The Dynamics of Divine-Human Forgiveness
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The Dynamics of Divine-Human Forgiveness

Rabbi Richard Baroff is the President of Guardians of the Torah.

Rabbi Richard Baroff
Rabbi Richard Baroff

When and under what conditions would G-d forgive us? And are there any circumstances under which we would be in a position to forgive G-d? Might Divine Forgiveness be withheld? Might even we not pardon G-d?

These are issues which permeate the Machzor/רוזחמ. The leitmotif of the High Holy Day period is Teshuvah/הבושת repentance, but more accurately meaning our return to the Divine source of our being. G-d graciously allows us to return, which implies forgiveness. To some extent the willingness to repent is itself a form of restitution to the Holy One. It is also an act of restoration. We are restoring our very soul even as we reestablish our faith in G-d.

The Yamim Noraim/ םיארונ םימי, The Days of Awe reflect the complementary themes of penitence and forgiveness. Hence the High Holy Day period is known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah/ הבושת ימי תרשא The Ten Days of Repentance.

Yom Kippur/ רופיכ םוי is a day dominated by the dynamic of penitence and forgiveness. The Day of Atonement is the day of becoming at one with G-d. We also repair our relationships with others based on the Divine model, as each human being is made םיהולא םלצב/b’tzelem Elohim in the image of G-d.

The theological philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the relationship between human beings and G-d formed the basis for meaningful relationships between people. In a similar way the ability of people to reconcile, to repent and to forgive, rests on the Divine relationship with men and women. The miracles of renewal and Atonement which flow freely from a merciful G-d give us all hope that moral and spiritual restoration are always possible. Possible between The Almighty and us, and thus plausible between one person and another.

The theology of the 10 Days of Penitence is based on Judgment (Din/ויד) and Atonement (Kapara/הרפכ). G-d forgives us for our sins-both individual and collective failings. There really is no place in this theology for us to pardon G-d for failing us. Is there any such place in Judaism?

There may be: The Fast of Tisha B’Av—the 9th day of the month of Av in the late summer. Traditionally the destruction of both Temples occurred on the 9th of Av: the first Temple by the Babylonians in 587 or 586 BCE after standing for nearly four centuries; the second Temple at the hands of the Roman Empire in 70 CE after existing almost 600 years.

On Tisha B’Av such is our mourning that it has been argued that Jewish people become angry with G-d and so turn away from the Divine. Some rabbis do not agree with this interpretation. For if the Holy One is perfect, all knowing and completely good, how can G-d be in a position to ask for our forgiveness, and how might we grant it?

But on Tisha B’ Av we not only read Kinot/תוניק( dirges ) and the Book of Lamentations (Aicha/הכיא) ,and for some congregations the Book of Job, but the entire Ark is sometimes covered—even as the curtain often is removed from the Ark-thus reflecting our separation from the Divine. The gulf between the Children of Israel and the Giver of Torah is never total though—the Eternal Light never goes out.

It is fair to say at least that some reconciliation between the Jewish people and our Creator needs to take place as the 9th of Av draws to a close. At the end of the somber service our spirts are lifted by the medieval Spanish poet philosopher Judah HaLevi’s call for םולש/shalom peace/completeness from the four cardinal directions. The partial rift between G-d and the Jews, unthinkable at any other time in the calendar, is reconciled by the time HaLevi’s poem “Zionide” is recited.

In the same way much earlier the prophet Zechariah tells us that our tears will be replaced by rejoicing on Av 9 at the Messiah’s advent. Also, he said that the sorrow we feel on this sad day should make us more compassionate towards others.

By the end of Yom Kippur and by the end of Tisha B’Av we are saved. On Yom Kippur we are redeemed from ourselves, and on the 9th of Av we are saved from the world. We are separated from G-d by our own transgressions on the Day of Atonement. We are distant from the Holy One on Tisha B’ Av because of the crushing events of our tragic history.

The rabbis taught us: the gates of prayer may be shut but even then, the gates of repentance are always open.

And of course, along with repentance, forgiveness and atonement are always available. May they be so for all of us this year.

Lshanah Tova הבוט הנשל

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