The frequently taken-for-granted High Holiday Jewish theme of forgiveness could and should be seriously challenged. Is it really possible to start anew? By what virtue do we seek forgiveness? Are we not doomed by our human nature to move forever within the cycle of mortal error and its consequences? Can the damaging deeds of our past be erased completely? And do we even really deserve another chance?
The anatomy of the High Holiday period offers a possible answer to these fundamental questions. The high holiday milestones come together to create a progressive experiential journey which not only explains but actually enables the notion of forgiveness. Step by step, we are guided towards peace and harmony with mankind, creation, and G-d.
The eighteenth century Chassidic Master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, teaches that the first three festivals of the Jewish year - Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot – correspond to three dimensions of perspective: Truth, Absolute Truth, and Peace (Emet, Emet La’amita, and Shalom). Rabbi Nachman teaches that if a man is caught in theft, the attribute of Truth confidently and unambiguously labels him a thief. Nevertheless, an additional, different spotlight may be trained on the thief and his actions – that of Absolute Truth. The gaze of Absolute Truth is piercing, penetrating, and as such, can achieve further, more nuanced insights into the incident. The lens of Absolute Truth attempts to spy out not only what occurred but, more importantly, why it occurred. It may reveal, say, that the thief is an honest, hardworking person struck by sudden misfortune; he has lost his livelihood, his savings, and his home, and his wife has taken seriously ill. To keep her alive he must purchase a costly drug which he cannot afford, and in his desperation he resolves to steal the drug instead. Absolute Truth does not deny that the man is responsible for his crime and must bear the sanctions dictated by law; still, a thief he is not. He may have practiced theft, but he is no thief!
The third perspective is that of Peace. Peace is closely attuned to the voice of Absolute Truth and subsequently urges us, society, to continue living in harmony with the transgressor. We extend to him a renewed mutuality and trust; an atmosphere is cultivated in which healthy relations between society and its flawed members can be restored and maintained, leading to communal harmony.
Rosh Hashana is the day of ultimate judgment before G-d. In our prayers we meditate on how this judgment is inescapable and how, on this day, our fate during the New Year is determined down to the last detail. Human conduct is measured on Rosh Hashana with the strict yardstick of Truth, a standard by which few can hope to be found satisfactory. How many of us can honestly suggest that we have been truly committed to our values throughout the year? We therefore do not even attempt a counter-argument. In the face of a reality shown up in the blunt light of Truth there is little to be said. This may explain why there is no confession or request of forgiveness throughout the Rosh Hashana liturgy. Instead we concentrate on proclaiming the sovereignty of G-d. In the privacy of our consciences we then commit to a better year and rest confident that all will be well.
Yom Kippur, however, is completely different. The Divine judgment on Yom Kippur is linked to the attribute of Absolute Truth. Yom Kippur recognizes our unsatisfactory behaviour but suggests that not only our superficial, external behaviour be examined, but our deeper, underlying motives as well. This searching gaze, unique to the judgment conducted on Yom Kippur, allows us to venture a counter-argument. In it, we boldly address the issue of sin and its consequences; we repeatedly recite a long, detailed list of sins. We omit nothing; we plead one hundred per cent guilty. Still, we seek forgiveness. Our willingness to admit our failures, repent, and try to commit to a better lifestyle is evidence that deep inside we are not really sinners. We sin out of weakness, not out of wickedness. We are like the man who has committed theft but is no thief.
Finally we progress to Sukkot, the festival of peace, joy, and celebration. The Hebrew words Sukkah and Shalom often appear together, for instance in the phrase “Sukkat Shlomecha”, G-d's Canopy of Peace. On Sukkot we live in uncomplicated, all-encompassing harmony with G-d and His Torah. It is Chag Simchateynu - our Festival of Joy – as testified by the nightly celebration of Simchat Bet HaShoeva, an ecstatic musical ceremony dating back to biblical times. And on the final day of Simchat Torah we take out our Torah scrolls. We lovingly lift, embrace, and kiss them. We sing and dance with them. An innocent bystander would be hard pressed to believe that a mere week ago we had pleaded guilty to an on-going unfaithfulness to the values of this very same beloved Torah. This incredible inconsistence is, actually, completely natural in the serene realm of Peace. Sukkot follows Yom Kippur as Peace follows Absolute Truth.
This annual journey sweeps us from the lowest point in our relationship with G-d at which we are unable even to make a defensive argument on our day of judgment to the climactic emotional and spiritual joy of celebrating a harmonious and unified relationship with the Creator and His world. This is how we can begin anew every New Year. Each and every one of us receives, every single year, an open invitation to embark on this remarkable journey. It is my hope that we all embrace this opportunity and merit to experience it as a community in the city of Peace, Jerusalem.