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A Step Towards Unity:

A Step Towards Unity:

"Let all Your works revere You and all creatures bow before You. Let them all become a united society to do Your will wholeheartedly." (Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur Prayer)

Dear Friends,

As people who are drawn to the universal vision of the Torah, we can certainly appreciate the universal prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Many of us will chant these prayers with great fervor, for, as universal souls, we yearn for world unity and shalom. Are there, however, practical steps that we can take in order to bring the world closer to this universal goal? We will begin to answer this question by asking another question: Do we feel a sense of unity and shalom with those around us - family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers? If not, then we may need to do some soul-searching and explore whether we can engage in a healing process that can help us to feel that sense of unity and shalom with those around us. After all, the world that we universal souls love and appreciate begins with us and those that we interact with on a regular basis. 

Is there is an initial step that we can take in order to begin this healing process? There is an ancient Jewish custom for people to ask each other's forgiveness before Rosh Hashana. If it wasn't done before Rosh Hashana, then it should be done during the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We ask forgiveness for anything that we said or did that may have hurt the other person. A major reason for this custom is that Hashem - the Compassionate One - can forgive sins that are between us and Hashem, but sins that are between us and others also require "their" forgiveness. After all, they were the ones that were hurt. Asking others for forgiveness is therefore an act of justice which also enables us to gain atonement for the hurt that we caused others. 

A second reason for this custom is because it gives us the opportunity to forgive those who hurt us. It is important that we strive to forgive others before we ask the Compassionate One to forgive us. It would be an act of "chutzpah" to ask the Compassionate One to overlook our faults, if we do not have the compassion to overlook the faults of others. If we want our Creator to forgive us and judge us on the scale of merit, then we need to do the same to others. In fact, the Talmud teaches that the Compassionate One forgives the transgressions of those who forgive others (Rosh Hashana 17a). The custom of asking for forgiveness therefore brings spiritual benefit to those who forgive, as it enables them to gain atonement for their own sins.

There is also a third reason for the custom of asking for forgiveness before Rosh Hashana. Before we can pray on Rosh Hashana for the unity and shalom of the entire world, we first have to restore unity and shalom to our "local" world. As the progressive saying goes, 'think global, but act local." And when there is unity and shalom, "everyone" benefits.

I will share a personal insight that may startle many of you. I have had the privilege of knowing and working with idealistic and universal people for several decades, and I have discovered that a number of them find it very difficult to completely forgive any hurt done to them, even when the other person may have sincerely asked for forgiveness. I once read a book by the humorist, Sam Levenson, which was titled "Everything But Money." It described his experiences growing up in a large, extended family of poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe that settled in New York City. Almost everyone in his family had a strong sense of compassion and justice which was rooted in Jewish tradition. They were kind, sensitive, and loving, but there was one major problem: one uncle was not speaking to another uncle, one aunt would not sit next to another aunt, and one cousin would not go near another cousin. And a few years ago, a Jewish friend described to me her extended family. They too were very just and compassionate, but they too suffered from feuds that never seemed to go away. When she and I discussed the problem, we realized that many just and compassionate people find it difficult to let go of past hurts and forgive others. Why is this so? People with a strong sense of justice, who deeply feel the pain of any injustice that they encounter in the world, may also deeply feel the pain of any injustice - real or imagined - done to them. In addition, people who are very sensitive and feel the pain of others, may also be very sensitive to any hurt which they personally experience.  

Our sense of justice, however, can also motivate us to forgive. For example, we all want people to forgive us for "our" mistakes and failures. We all want people to give us the benefit of the doubt - to find reasons and excuses that will cause them to view our questionable behavior in a more favorable light. And we all want people to see the good in us, even when we say or do something which isn't proper. If so, then isn't it fair and just to do to others what we want done to ourselves? 

Forgiving others enables us to love others like we love ourselves. As the Torah states: 

"You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18).

The Torah first tells us not to take revenge and not to bear a grudge before telling us to love others like ourselves. The order of the verse may be teaching us that we first have to let go of our grudges and learn how to forgive others in order to truly fulfill the mitzvah, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
May Rachmana - the Loving One - help us to find the wisdom and the strength to forgive others, as through this act of forgiveness, we increase our capacity to love. In this spirit, I have attached some related teachings which are especially appropriate for this season.

May we be blessed with a year of love, unity, and shalom.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his classical work on the Torah's mitzvos, "Horeb," discusses the mitzvah, "You shall not bear a grudge," and the following is an excerpt from his comments:
"Leave no room in your memory for wrong or insult which you may have suffered, even though you may not have desired to act in that spirit immediately. Quickly replace in your heart the love which your brother may have frightened away from it. However, he may have behaved towards you, retain for him the love which God requires of you for His child, and which you owe to your brother...Be easily appeased as soon as your brother asks for forgiveness and desires to be reconciled. He who soon forgives is soon forgiven. If you are really good, if humility is one of your qualities, you will forget hurt and insults without pardon being asked of you; like the well-known chasid, you will never lie down to sleep without being reconciled with the whole world, all of which God covers with the wings of His peace. Your forgiveness must be real and complete, so that no trace of rancour remains in you. It must be a genuine restoration of the old brotherly love; what has happened must be really obliterated. Do not deceive yourself. It is so easy not to perform this duty. If left to itself, the mind long remembers insults and injuries, even after forgiveness has been asked, even after reparation has been made; it goes on saying: 'How could a person behave to me so? We can never be the same friends again.' And so a feud goes on for generations, separating those whom God would wish to see united. Not so, you, Israelite! Your God requires you to forget, therefore forget. Practice this duty; start early and it will come easy to you; it is never difficult if you have humility." (Horeb, chapter 18)

2. The Chafetz Chaim writes that, before retiring for the evening, it is proper for one to forgive those who have wronged him. (Mishnah Berurah 239:1:9). Accordingly, many have a custom of saying a prayer before retiring which contains words of forgiveness for those who hurt them or harmed them in any way. The following is an excerpt from this prayer:
"Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me - whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration...May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer." (This prayer appears in the ArtScroll Siddur on page 288.)

3. There may be occasions when telling someone that you forgave him can actually be harmful. For example, you know a person who keeps stealing from you and others. He then asks you for forgiveness without returning what he stole. He wants your forgiveness in order to feel good, but he is not yet willing to make amends. If you openly forgive him before he makes amends, you may be encouraging his addiction to stealing. In your heart you may have already forgiven him, but before you verbalize this forgiveness, ask him to first return what he stole! In this way, you will be helping him to do teshuva - to return to the Creator by improving his ways. In general, we should not openly forgive people when their repentance is not sincere, for our words of forgiveness may only encourage them to keep hurting others. Forgiving others is a noble trait, but only when it increases love and shalom in the world.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision: