5769 Yom Kippur Sermon
Toward Reconcilliation, by BAJC Sh'liach Tzibur Jim Levinson
I'd like to depart from tradition this evening and share some High Holiday thoughts addressed only to some of us. These thoughts are addressed only to those of us who are in some way estranged or distanced from persons - family members or others - who once were very important to us - and who still may be important to us, because we can't entirely forget them. I have to acknowledge right at the outset that I am a person in that category. If you're not, or if you don't have a loved one who is in this situation – hey, give a listen anyway. Who knows when such a situation of estrangement might arise in our lives?
Perhaps the most poignant story of estrangement and reconciliation in all of Hebrew Scriptures is that of Joseph from B'resheet, the Book of Genesis. Joseph as you recall, is nearly killed by his jealous brothers who ultimately sell him into slavery. Over the years, Joseph must have harbored bitterness and anger toward those brothers, and as he rises to power, he may have justly fantasized about the opportunity to take vengeance should his brothers some day show up in Egypt asking for favors.
The day does arrive, and Joseph, momentarily, finds himself tasting such vengeance by placing a precious silver goblet in the grain sack of Benjamin, his youngest brother, and then accusing Benjamin of stealing it and threatening punishment. The brothers are devastated. Yet, strangely, the long anticipated vengeance, now at hand, does not provide Joseph with satisfaction, but instead leaves him with a bitter taste. Seeing his brothers at his mercy, Joseph realizes that his own wounds will not be healed by hurting them further, and that the bonds of family continue to tug at him. Finally, breaking down in tears, Joseph reveals his identity, and the great reconciliation takes place.
We hear stories all the time about public figures who are alienated from their children. They speak with assurance and self confidence on so many issues, but exude remorse and even helplessness when asked about their estranged children. Can there be any hurt more devastating than that of a parent left to mourn the living death of a relationship with a child?
I would rather have been Joseph. But how to do it? How do we deal with the hurt, and the anger, and the misunderstandings, and the unmended fences?
Speaking personally, I have to acknowledge that I have in the past sometimes felt so indignant, so self righteous, or so proud, that I have simply refused to forgive, refused to be the first to make a move. At other times, in this throw away, disposable culture of ours, I have been willing to get rid of a relationship which is no longer functioning properly - easier to replace than to repair. I have sometimes sought to convince myself that I just don't need that person anymore.
And, in some cases, I have justified my unwillingness to budge by saying, "I've tried many times already. Nothing is ever going to change."
I think I know better. I know from reading in the books of our Hebrew prophets that God does not write people off. I know that pride is the enemy of reconciliation. I know the Talmudic teaching that when two people quarrel, blessings go to the one who yields first, the one who takes responsibility for the relationship. I think I know better.
And I know another terrible truth: that feelings of great anger have the capacity to hurt the hater more than the hated, that they can become a curse in the life of a human being. Rabbi Samuel Stahl writes that "anger metastasizes within us, it becomes a psychic cancer." Another sage speaks of that kind of anger as “a life sentence imposed on ourselves.” When this happens, we have yielded our power to another; we have given another person control over our lives; we have permitted someone to rob us of our well being.
But again, what can we do? Rabbi Charles Klein, in his important book, How to Forgive When You Can't Forget, offers several valuable suggestions.
The first has to do with expectations. In the real world - it's no secret - people bruise us all the time. The world has a lot of tough people and mean streets. And we have to steel ourselves as we venture out into these mean streets. Partly as a result, we expect loved ones to be different - we have greater expectations of them, and greater needs. And they feel the same toward us.
But they are human, and so are we. Inevitably we disappoint; inevitably we fall short. And when we do, the responses, the hurt, the anger, the feelings of betrayal, are magnified many times.
So step #1 is a pulling back of expectations, accepting our loved ones as they are, and then brushing off the shortcomings, mistakes, faults and hurts they inflict as just not very significant, while focusing instead on the commitments which unite us.
Rabbi Klein's step #2 is a process called "reframing," – those of you in the psychology-psychiatry communities know it well. After there has been enough misery and distress, some of us may be willing to reconsider the image of the person who wronged us. Into the new image, into the new frame, we might be able to let in some of what was good. Then with this newly framed portrait, the hurts and betrayals no longer overshadow these positive qualities.
The ability to reframe, the ability to see shortcomings, wrongdoings and imperfections in a wider angle perspective, can be the difference between a relationship that is lost forever, and one in which forgiveness is found.
Sometimes, even when we get to the point of feeling ready to take that step toward forgiveness and reconciliation, we hold back, however, for fear of being rejected. What if I'm rebuffed, or ignored or rejected? The question then worth asking, the sages tell us, is whether the possibility of reconciliation, of putting an end to the distance, the loneliness, the pain and the tears, is important enough to risk whatever reaction we may face.
Joseph's father Jacob decided that it was. After betraying his brother Essau and escaping to his mother's family for many years - a period surely filled with family longing - Jacob decides it is worth the risk - and despite his very legitimate fear of revenge and reprisal, despite his own guilt, Jacob takes the step, and Chapter 33 of B'resheet records the rest. "Essau ran to meet him and embraced him, and kissed him, and they wept."
And so what happens when it works? What happens when it does become possible to talk about the past with this loved one and to seek new understandings and a renewed relationship? Then, as one wise teacher used to tell me, we have to put our eyes, ears and heart into overdrive. We need eyes, penetrating fearless eyes, to be able to look honestly at ourselves and our own conduct, and our own role in shattering a relationship. We need ears to hear more carefully and sensitively than ever what we are saying and what is being said to us. And we need an understanding heart that allows us to respond with genuine rachmones, with compassion.
Do we dare go one step further, and talk about what may be the most difficult reconciliation of all? What I’m speaking of is reconciliation with a departed loved one with whom serious unresolved differences existed at the time of death. I raise it now, at our Kol Nidre service, because there are some very important steps which we as individuals, and we as families can take this very evening, before our Yiskor service tomorrow, and in the weeks and months ahead.
We are all aware at the Yiskor service - that sacred and solemn occasion when the past blends with the present - that while death ends a life it does not end a relationship. For some of us, as we recite the personal prayers in that service, we are able to look back fondly on a loving and nurturing relationship. For others of us, however, these prayers conjure up memories that are troubled and unresolved, memories of a failed relationship. Most often this concerns a parent, and so we shall speak of parents, although these observations may hold for any such relationship. Often in such cases, even years after the funeral, we continue to hear echoes of words which have wounded us, or the absence of words which wounded us yet more, and we are haunted by feelings which refuse to die.
Often we remain angry, bitter and resentful about the wounds inflicted by these relationships. We are in an almost literal sense stuck in the valley of the shadow of death. What can we do to begin moving beyond this stuck place?
Here’s a thought recommended by the same Rabbi Klein. It requires only a quiet room and a picture of the loved one we have not been able to forgive or forget. At first it’s awkward trying to initiate a conversation with this loved one, but after a while we simply begin talking, telling the other about our life, and then, as we touch on a connection, expressing the hurt and the pain, the rejections and the comparisons, the way we were taken for granted, the school plays, the Little League baseball games or graduations missed - all of it - every bit of it. We pour it out; if it is our nature we scream it out; we reach for the deepest places in ourselves where the most painful anguish is lodged. “All I ever wanted,” we tell the parent, “was your love. All I ever wanted was to be hugged and told I was special, and you were not there for me.”
And we shed tears until there are no more tears to shed.
And some time later… some time later, we can give that parent or sibling a chance to reply. This may involve our composing a letter from that person to us in which he or she is able to try, however inadequately, to speak about those actions or inactions which caused such pain. One such letter might read - - well let me restrain myself. We may be very surprised by what that person has to tell us, and by the images which might, in turn, come to us.
After the anger and the tears and quiet, there is the hope - a hope worth endless riches - that our pain may be replaced by tenderness, and that we will be able to return to that photograph and say, “Goodbye Daddy. I forgive you. I love you.”
I want to close with another reconciliation story on this day in which we yearn for reconciliation with one another, with ourselves and with our God. It’s a story I told seven years ago – in my first year as Shaliach Tzibur of this congregation. The story comes from Rabbi Jack Riemer, and it is a gem. It also is one I can just barely tell.
It is the story of a man and a teenager who shared a train ride to a place called Smithville. The man happened to sit down next to a teenage boy who was no more than 17 years old. The boy was tense, and the man wondered what could be worrying somebody so young. Whatever it was, the tension was almost visceral.
The boy kept staring out the window, paying no attention to anyone else on the train. The man tried to read, but found himself looking up again and again to see the boy's face pressed against the window. He sensed that the boy was fighting to hold back tears.
Finally, the boy asked the man, "Do you know what time it is? And do you know when we are due to arrive at Smithville?" The man gave the boy the time, and went on to say, "Smithville, that's a very small town, isn't it? I didn't know that the train stopped there." "It usually doesn't," said the boy. "But they said that they would stop there for me so that I could get off—if I decide to. I used to live there."
The boy returned to the window and the man to his book. It was quite a while before conversation began once again. But when it did, the boy told the man the story of his life. "Four years ago," he said, "I did something very bad, so bad that I had to run away from home. I couldn't face my father after what I did. So I left without even saying goodbye to him. Since then, I have worked a bit here and a bit there. I never stayed very long in one place. I've been pretty lonely. Until finally, I decided that I wanted to go back to my father's house."
"Does your father know you're coming," the man asked. "He knows that I'm coming, but I don't know if he will be there or not. I sent him a letter. I didn't know if he would want me back or not after what I did. I wasn't sure if he would forgive me. So, in my letter, I said that I would come home if he wanted me to."
"I told him that if he wanted me to come home, he could put a sign on a tree which is a few hundred yards before the railroad station in Smithville. I told him that I would look for a white ribbon on one of the branches of that tree as the train passes. If there is a white ribbon on the tree, then I'll get off. If not, then I'll just keep on riding to wherever this train goes."
Trust had developed between the man and the boy as they waited for Smithville. Suddenly, the boy turned to the man and asked, "Will you do me a favor" Will you please look for me? I'm just too scared to look."
So the man, now fully involved, took a place by the window. A few moments later, the conductor came down the aisle and called out, "Next stop - Smithville." The boy just sat there, nearly paralyzed with fear, as the man looked intently out of the window.
And then he saw it. He shouted so loudly that everyone in the car looked around. "It's there! Look, it's there." The boy looked and saw the tree. The entire tree was covered with white ribbons."