Unconditional forgiveness: Giving to others what G-d gives to us

Rabbi Douglas Zelden

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1–30)

There is a story told about a difficult question asked to a certain rabbi which he tried to answer for his students. The students pointed out, “Looking through the siddur (prayer book) we noticed that G-d is sometimes referred to in the masculine and sometimes in the feminine.” Being more comfortable with G-d in the masculine (after all they were boys) they asked, “Rabbi why would G-d be referred to as a woman?”

The rabbi thought long and hard and then said, “Let me share a parable.” “You see my talmidim (students), as you may know, it is a fact that a father loves to play with his baby. He gets down on the floor with the baby, makes noises, laughs, plays, and rolls around a bit. But then when he smells something foul coming from the baby do you know what most men do? They pick the baby up, hold him (or her) at arm’s length, and take the baby directly to his or her mother telling her that her child has a dirty diaper.

“Do you know what the mother does?” explained the rabbi to his students. “She not only changes the diaper but she caresses the baby, smiles at the baby, and blows kisses to the baby as she cleans the mess.”

“My students,” the rabbi continued. “G-d is sometimes like a father and sometimes he is like a mother. We too make a mess. We sin and soil the world G-d has created, but you know what G-d does? He cleans our filth and at the same time caresses us and loves us. Like a loving mother no matter how much we sin he is willing to forgive us and do it with love.”

As we are at the Shabbat of Return – Shabbat Shuva, and about to experience Yom Kippur, the day of ultimate forgiveness, we would all do well to remember this story. In fact, our rabbis echo this idea in a very another beautiful analogy. One of the central prayers of
Yom Kippur is the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” (Yud Gimel Midot). This payer is an integral part of the Selichot and it is repeated over and over again in the Yom Kippur Machzor.

In that prayer we say the following, “Hashem, Hashem, G-d, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and who cleanses.” This verse appears in the Torah in Shemot 36:6. They are the words that were uttered by Moses after the sin of the Golden Calf. These words are the formula used by Moses to ask G-d to forgive the Jewish nation. When Moses completes the prayer, G-d forgives. It is for this reason that we use the exact same formula that Moses used when we ask G-d to forgive us.

Our rabbis were bothered by the redundancy at the beginning of the verse. Hashem’s name is repeated twice. If each use of G-d’s name represents a different attribute of G-d’s mercy then what is represented in the double use of Hashem’s name?

Our rabbis explain that the double use of the name of Hashem refers to G-d before and after we sin. The verse means to tell us that the same G-d who loves us before we sin is the same G-d who loves us after we sin. We may think that if we do something wrong then G-d’s attitude and love towards us changes. The verse uses the exact same name of G-d to show that no matter what we do G-d’s love does not change.

In other words even when we have soiled ourselves with sin, Hashem cleans the mess and blows us a kiss at the same time. The reason for that is because G-d’s love for us is abundant and unconditional as the love of a mother for her child.

There is so much to learn from G-d’s abundant kindness to us. No matter what we do forgiveness is always in order. The love of G-d is so unconditional that he (or she maybe) never holds a grudge and forgives us immediately when we make that first step.

How different are we humans. So little of what we do is unconditional and we have this nasty tendency to hang on to things for so long. 

So much of what we do for others comes with strings attached. We are always calculating what we can get in return for everything we do.

The last thing we want is to make someone think that we are doing something just because we want to be kind, after all we fear that they may take advantage of us the next time. Our lives are an endless list of all the favors we have done for others and all the favors that they owe us.

Thank G-d for Yom Kippur. On one day of the year the message is throw the list away. Stop the petty calculations and be like G-d. Yes be like G-d. Love unconditionally and forgive with no strings attached. Stop hanging on to every little hurt that was done to you.

I know for a fact that the happiest people in the world are those who have learned the art of forgiveness. The most fulfilled people are those who learn to give of their love and to do it unconditionally.

Yom Kippur teaches us that it is possible, not easy, but possible. In fact I would go further and say that Yom Kippur teaches us that it is necessary. Our rabbis teach us that when G-d created the world he realized that without compassion and forgiveness the world could not exist. When we are unable to be compassionate and unable to forgive we literally are destroying the world.

It is for this reason that all the codifiers of Jewish Law explain that Yom Kippur can only atone for sins committed against G-d. If we have wronged another person, they explain, we cannot be absolved for those sins on Yom Kippur until we approach the individual we have wronged and sincerely ask their forgiveness.

On this Shabbat Shuva,  Parshat Vayelech, as we approach the holy day of Yom Kippur let us remember all these valuable messages. As we approach G-d and ask forgiveness for all that we have done to defy his will, let us also ask forgiveness from all of those we have wronged. We know that Hashem forgives us with unconditional love, so too let us forgive with the same unconditional love.  

Rabbi Doug Zelden is rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah, and hosts of the weekly TV show “Taped With Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).

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