Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah; I wish everyone a good year and a worthwhile Yom Kippur.
Shalom certainly among the most important words in the world. It may have been the unknown author of the mediaeval Sefer Heyzirah, Book of Creation, who first used the phrase ‘toleh etetz al beli-mah, – God suspends the earth over the void.’ Today, the forces not of creation but of destruction remind us quite how perilous the future planet is, the world suspended over nothingness. Shalom - and fear of the opposite – is in all our minds.
During the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur the final words of the Amidah, the prayer par excellence, are simplified to oseh hashalom, blessing God for making the peace, the ultimate peace which sustains the world. May this be God’s will.
It must also be our will. The Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish law edited by Joseph Caro, instructs us that everyone ‘is obliged to make up with their fellow human beings on the eve of Yom Kippur’. Yom Kippur does not atone for wrongs we’ve committed against each other unless we first acknowledge what we have done, apologise and make restitution. There is no turning to God for short-cuts. We can neither evade our own conscience nor avoid our responsibilities to other people. We may not side-step the humbling requirement to apologise where we are at fault, and to try to understand and forgive, or at least let go of feelings of bitterness and revenge, where we ourselves have been hurt.
The days before Yom Kippur are especially set aside for reconciliation so that we enter God’s presence on the most holy day of the Jewish year in a spirit of integrity with our own selves and solidarity with one another. However, life does not conform to neat patterns and relationships don’t work by the calendar. The work of inner truthfulness combined with empathy and forbearance towards others is ongoing. We all live with ‘unfinished business’, the regrets, angers, incomplete conversations which are a fact of the human condition.
Dostoevsky wrote that humility is redeeming, humiliation wounding. We must not to be too proud to say sorry, including to children. Equally, we should not turn our injuries into vengeance and refuse, in the presence of genuine remorse and reparation, to forgive. No good comes of humiliating others. We are, however, not only permitted but required to stand up for truth; we should not let guilt be foisted on us for what we have not done.
There is no ‘high’ and ‘low’ in apology and reconciliation, because the person asked to forgive must also relinquish any potential pride in having ‘the right to be right’ in favour of understanding and letting go, not of the fact that a wrong took place, but of any wish to ‘get my own back’ and inflict hurt in return. Only then do our wounds become opportunities to learn.
There are situations in which we seek peace but the persons we feel we have hurt are no longer alive, or beyond all reasonable possibility of contact, or it would only inflict further injury if we burdened them with our own need for forgiveness. In such circumstances, we may talk to God, and our conscience, being specific – as we would if apologising to a person in front of us – in what we say. We may wish to have someone else present to act as our witness, if only to our own selves. The ancient tradition is to take a minyan to the cemetery who, after hearing our confession, say ‘Amen; it is forgiven you in the name of the God of Israel’.
A disturbing feature of a world of grandstanding, in which public figures are advised not to apologise, or that they will lose so much face by saying sorry that they will never survive in their roles, is that it encourage brazenness and self-justification.
A world in which it is possible to be wrong and even, where appropriate, to back down, is more likely to be at peace. For Shalom is composed of truth, integrity, courage, understanding and humility.