It is rather difficult for a rabbi to stand up on the bima each year and discuss themes of Yom Kippur without, perhaps, the risk of them becoming repetitive to a congregation. Many of you have sat in those chairs for many High Holy Day seasons listening to rabbis, young and old, discuss their interpretations of the holiest days of our year. All of us have, over and over, read the themes of Yom Kippur in our machzors: the ideas of sin, forgiveness, apologies, and redemption. When we hear these words so much, year after year, sometimes we can think of them as only words, and miss the power behind them. Even I, your rabbi, who immerses himself in these themes and feelings each year, sometimes need to stop with the studying and analyzing and try to feel what we are meant to feel. Sometimes it takes reading a book to feel inspired or connected, sometimes a movie, or listening to music. Each year, our souls are given a different path to rebirth.
This year, my path was a new one. I found myself watching a short animated film by a Jewish animator named Hanan Harchol. Harchol’s series, called Jewish Food for Thought, has several short videos on themes such as envy, kindness, love, fear, and, of course, forgiveness. Most of the films are simple animations, just Harchol sitting in the car or on a bench with his father, discussing Hanan’s personal problems. These discussions lead to Jewish understandings and realizations. This year, as I watched the short film on forgiveness, I found myself thinking not about the Jewish texts from the Tanakh or the Talmud, and not about Ashamnu or Vidui, but instead, just the real challenges and feelings that accompany the act of forgiveness.
Harchol’s story goes like this: Two years ago, when he finished school, he had an opportunity to get a job doing what he loves—animating—in New York. He applied for the job and asked one of his friends and colleagues, David, a fellow animator, to be a reference for the job. It seems, however, that David’s reference for Harchol got “lost in the mail,” and it was David who ended up applying to and getting the job. Taken from under Harchol. Harchol’s father reacts as we all would, with a gasp, and an exclamation “What a shmendrick!”
Harchol tells his father that David, after two years, has reached out to him hoping to apologize. The discussion that follows is whether or not Harchol should grant forgiveness to David. Harchol is understandably filled with anger and resentment; after all, David acted immorally, took advantage of his friend and colleague, and stepped over others to succeed. Harchol asks his father what he should do, and, without skipping a beat, his father answers, “forgive him.”
“How can you say that?” Harchol asks. “Haven’t you been listening to what I’ve been saying?”
“I heard every word, everything,” his father replies. “You wanted my advice, I gave it to you, to forgive him.”
“Well, the last thing I’m going to do is to forgive him,” Harchol says.
“Well that’s your choice, but I still think you should forgive him.”
Harchol argues with his father about themes that we all know and understand. He calls what David did “unforgivable.” How many times have we uttered this phrase? “What he or she did was unforgivable!” In the heat of the moment, we actually believe this, that the insult or trickery or undermining someone did will never be fixable. But of course, Harchol’s father is there with the reality check we all need to hear this season. He says, “There are very few things that are unforgivable, and that’s not one of them.”
Still, in the heat of it all, Harchol says, “I could’ve killed David for what he did.” Obviously, he is speaking in hyperbole, but his father chimes back, “That’s one thing that’s unforgivable.” But he says this not for the reason we think. We would assume he’s saying it because murder is an unforgivable offense, but he goes on: “If you kill someone, even a shmendrick…you can’t get forgiveness because the only person who can forgive you is dead.”
Immediately the words from our Machzor jumped into mind:
For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.
In other words, murder, in Judaism, is not unforgivable because of its grave nature, because it is one of the Ten Commandments, but it is unforgivable because once you have killed someone, the day of atonement cannot atone for you because you cannot make peace with that person. I’ve read those words so many times but I never understood their impact in this way before. As long as you do not murder someone, you can always ask for forgiveness, always achieve atonement.
Harchol then talks to his father about how he wonders what other people would think if he forgave David; he talks about wanting to punch David in the face; he talks about how David is probably just trying to take advantage—all the things we would expect, and his father answers back with all the stuff we’re used to. The fact that forgiveness isn’t about ego, that it’s not about what other people would think, etc. Nothing new, nothing we can’t find the answers to in the Machzor.
But then it gets interesting. Harchol’s father says of David, “I just hope he’s paying his rent.”
“His rent?” Harchol replies. “He’s not paying me! He stole from me! What rent? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the fact that he’s living inside your head. He’s obviously taking up a lot of room there. I mean, when did this happen? Two years ago? And you’re still talking about him? So, how much is he paying you?”
Harchol stares at his father then comes to a realization, that David is living in his head. Rent-free.
You won’t find this in the Machzor, the idea that harboring anger and resentment actually allows that person whom you are most angry with to live rent-free within your head. There’s a finite amount of space in our heads, and I don’t know about you but I’m not one for squatters. Take a moment and think of all the people you have yet to forgive. How much room do they take up in your head? You may think that they don’t take up much room now, but wait until something reminds you of what they did. When that happens, they can spread out their stuff from room to room and clutter up your mind so much you can’t sleep! You toss and turn because there’s no room left because you’ve allowed squatters in and can’t get them out.
And don’t go blaming them for being squatters. It was you who let them in and said, “don’t worry about the rent,” so you can’t get mad when they take advantage of the best deal they’ve got and move in indefinitely. This time, the blame is on you. Imagine, someone wrongs you, they hurt you, cheat you, shake the foundations of your trust, ruin your innocence, turn you into a cynic of humanity, and what do you do to reward them for this? You open the door to your mind and say, “come on in!” It’s ridiculous, and if we could control this consciously, we would never do it. But thinking and overthinking about someone else, feeling anger and resentment, these are impulses, natural reactions to situations.
I have met very very few people who claim to have never opened the door, giving no thought to those who hurt them. And frankly, those people I think weren’t being honest with me. Everyone opens the door a little and lets in a squatter or two—it’s human to do so. What we do after that, though, is up to us. Do we find them a nice corner apartment in our mind and forget about them until the noise complaints start? Or do we tell them, “Okay, you’ve got a few days to get yourself back on your feet and then out you go”? That’s our choice. How long do we fight with the ghost of a person in our minds? How long do we have imaginary conversations of what we should’ve said, feeling the imagined satisfaction of telling them off, or maybe even imagining punching them in the face?
Our friends in the East talk about a concept called karma, in that the universe will even itself out eventually, and those who wrong us will get theirs in return. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not a Jewish one. I can see why so many Jews take it on though. It takes away the responsibility we have of kicking someone out of our heads. Instead we say, “live here as long as you want, but someday you’ll be miserable, so miserable you’ll walk out by yourself alone, learning your lesson and living a life in shame.” Let me ask all of you: even if karma was real, and even if all those who wronged you had a banana peel or something the universe was hiding up its sleeve to cause pain, even if all that happens, how many of you really think that when that person experiences that pain, feels loss, feels betrayal, feels all the things they made us feel, how many of you think that that person will think back to what they did to you and exclaim, “I deserve this for what I did to my friend all those years ago! Oh just universe, you have surely taught me a lesson!”?
The odds are not in our favor on this one. So, what’s the point of the universe stepping in for you and causing someone pain to get revenge, to seek justice for the wrongs against you, if the person who wronged you will never know why they are being punished? Now they’re just living in your head with medical bills, nothing more.
Perhaps you are thinking that at least David in the story has reached out to Harchol to apologize, and there are plenty of people who have wronged us out there that have not done that. Can we not achieve peace until they do? Not at all. It’s true in Judaism that we don’t just go around forgiving people, not unless they ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is a two-way street, which means the person who wronged you has to approach you, ask for forgiveness, and then you give it to them. Otherwise, it’s just pretending, just relying upon karma again, saying to yourself, “I forgave them, everything else is their problem.” That’s just not how it works in Judaism. We are commanded to make peace with others. Try going up to someone and saying, “Hey, you were a jerk, and I forgive you.” How do you think that will go? Sure, you forgave the jerk for being a jerk, but now you’re the jerk for overstepping, calling them a jerk, and then saying you forgive them for something they may not even agree with.
Now think about someone coming up to you, someone who has hurt you, caused you pain, anger, resentment, and mustering the strength to ask you for forgiveness. Look at them in the eyes and see the strength it took them to do that; already you should feel yourself softening towards them. How can you possibly hang on to anger when they are trying to make peace and be a better person? That’s the time to forgive. Because the very fact that you are there, standing face to face with this person, means that whatever they did, no matter how bad, is forgivable. And your offering them forgiveness isn’t just about giving them peace, but about creating peace for yourself. As for forgiving someone who hasn’t asked yet? That’s not the way to peace. You can try to fool yourself by saying “I’ve made peace with what they did, and I forgive them,” but you haven’t really. You haven’t faced them. You haven’t seen their humanity. The peace that you can feel, however, is telling yourself that when they do, when they muster the courage to ask for forgiveness, you will be ready to do so. Now that’s peace. That’s the peace that our Machzor talks about.
At the end of the video, Harchol decides to text David, saying they should meet tomorrow for coffee, and then he signed his text, “your former landlord.” Forgiveness is about letting go of resentment; it’s about removing the burden of an unwanted renter from our heads. When we can do that, we find that we have a lot more space up there than we realized. That’s space we can fill with good memories, love, kindness, knowledge, wisdom. Imagine the space that awaits you if you were to tear up the leases on all those squatters in your head. By the end of tomorrow night, that’s the goal—to make peace with others and with ourselves.
You, yes you, may be living in someone’s head rent-free right now. Time to start the process of eviction, ask for forgiveness, move out, and then turn and wait for your tenants to do the same.