This is the D'var Torah I gave on Yom Kippur 5784, September 25, 2023, during the Torah Service. I don't blog or publish much, as you may have noticed, but many people came up to me afterward and asked me: "how did you know"? They felt as if I was speaking directly to them. I also had several requests for copies, so I decided to publish it here.
There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud I love about Rabbi Zeira, a third generation Amora who lived in the Land of Israel. (Masechet/Tractate Yoma 87a):
“It is related that when Rabbi Zeira had a complaint against a person who insulted him, he would pace back and forth before him and present himself, so that the person could come and appease him. Rabbi Zeira made himself available so that it would be easy for the other person to apologize to him.”(1)
The art of tochecha, of compassionate critique. Rabbi Zeira was rebuking that person, giving them every opportunity to make it right, to do teshuva, because that is what our tradition tells us.
But what if they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t understand why Rabbi Zeira was so present in their life at that moment, pacing back and forth before them. Maybe they were completely oblivious to the harm they had done. Maybe they did understand, but didn’t think they needed to do teshuva for whatever reason. Maybe they thought they were right and were the one who had been harmed. Maybe they didn’t want to do teshuva for whatever reason. Or maybe they thought they had apologized by saying some variation of “I’m sorry that you feel hurt by this perfectly reasonable thing that I did or said”, i.e. offered an incomplete apology.
What does Rabbi Zeira, or you, as the aggrieved/harmed person, do? Do you hold on to the hurt? Do you forgive them anyway? Do you “let it go”? Or do you somehow insist that they do teshuva, be accountable, take responsibility for what they did, make it right, and engage in an internal change process?
Caveat: I am not talking about profound, or violent, traumas or abuse of individuals or entire people. That is a whole other topic, or maybe many topics. This Dvar Torah is about the difficulties we encounter in our relatively normal, all-too-human relationships.
Our tradition gives us excellent guidance on doing teshuva, but not so much on forgiving. This is the season of teshuva; we hear a lot about it. We began the High Holyday season with a Selichot Service, a forgiveness service where we ask God to forgive us for having missed the mark, having caused harm. Then we have the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. We learn that God will only forgive those “sins” we have committed against God, but not those harms we have caused to our fellows unless we ask forgiveness from them. And when they have forgiven us, so will God.
We’ve all caused harm, we’ve all been harmed, we’ve all witnessed harm. The RaMBaM, Maimonides, provides the best elucidation of the process of teshuva.(2) It’s a robust and sophisticated system that requires doing the work of repair. But where there has been no work of teshuva, how do I forgive that person who has really hurt me? Our tradition doesn’t guide us very well. It teaches us about various kinds of ”sins”/wrongs/harms/transgressions (3) and about different kinds of forgiveness.(4) But none of the types of forgiveness are available to one who doesn’t do teshuva. What then?
Guidance is to be found in our tradition, but it needs to be pieced together from various places; there is no treatise by RaMBaM or anyone else (that I could find) on the subject. So I went on quite a journey: to Torah, to modern Israeli poetry, to Mussar (character improvement), to the Prophets, and to the Avodah service, specifically the Ketoret offering.
What does forgiveness look like in the face of no teshuva? What does it do to me to hold on to that bad feeling/resentment/grudge/anger? What does it do for me to forgive? Does it release me from the negative power? Imagine the personal release? Imagine the energetic change in the person you have forgiven? Imagine letting go of that grudge, of that anger? Imagine the benefit to you?
It is a deep spiritual practice.
During the High Holydays we chant the Thirteen Attributes of God many, many times: God who is merciful, compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, true, forgiving of intentional, willful, and unintentional sins, and cleansing/clearing. We are taught that we are created in the image of God, Betzelem Elohim which, among many other things, means we are, or aspire to be, all of these things/attributes. They take work. To forgive is to be Godly. But one statement was edited out from this list by our Sages which is in the Biblical source. At the very end, after nakei/cleanse/clear, the source text, Exodus 34:6-7 adds v’lo yenakeh/and doesn’t cleanse/clear. In other words, God does not cleanse/clear where there is no repentance, no regret, no acknowledgement, no nothing. Again, our dilemma. How to forgive in the face of no teshuva?
We begin with the Holiness Code/Parshat Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:18 which states: “You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbour a grudge against the members of your people. And you shall love your fellow as yourself. I am YHWH.” Sefaria.org shows 83 commentaries on this single verse. Then we find this paraphrase of Rava, a fourth generation Amora who lived in Babylon (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet/Tractate Rosh Hashana, 17a) discussing the Thirteen Attributes: “Who is forgiven? One who forgives others.” Hmmm….
Then I went to a poem by Yehuda Amichai, a modern Israeli poet who died in 2000 at the age of 76.
The Place Where We Are Right
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
The poem is a metaphor for human relationships and connections. The Hebrew word for “the place,” “Ha-Makom,” is also a name for God. The ruined House surely is a reference to the destroyed Temple.
If we are serious about achieving a hopeful future, can we find a way to move from that hard place where we seem perpetually stuck? It means repairing those cracks in our relationships. And yes, that often means re-imagining how we view others.
How can we challenge ourselves to move from that rigid place where we are right and let go of distorted, preconceived images? Can we learn to give others the benefit of the doubt — or perhaps even admit a little uncertainty, instead of tenaciously holding onto our own assumptions about another’s beliefs or intentions? To move from that rigid place requires genuine empathy and compassion.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning wrongful behaviour. Forgiveness is self-liberation from the burden of anger and the desire for vengeance, and it changes us in ways we cannot fully anticipate. Many of us know from experience the enlivening catharsis and transformation that forgiveness brings. But we also know that it is not easily attained; it requires a radical shift in our inner life.
Some crucial guidance in this work is provided by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522 – 1570), who was a leader of the Safed Kabbalists. His work, Tomer Devorah (The Palm Tree of Deborah) is a highly revered classic which combines Kabbalah with Mussar.
Tomer Devorah 1:14
“Even if you cannot find any reason to forgive a person, then consider: There was once a time when this person had done no wrong. At that time … they were worthy.
Bring to mind the good this person did as a child, bring to mind the love for a nursing babe, “weaned from milk and removed from the breasts” (Isaiah 28:9). In this way, you will appreciate that no person can be found who is unworthy of you wishing goodness for them, and praying for their wholeness, and having compassion for them.”
We can also learn from the famous lines from the Prophet Micah (6:8) in which God demands: “doing justice (asot mishpat), and loving kindness (ahavat chesed), and walking humbly with your God (v’hatzneah lechet im Eloheicha).” I find such inspiration in these concepts, particularly the last two.
Embracing loving-kindness means you are not only generous-hearted, but you love being that way. This approach to life can protect you from staying stuck in your hurt and anger, lashing out vengefully and holding grudges. It means that even in the face of strong emotions, you can reserve a part of your mind for caring interest in another person, to recognize the other as a human, a person.
The third item in Micah’s list: “walking humbly with your God” takes us back to the Thirteen Attributes. “Walking with God” signifies the placing of values above our personal desires and, perhaps, even a sense of personal connection to the Divine and remembering that Betzelem Elohim is more than just nice words; it takes work. To be forgiving, to be merciful, to be compassionate, to be full of grace, to be kind. I feel like I’m talking about my sister Alisa, of blessed memory, who modelled all of these qualities.
And now the Ketoret.(5) This afternoon we will reenact the Service of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. It’s a powerful, mysterious ritual. When we recite the Avodah Service, our focus is on the animal sacrifices - of the bull, of the two goats - and on the sprinkling of their blood. It’s possible to miss the Ketoret altogether. Yet it’s actually the high point, smack-dab in the centre of the Service. In a chiastic structured service, like so much of our services and poetry, something placed in the very middle that means it’s the most important. It is an ancient, earth-based ritual in which no animals were harmed.
Ketoret basically involves putting incense on hot coals to produce a pleasing odour (reyach nichoach) and smoke. There is much fascinating discussion about what the ingredients were and why, but I won’t go into it today.
There is a connection between reyach and ruach, between smell and spirit. Smell is spirit. We can’t see smell, although we can see smoke. Our tradition has a lot to say about smell. The beautiful fragrances in the Garden of Eden, the story of Jacob and Esau, and many references in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, are but a few examples.
The Bnei Yissaschar, a 19th century Hassidic Rebbe,(6) famously taught that the sense of smell is spiritual. If we read the story of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden closely, the sense of smell isn’t implicated. Eve saw the fruit (sight), picked it up (touch), and ate it (taste), and then walked in the garden and heard God (hearing). The Bnei Yissaschar concludes from this that the sense of smell wasn’t blemished by this first sin, is spiritual, and sinless. It’s connected to eternal life, to the concepts of forgiveness and to the veiling of the firmament. It is connected to angels; it is food for the soul; it is worship of the Divine. It has an important role in atonement. It’s also very dangerous, remember Nadav and Avihu,(7) and Korach.(8)
We recreated the Garden of Eden in the Mikdash, the Sanctuary in the Temple and also the Revelation at Har Sinai. The inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, was very small and intimate. A kohen got to perform the ketoret ritual only once in his life, except for the Kohen Gadol. The Yom Kippur ketoret ritual wasn’t that different from the daily ketoret ritual - but it was all done only by the Kohen Gadol - not only the ritual, but also calling the Holy Name and the full prostration and the bull, and the sprinkling of the blood, and the different Naming, and the hand laying, and the two goats, and the tying of the special red thread over the entry which everyone watches to see if it changes to white to indicate that kaparah/atonement has taken place.
On Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol stays until the whole room fills with the smoke from the burning of the Ketoret. It was important that the smoke go straight up and then out along the ceiling and down the walls. It contained a special ingredient for that purpose. And then there was the blessing of the Kohen Gadol after he emerged. Prayer cancelling afflictions. This is the moment of a great exhale. Afterward the Kohen Gadol threw a banquet and everyone sang how beautiful he was: Marei Kohen.
Is the Ketoret there to cover or reveal. It’s a dangerous thing, what is happening inside the Holy of Holies and there needs to be a cover. Like peaking into someone’s bedroom, a nakedness of the Shekhina, the feminine indwelling presence of God, that isn’t supposed to be seen, even by the Kohen Gadol. You want to see Her but you don’t; it could be too much for you. Ketoret creates a screen between the Kohen Gadol and the Shekhina so he won’t die when he sees Her.
The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, is praying. It’s a personal prayer that isn’t about himself. It’s about his love and care for the people. It is a moment of great intimacy between the High Priest and the Shekhina. The joy and release and forgiveness happens in that moment. The smoke both covers and reveals. It rises to a level that is beyond duality. The dimensions of the mizbeyach, the Ark, from wall to wall and from wall to Ark and Ark to wall are the same. Which means that the Ark is dimensionless. It doesn’t take up physical space in our measured reality. Another dimension is here. It’s a place beyond dimension, beyond duality and beyond good and evil. There is no sin if we are beyond good and evil. Covering and revealing are the same thing. The connection between Ketoret and standing at Sinai is very strong. The Kohen Gadol is representing the many. The Kohen Gadol is looking to create intimacy between God and the people.
What is the secret of Ketoret? The sinless sense of smell that has the ability to elevate us out of the world of duality, of good and evil, to a world where everything is good, where our neshama, our spirit, breathes into us Devine consciousness. It is the essence of who we are, our innate, essential purity. Where there is only forgiveness.
May we all learn from the Ketoret, and from the Thirteen Attributes, and from the Prophet Micah, and from the poet Yehuda Amichai, and from Tomer Devorah, to see beyond the externals, to not judge others and ourselves and to look for the Divine within ourselves and all those around us ... and forgive.
G’mar Chatima Tova!
(1) The William Davidson Talmud (Koren - Steinsaltz) accessed on sefaria.org.
(2) See his Mishneh Torah volume entitled Repentance that can be accessed on sefaria.org and the many, many available discussions and elucidations of it, too many to mention here.
(3) Intentional, willful, and unintentional are the primary categories of sin.
(4) Selichah/forgiveness, mechilah/wiping away/pardoning, and kaparah/atonement are the primary categories.
(5) I owe a great debt of gratitude to my teacher, friend, and spiritual director, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan whose course on Ketoret opened my eyes to its world.
(6) The best known text of Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov, 1820-1840.
(7) Leviticus 10
(8) Numbers 16