Kapparah: Letting Go, Welcoming In

Two former prisoners of war reconnected after many years and
were catching up and reflecting on their experiences.
One said to the other, “Have you forgiven our captors yet?”
“No, never!” said the other.
“Well, then,” said the first, “they still have you in prison, don’t they?”

Maimonides in his 12th Century Laws of Teshuva, details
how to do the difficult work of forgiveness on Yom Kippur,
how to ask for forgiveness and
how to forgive when someone apologizes.

One thing that he doesn’t address, however,
is what to do if someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
What do we do then?
What do we do with the anger, the resentment, the bitterness that reside in us,
– and can imprison us –
When we have been hurt,
Perhaps by a parent, a friend, a spouse, someone we trusted,
but the one who hurt us doesn’t do teshuva?
Doesn’t come to us to make amends?

This day of Yom Kippur is, of course, an adaptation of the ancient biblical
Yom Kippur ritual that was performed by the cohen gadol, the high priest,
that we will read about tomorrow:
It was an annual purging of the holy of holies in the mishkan in the wilderness
and, later, of the holy of holies of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Our sacred shrine would be cleansed of all the people’s sins
in a kind of shamanistic ritual of blood and goats and
pronouncing the ineffable Divine name,
And through this annual expiation, the holy of holies could continue
to be a pure place where the Divine presence could dwell.

Our biblical commentators
have equated the ancient shrine with the human heart.
This human heart that, as you know,
gets hurt, gets angry, gets filled with resentment.
When the Torah first instructed us to build the Mishkan in the wilderness,
God said: V’asu li Mikdash v’shachanti betocham.
Build Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in them. (Ex 25:8)
It would have been more natural for God to say:
Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell in IT.
But no, the Torah reads: “in them.”
The Malbim, the 19th century Polish commentator explains to mean:
Kol echad yibaneh lo mikdash b’chadrei livavo
We build the holy place within our hearts.

So, if our hearts are the shrine, the Divine dwelling place,
Then how do we do the expiation of this holy of holies?
How do we clear out the anger, the pain, the bitterness that pollutes our hearts?
Forgiveness is really hard. And it’s even harder when
the person who wronged us doesn’t ask for our forgiveness.
But we all know that holding a grudge is like
wanting to hurt someone but swallowing the poison ourselves.
It just causes us more pain.
In fact, scientific studies have found that
those who feel resentful
have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and hostility,
as well as higher rates of heart problems and compromised immune systems.
( https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12529-008-9016-2 )
(See Stanford Forgiveness Project for more on this: https://learningtoforgive.com)

Yom Kippur was originally a purging of the holy of holies of its defilement
so that the Divine Presence could dwell with us.
How do we enact Kapparah, or expiation, in the holy of holies of our hearts?
The meaning of this word Kapparah, as in Yom “Kippur,”
is explained by Rashi as meaning “to wipe away anger.” (see Gen 32:21)
How do we wipe away anger, especially when we have good reason to be angry?

Listen, Yom Kippur is all about being real.
We drop the pretense and we drop our defenses.
We fast and wear clothes like shrouds and
try our best to speak the truth, even if it’s hard.
So, I want to be real with you.
I’ve been here now for a couple of months,
and I’ve gotten to speak to many of you,
One-on-one, and in group settings, and I’ve heard you.
Some of you have shared with me your anger.
You’ve shared with me the pain that is in your hearts.
I want to name it and speak to it, and maybe together we can release it a bit.
The last few years have been hard in our Netivot Shalom community.
In all kinds of complicated ways.
Some of you are grieving Rabbi Creditor not being here anymore.
Some of you have felt alienated by the community
not feeling as welcoming or embracing as you needed it to be.
And, let’s be really honest, and say: some of you are disappointed that you didn’t get the rabbi you wanted in the rabbi search process.
I get it. I hear you. I see you. I understand.
There’s been pain here, and I want to say:
I’m sorry for what you’ve been through.
And as your new rabbi, I want you to know that
I’m here to try to bring some healing and repair.
I want to help make this holy of holies
feel like a place where the Divine can dwell for all of us.
I may not get it right all the time.
After all I am a human who messes up sometimes, just like we all do.
(isn’t that what Yom Kippur is all about?)
But know that I’m trying, and I get it, and I’m here for you.

So, how do we do this kapparah?
How do we wipe away anger, as Rashi translates it?
Not just the anger we might be holding about the synagogue or the rabbi or the rabbi search, but for whatever it is we might be holding on to?
What do we do, on this day of forgiveness, with all those people in our lives,
who haven’t asked for our forgiveness?
The ex? The friend we no longer speak to? The estranged family member?
We all have people in our lives who have hurt us, unintentionally or intentionally.
There is a lot to be angry about.
Look at our country. It’s a mess.
We’ve got plenty of good reasons to be angry.
But do we want to live like that? With bitterness in our hearts?
With resentment and anger filling our holy of holies?
On this day of kapparah and forgiveness, don’t we want to consider another way?

The Revered Martin Luther King, Jr. said it like this:
“Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter.
As you press for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline,
Using only the instruments of Love.”

Rabbi Karyn Kedar, wrote a book called The Bridge to Forgiveness, and says this:
“If you stay angry forever
The one who has wronged you will win.
If you hold on to your anger
As a self-protection
Eventually you will lose
Because the pain of that anger will begin to define you.”

Forgiveness is not condoning what happened.
It’s not forgetting what happened.
It doesn’t mean you have to be in relationship with someone who hurts you.
It’s not saying that what someone did was ok,
but it’s releasing their grip on our lives.
It’s releasing the poison that has entered our hearts.
It’s feeling anger. Yes. But not forever.

Or in the great quote I heard from Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l:
“Forgiveness is giving up our hope for a better past.”
We can’t change the past, and once we accept that,
we can choose to move forward.

In the Talmud in Masechet Brachot, the rabbis ask a fascinating question:
Does God pray? And what is God’s prayer?
The answer:
יהי רצון מלפני שיכבשו רחמי את כעסי
“May it be My will that my Compassion overrule My anger…” (Brachot 7a)
Even God is trying to let go of anger!
Even God is trying to find Divine Compassion.

In the Yom Kippur ritual that we’ll read about tomorrow,
The high priest will send off a goat into the wilderness,
Carrying all of the people’s impurities with it off to Azazel.
We might be inclined to read this as: just blame a scapegoat.
But no, blame isn’t so useful for kapparah, for releasing anger.
Rather, releasing the goat is an act of letting go.
It’s setting free, off into the wilderness
that which pollutes our holy place, pollutes our hearts,
by filling ourselves with compassion,
Compassion for ourselves,
and compassion for whatever complex situation we might find ourselves in.
It’s the same Divine compassion that we seek in the Holy One on this day.
It’s the same Divine compassion that even God is praying for!
Take a deep breath.
“May it be My will that my Compassion overrule My anger…”
Try to take in Divine Compassion,
Send it to the place in your heart that needs it.

I do need to say that
Sometimes we aren’t yet ready to let it go.
Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman has written about
the complexity of forgiveness
for this year of #metoo and women speaking out about abuse.
She writes a “Prayer for those not ready to forgive:”

“Amidst the urgent pleadings of these days,
to wipe the slate clean and start anew,
some of us are not sure of the path forward…
It’s ok. Take your time.
Sometimes the timetable of these holy days
doesn’t match the rhythm of your heart and soul…
This year, love yourself enough
to trust your own timing.
Be patient enough to stay in the place of ‘not yet.’
Trust that you will find your way, that you will come to a time
where holding on hurts more than letting go.
Forgive yourself for not being ready – yet.
Give yourself the time and space to go at your own pace,
to love yourself right where you are and as you are.
From that place of acceptance,
May you have faith that the path forward will open up.”

So, look, we may or may not be ready to do kapparah, to wipe away anger,
to release, to let go, but
we can read this Yom Kippur ritual of the cohen gadol purifying the holy of holies as something to work towards – as an intention for purifying our hearts,
and as an intention for letting go of the past here
in our own holy place of this community.

The cohen’s ritual worked in a kind of magical way –
slaughtering animals, sprinkling their blood – that cleansed the holy of holies.
But when it comes to our hearts and to our community,
those hurts are a lot stickier and don’t clean off so easily.

What can help get us there?
The chapters in the Torah immediately preceding the Yom Kippur ritual in Leviticus, tell of a different ritual enacted by the cohanim, that is:
how to bring back into the camp
those who had been sent out.
See, in that strange biblical realm of purity and impurity,
Some people end up outside the camp:
The metzora afflicted with a skin disease,
The one who gave birth.
People going through the normal passages of human experience –
Birth, illness, death – become marginalized, become outsiders,
And in each of these cases, it’s the job of the cohen to be a healer and
To bring them back into the camp, back into the community.

As a metaphor for a sacred community like ours,
These texts speak to the ways that people become alienated,
That people get hurt or excluded,
And that it’s our job to bring people back in.

After all, the Torah calls us a mamlechet cohanim (Ex 19:6)– a kingdom of priests.
Meaning, we are all cohanim, and we all have the duty to be healers who bring people back into the camp, who reach out, who welcome people in.

We are all at different places in the path from bitterness to forgiveness,
and we may or may not be ready for kapparah,
but the interesting juxtaposition of these two priestly healing rituals
suggests that bringing others in might just be key to letting anger go.
Reaching out, welcoming in –
Might just be the magical key that unlocks the door to the holy of holies.

For me, staying close and connected to my dear friend, Rabbi Dorothy Richman,
and to my wonderful colleague Rabbi Rachel Kobrin
has been a powerful experience of
keeping the holy of holies open and full of love and friendship.

In our individual lives, to whom might we reach out?
Who can we bring back into our “camp”?
And how might it pave the way for kapparah, for letting go of anger?

For us as a community, how might we be more welcoming to each other?
Or to those outside the camp?
How might strengthening our culture of embracing each other
help heal some of the hurts of the past?

As a community, I would like to ask you to join me in making a commitment
to welcoming people in and bringing people back in.
When you see someone you don’t know, say hello and introduce yourself.
When you’re at Kiddush, invite someone who is not in your “camp”
into your conversation.
Sit with people who are not in your group of friends.
Build community. Invite guests over.
Greet people who walk in the door with love and warmth.
Hold with compassion the pain of others whose pain is different than your own.
Let us be a community of radical welcoming that is a tikkun, an antidote,
not only to the hurts of the past, but also
to this crazy world of walls and fear, separation and isolation.

Over the course of this new year, I’d like us to focus on welcoming,
On the mitzvah of inviting in guests and welcoming the stranger, and
Bringing back those who’ve been outside the camp.
Let’s work together to strengthen our sense of community
after the past few years that have been difficult for our country,
and for this community, too.
I know some of you are feeling angry or hurt.
I’ve heard you, and I understand.
Perhaps, just maybe, this Yom Kippur can be one of kapparah,
Of giving up hope for a better past,
Of letting go and moving forward.
And if we’re not there yet, and we may not be, that’s ok –
Perhaps this year can be one of just opening the door to that healing
By bringing into the camp someone who has been alienated.
Let us all bring each other into the camp
Into that sacred place with the holy of holies at its center
Where our hearts are filled with compassion
Where we feel connected, at home, welcomed and welcoming to others,
Where together, we create a holy place for the Divine to dwell.

Gmar Chatima Tova.