Yom Kippur as the Sabbath of Sabbaths (Shabbat Shabbaton)
In case you missed my Kol Nidrei sermon or would like to read it.
Long ago, there were two Buddhist monks on a journey from one monastery to another. Seeking enlightenment, they took a vow of silence and chastity and were on their way to learn meditation from a famous Zen master. About a day into their journey, they arrived at a river, and on the bank they came across a young woman in a beautiful dress. “Good afternoon,” she said. The two monks nodded a silent greeting. “I was on my way home until I became lost. Now, thanks to a kind old woman, I know that my village is on the other side of this river, but I am afraid to cross the water. Can you please help me?” she asked. The younger of the two monks shook his head silently.
Without a word, the older monk picked up the young woman, carried her across the river, and set her down gently on the other side. The two monks continued on their way, side by side in silence. Three days later, the younger monk couldn’t take it anymore, “I can’t believe you did that! We took a vow not to touch women! How could you carry her like that?!” The older monk broke his silence then too, and said, “I carried the woman for just three minutes, but you have been carrying her for three days.”
Yom Kippur is a day to reflect upon everything we have been carrying around for the past year: all of the guilt, grudges, resentments, and emotional pain that we usually try to hide. Our prayers on this day bring these aspects of our lives to the forefront of our minds as they so thoughtfully remind us of all the mistakes we have made this year. Indeed, at times we have all acted selfishly or foolishly. It can be difficult not to replay these embarrassing moments in our minds – you know those moments when we realize what happened and say, “I can’t believe I did that! They must think I’m such an idiot.”
It’s difficult to let go of that shame. But it can be even more challenging not to mentally replay the moments when other people’s selfish or foolish behavior hurt us deeply. Someone may have made an insensitive comment about us or something dear to our hearts without realizing the pain their words could cause. Others may have intentionally deceived us and shattered our trust. Even if these incidents happened long ago, the anger we feel about these wrongdoings may still be festering in our hearts.
We may also feel anger towards people who have broken and disregarded rules, as in the monk story. It can be very frustrating to see others behave as if they are above the rules that we work so hard to abide by. We may also feel resentment towards people who have not contributed their fair share to a group project or shared household. Or we may be carrying resentment towards those who have asked more of us than we could possibly give. Even if the initial incidents happened long ago, the resentment we feel about these grievances may still be smoldering within us.
Rabbi Harold Kushner once related the story of a woman whose husband walked out on her and their three children. Every month after the husband left, the wife struggled to pay their bills, while her ex-husband lived it up with his new wife in another state. The now single mother was furious. Ten years went by, and this woman was still as angry as the day he left. She went to ask Rabbi Kushner for advice. He said it was like she was walking around with a hot coal in her hand, always ready to throw it at the person who had hurt her. But it had been ten years, and the hot coal had never come close to him. All she had been doing by holding onto this anger was burning a hole into her own hand.
While there are many things in life worth getting angry about, there are very few things worth staying angry about. It’s not healthy to completely suppress our feelings. It is vital that we acknowledge our anger and upset feelings as they occur within us. But most grievances are worth thinking about for only a little while – maybe two minutes and certainly not more than two days. The Talmud (in Sanhedrin 27a) defines an enemy as a person one has refused to speak to for three days out of spite. If three days after an argument, we find ourselves still obsessing over it, we are not simply acknowledging our feelings, we are actively creating an enemy and nursing a grudge.
The Torah warns us not to hold a grudge in Leviticus 19:18, which is part of the holiness code that we will read tomorrow afternoon. The verse reads, “Lo tikom v’lo titor. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge.” Rabbi Menachem Ben Saruk, a Spanish rabbi from the 10th century, defined titor (the word for bearing a grudge) as “holding onto anger.” Both the Torah reading and the prayers of Yom Kippur are advising us to stop carrying around these grudges and resentments in our hearts.
No message could be more fitting for Yom Kippur, a day the Torah calls “Shabbat Shabbaton,” or the Sabbath of Sabbaths. We all know the essence of Shabbat is sacred rest, a break from the mundane pattern of endless work. Forgiveness is a form of sacred rest. It is not an emotional state that arises naturally; forgiveness is a conscious choice to let ourselves rest and to stop carrying the cumbersome anger and resentment with us everywhere we go. The rabbis of the Talmud understood the act of carrying to be a form of work. They specifically mention carrying among the 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. On Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, we have a sacred obligation to rest and not carry anything – not a briefcase, nor a jackhammer, nor a grudge. Today is the most important day to rest both physically and emotionally. It is a day to let go of the heavy emotional and spiritual baggage we have been carrying inside of us for so long.
What’s more, the Torah also teaches us about another Sabbath—the sabbatical year when even the land gets to rest and all debts are forgiven. One of my childhood teachers once told me that relationships are like bank accounts. We cannot withdraw more than we deposit without facing penalties. We may have overdrafted our relationship accounts with others this year, and they may have overdrafted their relationship accounts with us. This Yom Kippur, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, is a time to settle and forgive these emotional debts. It is time to end the tally marking of who is right and who was wronged. It is time to start fresh, emotionally debt-free in the new year.
There are a few things that we have no spiritual obligation to forgive, such as murder, slander, and domestic abuse. But for the more common emotional debts that we may need to settle, and for people who need the spiritual release from the emotional burdens of even the most egregious offenses, I offer a few tips on how to forgive this year: It may help to remember Rabbi Kushner’s analogy, that anger and resentment are like hot coals which hurt us when we hold onto to them. When we hold grudges, we are often hurting ourselves more than the person who originally hurt us. And the more mental energy we give them, the less mental energy we have for the more important things in life. When we constantly think about them and how they hurt us, we are allowing them to live in our heads rent-free and do more damage to our property. It’s time to evict them and reclaim that mental space for ourselves. It is time to lighten our burden by refusing to carry resentment in our hearts any longer. The anger and hurt and resentment will only get bigger and heavier if we continue to focus on them like the young monk who eventually exploded in rage. We must decide whether to focus on resentment forever or forgiveness now. Which one do you believe will make you feel better today and in the long run?
In the case of loved ones who have hurt us, we can shift our focus from the ways they have let us down to the ways they have raised us up and brought joy into our lives. We can magnify their positive qualities, rather than their shortcomings under the magnifying glass of our mind. It is our choice how to view loved ones who have hurt us. We can choose to view them compassionately and remind ourselves of how much forgiveness would mean to us if we were in their situation. Imagine if we were the ones who made a mistake and someone else held it against us forever. Is that something we really want to do to another person? Is being right more important than being happy? Must we self-righteously gloat over their failings forever?
Regarding loved ones or even strangers who have hurt us deeply, we could also write a brutally honest letter telling them how much pain they have caused us. But instead of sending them the letter filled with pain and anger, we can tear it up and burn it. As we watch the smoke rise, we can think about the fact that we are not limited or defined by that pain and anger. We will be here long after those feelings disappear.
There are many steps we can take to loosen our grip on the grudges and resentment we have been carrying around. There are many ways that letting go of this pain can benefit our lives. For those seeking enlightenment like the monks, it may come from lightening our own emotional load. Enlightenment is a process that we must choose and realize for ourselves. We must decide what to set down on the bank of a river, or to forgive in the bank of our relationships with others. We do not have to keep carrying every mistake and resentment with us for days and years on end. We can choose to let go. May we decide to truly observe Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, this year, by not carrying the resentment through this day and choosing instead to engage in the sacred and restful act of forgiveness. Amen.