On Yom Kippur, Forgiveness Is a Family Affair

A new look at atonement could give us access to communal – and even national – achievements.

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Forgiveness – achieving it is an ongoing process as well as a state we aspire to, particularly as we approach Yom Kippur. Jewish tradition teaches that for the sins between us and G-d, teshuva (literally "return") alone can effect forgiveness. For the sins between us and others, teshuva and relationship reconciliation are both required. The problem with teshuva for most of us, me included, is that it’s incredibly hard, we really don’t know how to accomplish it, and therefore, we find ourselves needing to repair the same or similar relationships year after year.

For Haaretz's guide to Yom Kippur, click here.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting different results. To break the cycle, I’d like to suggest a new approach this year: instead of working on ourselves exclusively, let’s shift focus to achieving forgiveness as a family. This paradigm shift should start with one’s immediate family, and then can be applied to larger family units such as one’s community, and even one's country. The process involves building on the strengths that our families possess and then applying them in more encompassing frameworks. Fortunately, we have a model from which to expand upon – our Jewish family narrative.

In a New York Times article from 2013, "The Stories That Bind Us," Bruce Feiler explores the question: “what are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” The research cited indicates that the most healthful family model is what is called the "oscillating family narrative:"

“Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”

Children from such families tend to exhibit self-confidence; each possessing a strong “intergenerational self,” psychologists explain. They share in a story with a past and a future and a strong sense of their role in the present. While not unique to any one group, the intergenerational self has been the essential Jewish family narrative, most clearly exemplified by the family dramas played out in the Book of Genesis. Of all these Biblical stories, Jacob and his family is the paradigm, with sibling rivalry and attempted fratricide finding resolution with the sons becoming the patriarchs of the 12 tribes, the basis for our peoplehood. Throughout our history, Jewish family units have been forged by our adversities and our triumphs.

The pressures and shared experiences that bind us create the bonds of loyalty that motivate us to forgive each other. With a healthy family dynamic, individual family members have their own life paths, while simultaneously sharing a common narrative, allowing each to leave room for the other. That safe space is where forgiveness is nurtured.

In reflecting on positive trends in Jerusalem, David Ze’ev Jablinowitz writes in the Jerusalem Post about a healthy family dynamic on a community level:

“Is a member of the Jerusalem City Council who says that he observes Shabbat in an Orthodox manner betraying the religion, if he also says that he is torn about how to resolve the problems involved in how the Jewish Sabbath should look in the Holy City? The sensitivities of the Orthodox must be taken into account, he says, but what about secular Israelis, non-Jews and tourists? Is a solution possible? Should the Jewish state be condoning what a large number of Jews would call a desecration of the Sabbath? These are excellent questions. But if the sides are talking in a mutually respectful way, many might very well argue that it’s a positive development.”

As with the healthy family dynamic, Jerusalem can only fulfill the meaning of its name as the city of peace if it leaves space for competing values to engage in dialogue, and find forgiveness for past trespasses as a necessary condition for realizing communal dreams.

As part of his Bold Ideas initiative, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo urges secular Israelis to “take the bike or tram, get a free coffee and observe Shabbat.” From the perspective of wanting those less observant to have the opportunity to partake in “this breathtaking day, and offer them this opportunity by making it easier for them to participate in its holiness,” he lays out practical steps within halakhic (pertaining to Jewish law) boundaries to bridge the secular-religious divide on contentious issues. Again, to achieve a greater communal goal, that of Shabbat Shalom, a Sabbath of peace and completeness, we need to begin with forgiveness, acknowledging the multiplicity of needs in our Jerusalem family.

My dear friend Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger just wrote in his weekly newsletter that on Erev Rosh Hashanah, six Israeli religious settlers (he among them) and six Palestinians – two Christian and four Muslim – sat down together to discuss “a joint vision for the future of our Peoples in this war-torn sliver of land that we all call home.” For over a year, they have been creating a unique organization, Roots/Judur/Shorashim, a Palestinian-Israeli grassroots initiative for understanding, nonviolence and transformation. On this propitious day, they decided it was time to formulate a vision statement for this fledgling movement.

“We expected it to be difficult, even stormy. It wasn't we have learned to listen to each other and to absorb what we hear. We have come to understand each other; we feel for the other and his nation. We know what they need and we fervently desire for them to have it. It used to be that we each carried on our shoulder the burden of our nation. Today all of us also carry on our second shoulder the burden of the other nation. While each of us identifies first and foremost with our own People – its struggles and its triumphs, we have developed a new language, perhaps even a shared identity.”

The vision statement they formulated and agreed on was this: “We envision a new social and political reality that is founded on dignity, trust, and a mutual recognition of and respect for each People's historic belonging to the entire land.”

As I read these words, I understood that these brave Israelis and Palestinians have forged a shared intergenerational self, based on an expanded vision of family: holding onto competing narratives, founded on forgiveness. Because we are cousins, we are family, and we really have no other choice but to carve out space in our hearts for the other.

This Yom Kippur, think of the multiple families in your life, appreciate them for the stories you share, your unique place in their history, leaving space for each other, and leaving space for you together. Dare to forgive. Dare to dream.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.