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Already Forgiven - Kol Nidre 5783

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

In a moment, we will enter into the collective Selichot prayers, where we ask, in a variety of  ways, for forgiveness. There is a famous rabbinic teaching that the rituals of Yom Kippur do not grant forgiveness for harm that we may have done to other people. The fast day does not substitute for the person-to-person work of teshuvah, repentance and repair. Yom Kippur, the rabbis teach, brings healing between us and the Source of Life, between people and the divine. So even though we ask forgiveness in these prayers for damage we may have done through our actions or our words out in the world, the forgiveness we are seeking over these 25 hours is a kind of right-relation between ourselves and our own spirits, between us and the divinity that moves within us and around us. It is a journey into our own hearts and souls.

What is remarkable is that the liturgy suggests that even as we enter into this process, we are already forgiven. If you go back to pages 695-696 in the machzor, you’ll see the words we chanted right after the Kol Nidre prayer – verses from the book of Numbers, where God forgives the Israelite people for succumbing to their fears and refusing to go into the promised land. 

The structure of this section is fascinating – it begins with God’s pronouncement of forgiveness: “And there shall be atonement for the whole community of Israel, and the stranger dwelling in their midst – indeed, for an entire people that has gone astray” (Numbers 15:26). Then it brings Moses’ request for forgiveness, which actually came before that: “Grant forgiveness, then, for the transgression of this people, as the abundance of your love demands” (Num. 14:19) and then God replies, “I grant forgiveness, as you ask” (Num. 14:20). Forgiveness is given, we ask for it, and it is granted again. This section of the liturgy becomes the model of the process we are engaged in over Yom Kippur: forgiveness has been granted; we ask for forgiveness, and we are forgiven.

On page 696 below the line, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zichrono livracha, relates a midrashic tradition, which holds that these words – salachti kidvarecha – “I grant forgiveness, as you ask” – were actually spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai, when he went up to receive the Torah. If you remember the story, when Moses brings down the first set of tablets with the 10 commandments, he sees the Israelites dancing around a golden calf they’ve built, proclaiming that this calf is the god that brought them out of Egypt. In his rage, Moses smashes the first set of tablets. According to the midrash, Moses then goes back up on the mountain and seeks forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf for 40 days. He comes down the mountain, and then goes back up again on the first day of the month of Elul to receive the second set of tablets, and after 40 more days – on Yom Kippur – he receives those tablets, which God delivers with these words: salachti kidvarecha. “I have forgiven, as you asked.”

What happens up on Mount Sinai during these months, when Moses is trying to repair the relationship between God and the Israelites? We’re told in the book of Exodus that during this time, Moses pleads with the Divine to reveal Itself to him. Let me see you! Moses asks. But Adonai replies, that is not possible; you can’t have that kind of direct experience of the Power Source of the Universe and come out alive. However, God says, I will show you My goodness. And so, Moses carves two new tablets of stone, goes up Mt Sinai again, and experiences a revelation of the divine essence – except it’s not a visual experience. Instead, he hears, he learns, God’s true name:

Adonai Adonai el rachum v’chanun erekh apayim v’rav chesed v’emet, notzer chesed l’alafaim; nosei avon vafesha v’chata v’nakeh

Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…

You may recognize these words, as we chant them repeatedly throughout Yom Kippur. The Biblical verse actually goes on to say that God does not ignore wrongdoing, and that transgression will be punished, but in rabbinic texts, this description of the divine always ends here, with forgiveness. The essence of godliness, our tradition teaches, is unconditional love and compassion.

There are a plethora of metaphors that the Torah uses to describe this un-describable scene between God and Moses. Two that I especially love are the metaphor of Makom – Place – and Tzur – Rock. When Moses asks to see God’s Presence, Adonai responds: “Hinei, Makom iti. Here, there is a Place with me.”  Moses is then invited onto a Tzur, a Rock.  This is where I imagine him standing as the Divine essence, Adonai El Rachum v’Chanun, is revealed.

The name “Makom” always refers to an experience of God’s presence, God’s closeness to us. It conjures a sense of godliness being right here, in this Place. For the rabbis, Makom – Place – was the name for God that they used when they wanted to convey a sense of divine love and compassion.

The Hebrew word for compassion is rachamim – which has the same root as the word rechem, which means “womb.” And the womb, of course, is the first “place” that we experience. Perhaps, as we open ourselves to Divine compassion, we can imagine ourselves as if we are being held within a womb. There we are, floating in amniotic fluid, feeling held and nourished. Feeling safe. In another midrash, in which the rabbis imagine God moving from the seat of din, of judgment, into the seat of rachamim, compassion, it says that God “mitmaleh aleyhem rachamim,” God fills up with compassion for the Jewish people. The image I get is of God Itself as the womb, a compassion-filled womb, inside of which each of us is held. 

The other image from that moment on Sinai is of Moses standing upon the Tzur, the Rock. Rock is a powerful metaphor for the divine in our tradition, and it almost always connotes a sense of refuge and protection. The Rock is that which we can lean on, depend on, find safety within. In Psalm 71, the psalmist says to God, heyeh li l’tzur ma’on lavo tamid – be for me a Rock of refuge which I can always come to.

As we enter into Yom Kippur, perhaps we can share in the invitation to Moses to enter into a Place of Compassion, and to find ourselves standing upon, or perhaps sheltered behind, the Rock of Refuge. We have already been forgiven; now we are being asked to have compassion for ourselves. Not to let ourselves off the hook for any behavior that we need to reckon with, but to do that reckoning from a Place of kindness and love.

We plead, in the liturgy, to be spared harsh judgment – and I think we can understand many of these prayers as a kind of instruction for ourselves, directed to the seat of harsh judgment that lives within our minds. In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we heard on Rosh Hashanah and will chant again tomorrow, the poet says to God, va’yikon b’chesed kiseicha, vateshev alav b’emet: Your throne, Adonai, is established with lovingkindness, and you sit upon it in truth.

God’s judgment of truth, the godly power of discernment, is established within a framework of love. If I think of this image as a kind of map of the soul, of my own interior, I imagine a seat of chesed and rachamim, a place of love and compassion, from which the power of truth, of clear seeing, can emerge. The opposite of loving discernment is a judgmentalism that keeps me clear of understanding, that rarely leads to any kind of positive change, whether in myself or in others. 

Many years ago, I was on one of my first week-long silent retreats, a Jewish retreat. Along with the silent meditation, there were periods of chant and prayer. I remember one day, I was feeling incredibly annoyed by the enthusiastic participation by some of the other folks in the chanting, especially a few people who were drumming along. It felt to me like too much, too loud, and I just wanted quiet, I wanted the drumming to stop. It being a meditation retreat, I had the opportunity to sit with my feelings and to explore what was really going on. What I realized, after some reflection, is that I was actually feeling sort of lousy about myself in that moment. I was feeling small, and so I wanted everyone around me to be diminished as well. Once I saw this, and was able to have some compassion for myself, my judgments about the others vanished. 

Our goal, tonight, with all of our introspection, is not to diminish ourselves. It is, rather, to enter into a godly Makom, a Place of compassion, where we can find forgiveness. We can seek refuge, together, in the protective shelter of what is called, in another psalm, Tzur Levavi, the Rock of our Hearts. In that place of refuge, I have no need to take defensive actions to protect myself from my own or other’s deficiencies. When I find myself in the Makom of compassion, I feel cared for, and I don’t need to project my own sense of lack, of scarcity, onto those around me. 

The rabbis teach that when Moses smashed that first set of tablets, he saved the pieces, and placed them in the ark along with the second, unbroken tablets. This midrash reminds us that brokenness is holy, and something to embrace. So, as we begin our Selichot prayers, as we begin this day-long journey together, let’s remember that there is a Torah of brokenness as well as a Torah of wholeness, and that we carry both in our hearts. Let’s remember that we are already forgiven. Let’s remember that we are held by That which is rav chesed v’emet, overflowing with a love that is truthful, and a truth that is loving. 

Kol Nidre 5783
Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784