Last year I gave everyone an advance peek at one of my High Holy Day sermons, so I thought why not keep the tradition going? I am also doing so in case anyone could use this material. I will be giving this sermon on Zoom. The text follows:
You know that forgiveness thing we are supposed to settle on the High Holy Days? How we are supposed to contact people you have offended, or who you think owe YOU an apology? Well at the same time you also know that in practice that sounds like a fairy tale. How often have we heard a non-forgiver plead, “You don’t know my mother,” implying that if you did, you would agree that she was unforgivable. The expression, “I can forgive but not forget” shows that there is something problematic or at least puzzling about what it means to forgive. It is too simplistic, to say the least. And especially this year, as we review the sins of others and of ourselves connected with the pandemic and our attempted transition away from it, it is even more complicated. What really is a sin and what forgiveness amounts to become startling questions. We are not so sure anymore. The simple formula, you sinned, I forgive you, all is good now, is not how reality operates. Would that it were so easy! On the contrary, forgiveness is a tricky business. Anyone knows that, otherwise there would not be all this fuss about it during the High Holy Days.
Before I go on, I’d like to quote from one of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters which I was reading at the same time I was writing this sermon. By coincidence he makes this same point. You may know that he is the famous artist who is also famous for letters to his brother Theo. Here’s the quote: “If life were as simple and as little complicated as the trite sermon of the average clergyman, it would not be so difficult to make one’s way. But it is not so, and things are infinitely more complicated, and right and wrong do not stand separate, any more than black and white do in nature.”
Well that is certainly true, and I hope my sermon rises above the average clergy person that Van Gogh was gently rebuking for spouting off unhelpful advice. Just look what Joseph’s brothers got themselves into. Bear with me as I talk about the old news of ancient sins; I promise what we get into here will shed light on our modern quandaries, including this peculiar past year and a half. If you know the story about Joseph, you will remember what a stew of jealousy, resentment, hostility, revenge, ambivalence, and yearnings for re-connection took place all at the same time. And yes, forgiveness. Sorta kinda.
The trouble all started with their dad Jacob, you know, the one of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” fame? His sin is that he favored Joseph over all the other sons, and not only that, could not refrain from concealing his feelings from his other offspring. Giving Joseph the most famous coat in history, that multicolored one, was not exactly tactful or great for reducing sibling rivalry. In short, the brothers captured Joseph and sold him to some slave owners, who brought him to Egypt. Joseph makes good, rising from the ranks of slave to personal attendant to Pharaoh’s dream interpreter and finally to being Pharaoh’s second in command. Wow, going from slave to vice president; not bad. A famine hits, but unlike anywhere else, Joseph had planned on the famine coming and had stored lots of goodies during the times of plenty. Joseph’s brothers journey to Egypt to ask for food, not knowing that when they are brought before a powerful man to plead their case that they are speaking with Joseph himself of all people. Ah, but Joseph knows who THEY are, those scoundrels who had thrown him into a pit and then sold him off. And he sure was NOT, despite his wonderful success story in Egypt, ready to be all smiles and forgive and forget. Oh, no, to get his revenge, he puts them through various trials, including holding one of them hostage until they return with their remaining brother Benjamin. Let’s just say his father Jacob had been overprotective of Benji and so had not permitted him to go along for the trip in the first place. The brothers go all the way back, and even bring Benjamin along for that second trip, yet Joseph still does not reveal his true identity to them. When he sees Benjamin, his heart does soften a little, and as the text says, (43:30) Ki nikh-me-ru rakhamav el achiv… “he was overcome with feelings toward his brother and was on the verge of tears, and went into a private room and wept there.”
But more tests ensued, including possibly having Benjamin stay in Egypt and not go back, which would have emotionally killed his father Jacob. Part of Joseph was ready to forgive, and part not. Finally, he is moved when one of the brothers offers to stay as a slave instead of Benjamin. He senses that they have some remorse about their past deeds. Joseph at last reveals himself and the brothers are dumbfounded to say the least, and of course embarrassed and ashamed as could be. He consoles them by saying it was for all the best and God’s will because he was able to be in a position of power and therefore save his brothers and father from starving. “V’atah al tei-atz-voo v al yikhar b’eneichem…” (45:5) “Don’t beat yourselves up,” he basically says, “All that has happened was to save life, and that is my destiny. God sent me here, not you.”
This is definitely not a forgive and forget story with everyone living happily ever after. But neither is it all about revenge and no forgiveness at all. It’s somewhere in between. Well let’s start with Joseph, the one who rose from the pit to being Pharaoh’s second-in-command. Even though his brothers’ actions happened years and years ago, it’s clear from all the game playing that took place before revealing his identity that he resented their mistreatment. And maybe he subconsciously resented his dad Jacob’s favoritism for putting him at risk that way in the first place from his brothers’ hatred. See how fast this gets messy? See how he might have scoffed upon hearing about forgiveness at a Yom Kippur service if that had existed then by saying, “Yeah, yeah, right, you don’t know my brothers Judah, and the rest.”
But eventually, especially because of Benjamin, and because he exhausted his cravings for revenge through all the acrobatics he had put the starving brothers through, his urge to reconnect with family overrode his wish to never forgive their crime. In the end, he consoles himself, as well as his brothers, by saying, Look, God wanted it this way, so that I could be in a position of power and save you from the famine. Doubtless he still harbored lingering resentments despite this rationalization. So you know what I think? I want to say that sometimes, the best you can do is forgive in part. Forgiveness is not necessarily complete. As you think about your own forgiveness issues, ask yourself not whether you can forgive or absolutely cannot, but rather, can you grant partial forgiveness to that false friend, insensitive family member, and obnoxious relative?
I think the brothers went for that option too. When they were being tested, this roused their guilty memories of that dastardly act they did which could have made Joseph a slave in an alien land for the rest of his life. But they could not forgive completely, because really, he was so arrogant to think that God gave him this gigantic role in history, and that they were little nothings that had to bend to his will. So there you go. And not only that, later, when their father Jacob dies, they fear Joseph will take more revenge on them after all, and so they plead with him to forgive them their harsh treatment and they even offer to be his slaves. I think that was partial forgiveness at best because it was done out of fear for their own physical welfare. In other words it might have been done for ulterior motives. Ah, yes, the messiness of life. But for all sides, there was just enough forgiveness to get on with life, even if it were not totally genuine.
As promised, let’s see what all this has to do with us. On Rosh Hashanah I referred to sins spawned by Covid-19 as “unwilling transgressions”, such as not being able to comfort the mourners, attend funerals, visit the sick and dying, or honor mother and father with visits. Despite the necessity of our behaving that way, I think there’s a lot of guilt on our part, and a lot of anger and lack of forgiveness from those who were the targets of our unwilling sins. Not only that, we have done other sins during Covid, like putting others at risk when we got lazy about putting on that mask or not putting it on properly, or coaxing people into joining a large gathering indoors because of our deep need to feel connected with others. Or God forbid pretending to be vaccinated when that was not so. And something that actually happened to me, someone did not inform me they had Covid and exposed themselves to people I in turn was exposed to, who she also failed to inform. The whole cruel irony of this pandemic is that when in crisis, what we most crave is to be connected in person, but which was the very thing we have had to refrain from doing.
Forgiveness on this Yom Kippur is a whole different task than previous years, with all these “Covid sins” flying around. I think it is more complex, because we have had to encounter new dilemmas we had never faced before. Hardest of all may be the forgiveness we have to administer to ourselves for not visiting the loved one who died, or not taking proper precautions and therefore maybe spreading the virus. Maybe we can never completely wipe out our guilt over the “cheating” we did during the quarantine, or not taking the time to get reliable information and guidance about this plague, or not refraining from being there in person for a loved one in crisis and putting them risk for the virus. But can’t we see the way to a more realistic goal? How about “partial forgiveness”? Consider it. Ponder it. Not only is self-healing necessary for us to continue living, it is in fact a mitzvah. Self-regard makes so much else possible, including the mitzvahs of appreciating God’s Creation, of making visits in the future, of encouraging others who are struggling to do their own mitzvahs and to treasure their allotted time to be alive. Forgiveness is a way to unburden ourselves from our past, to be at more peace with ourselves. Partial forgiveness makes this a practical and doable achievement. May these Holy Days comfort and strengthen us as we move forward on the continuum from anger to acceptance, from fear to courage, and from the flames of guilt to the cooling wellsprings issuing out of a forgiving heart.
If you plan to use this sermon to preach or quote from, kindly mention my name and this blog.