temporarily turned its attention to a small corner of rural Pennsylvania, and the old order Amish community there. The Amish are a humble, pacifistic and intentionally anachronistic religious group, and though there is little likeness in our outward practices our current theology, as Unitarian Universalists we share with them a common set of ancestors. We are second cousins, you might say. Sadly, in 2006 this particular Amish community was in the news because a disturbed individual who was not a member of their sect, but who was a familiar face to the community, attacked the one room schoolhouse where local Amish children were instructed. He took five lives before his own. It was the sort of nightmare scenario that seems so wildly beyond the pale as to eliminate even the discussion of forgiveness. And that is why what followed seemed so strange, and so captivating.

That Amish community, whose religion teaches humility and pacifism, made a conscious, sustained effort, in the midst of their extraordinary grief, to practice forgiveness for the crime. After burying their own children, Amish families attended the burial of their killer, to express their sympathy for his widow. They raised money for her and her children. They built a relationship out of the ashes of despair. Forgiveness does not live in any one particular set of words; it is practiced in our actions. It is not to forget what has happened, or to pretend that things have not changed. It is not the end of anything – it is the opening of the way towards new relationship: less fractured and wounded, more whole.

No matter the size of the harm forgiveness is not only about the way things are between “us” and “them”. It is about the way things are between each of us and the whole of existence. When we are defined by how hurt we are, it contorts our relationship to everything; it saps our trust that the universe is a place where joy and beauty abide. So offering forgiveness, even when it is hard, even when it seems undeserved, is ultimately something that we do not do to heal the other person; it is something we do to heal ourselves.

Inspired, then, by the practice shared at this season by our Jewish friends and neighbors, I call on you now to rise in body and or spirit, to take up your hymnals and turn to #637. This litany was prepared by the esteemed Unitarian Universalist minister Rob Eller-Isaacs. As we read and listen together, I invite you to reflect: for what do you need to be forgiven at this moment and by whom, and how shall you begin to seek it? For what do others need forgiveness from you, and how might you begin to open the door to it? I shall read the plain text, and yours will be the italics:


#637 A Litany of Atonement[ii]

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time we have struck out in anger without just cause

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For losing sight of our unity

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.


[i] Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 4:6

[ii] From Singing the Living Tradition, Beacon Press, 1993


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