The evening will begin with the chanting of a hauntingly beautiful prayer which sets the tone for the evening and day ahead. In the 50+ years of attending this service, I’ve always been amazed at how instantly still and quiet the packed synagogue becomes the moment the chanting begins. It’s as if everyone in the room knows in their innermost spiritual sense, the significance of what has begun.
The prayers that will be repeatedly recited in the hours and day ahead focus on atonement, repentance and confessions of sin. We seek forgiveness for the mistakes we’ve made throughout the past year and resolve to do a better job in the year ahead. It is truly an extraordinary day. In all honesty, I used to dread this day, but have come to deeply appreciate it.
Yom Kippur is also the culmination of what is known as the “ten days of awe;” a week and a half during which we ask forgiveness from those whom we have harmed. And, it is the opportunity to forgive those who ask us for their forgiveness, and possibly forgive those that haven’t asked.
Having just emerged from an intensive four day meditation retreat, which was specifically scheduled to coincide with the days of awe, I had a lot of time for reflection and contemplation. I’ve always known the overt ways I can intentionally or unintentionally harm others. But in this deeper, quiet state, I became aware of some of the subtle ways I may have harmed others. Perhaps it’s a look, an offhanded “harmless” comment or words of omission. But something else spoke to me much more loudly – my difficulty to forgive.
I was reminded of a situation with a loved one in the past year that caused me deep pain. It was a chapter I had worked on with this person that I thought had been resolved. But in the stillness of the retreat, I understood I still felt anger, and with that, difficulty forgiving. Here was the challenge. Although the other person had apologized for hurting me, they did not regret their actions as it was something they felt they had to do at that moment in time. And the more this person dug their heals into their position, the more my heart closed to full forgiveness. To be clear, this person did not ask for my forgiveness. Their position was as firm as mine. It was a conundrum. I left the retreat unsettled and unsatisfied.
But something happened the next day. I realized that my inability to forgive and to fully appreciate their position was blocking a depth of intimacy that was harming us both. I realized that by clinging to my position, I was not only punishing us both but also closing my heart to the fullness of not only what was possible in this particular relationship but also in my bigger ability to forgive and therefore to love. It was a valuable epiphany and one that absolutely softened my heart.
I’m guessing that most of us have been hurt at some point in our life and some of you, like me, may have found it difficult to forgive. But in the words of Lewis Smedes, “To forgive is to set a person free and realize that the prisoner was you.”
Regardless of your religious affiliation, I invite you all to occasionally pause, dig deep and question any challenge you may have to forgive. You never know what might arise that can open your heart to a fuller, richer and yes, more loving life experience.