I’m still relatively new to this community, and there’s still a lot about me that most of you don’t know. But you must know by now that the center of my life are my eight – at last count – grandchildren. Those of you who were here at my installation in August met the two little gems of the Los Angeles branch of the Cohen family – the other six are in Denver. My oldest turned eight in March, and had others warned me, nine years ago, of the feelings of wonder, overwhelming love and a sense of the miraculous I would feel when I held my first grandchild, I would have dismissed them. Me? Silly Old Grandmother with Pictures in Purse? Hardly.
You won’t be surprised when I tell you that I’m shameless. I’ve ceased stopping strangers and flashing my pictures at them, asking them to be honest - have they ever seen such beautiful children? But Fay will tell you that I schlepped my laptop to her desk a couple of weeks ago to show her the picture of the Denver Cohens on my wallpaper. Still shameless.
One of the amazing parts of bubby-hood is the pleasure that can be derived just from watching my little ones blossom. I spent my hours as a young mother running after my own children, and while I know there were moments when I just watched them sleep and wondered at their perfection, I can enjoy far more of those moments watching my little ones explore their world, scamper around the house, and investigate the mysteries of hidden things - boxes, bags, packages, purses. And while the task of exploring containers has now fallen to the boys in the family, I’d like to share with you an incident that happened when my oldest was barely a year old.
Aria has always been an inquisitive little girl. I remember watching her standing at her uncle Scott’s coffee table that Passover, examining each of the pieces in his chess set. While we decided to wait a bit before starting her in on the rudiments of the game, we watched to see what she would do with the pieces. She picked each one up in turn, examined it carefully, and then when she was done, she lowered her hand and tossed it off behind her onto the floor. Then, on to the next piece, that would be examined and tossed behind her to join the first one. Her indulgent uncle watched her with a smile. The carpet was soft and she wasn’t far enough off the floor to do them any damage.
At the risk of sounding like Robert Fulghum, everything we need to know about life we can learn from a toddler.
Very little children have a great deal to learn. Their worlds are so wide, there is so much to experience, that they grasp onto each new discovery, but then set it aside when they are satisfied. They don’t cling to very much. A blanket for sleep, a well-worn stuffed animal or doll...very little becomes irreplaceable to a toddler. If they know they are loved, they feel secure taking on, then discarding, each new experience.
We forget that skill as we grow. We forget what it means to let go, to move on. We cling to things and to experiences long after they can help us.
At this time of year, we are taught that we cannot stand before God on Yom Kippur to seek forgiveness from God if we have failed to seek forgiveness from one another. So it’s not too early to begin thinking today about the forgiveness we need to seek, and also the forgiveness we may be asked to give.
Certainly, there are problems inherent in the t’shuvah process. Recognizing we’ve done something wrong is only half the challenge. While there are those who will always blame someone else or otherwise refuse to take responsibility for their behavior, most of us, deep in our hearts, know when we’ve wronged another person. We think about the words we spoke impulsively, or the words we should have spoken but didn’t. We think about the things we did, or neglected to do. And we are truly sorry. Recognizing the wrong isn’t the problem. The problem is admitting our failing to the person we’ve wronged. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of humility to approach another and say, “I realize I’ve done this or not done that, and I am truly sorry.”
Once a friend or family member has acknowledged the error of their ways, we have an obligation - an obligation – to accept that apology. We are not permitted to hold a grudge. Like a toddler inspecting a knight or a bishop, we are meant to pick up the anger and the hurt and set it aside in the place forgotten toys go.
Of course, all this presumes that our friend or family member not only has the courage to confront their behavior but also acknowledges it to us. Suppose that person is, shall we say, clueless. Suppose the hurt was a sin of omission, or a word carelessly spoken but nonetheless hurtful. Our friend doesn’t know. Our brother or cousin or uncle doesn’t realize. What then?
Some years ago, someone asked me whether a wronged person should call the person who hurt them. My first reaction was to say no, but later I remembered an incident from many years ago.
I had a friend who had hurt me deeply. My friend’s life had become very complicated, and somehow I got lost in the shuffle. It happens. But my friend’s family was relocating to another part of the country, and as the day for the move neared, I realized that we would probably never see one another again, and the last memory I would have would be of great pain. I was angry and I was hurt. But we had both invested a great deal in the friendship, and it felt very funny that our last encounter would have been one so fraught with pain. What to do?
I could have carried that pain around with me. Maybe at some point it would have eased. Time does that. But then I considered the situation from another perspective. I stepped back from the hurt and thought about my place in the tradition. What does it mean to be created in God’s image? What does it mean to be God-like? If we turn to God every year, actually, every day, and say, “We have sinned, please forgive us,” who was I to turn my back on someone who had hurt me?
I called my friend. I pointed out that we would soon be separated by many miles, and as things stood, there was anger and hurt between us and that felt very bad. We needed to talk. And we did. We met and talked for some time before saying farewell. And while we have lost the immediacy we once enjoyed, I have been able to move on without the anger and hurt and pain I might have carried with me all these years. I let them go.
So what should I have told my congregant all those years ago? Yes, we should call the person who has hurt us. Tell them we need to talk. Then tell them they have caused us pain, and watch the ball bounce back into their court. The alternative? We continue to cling to pain, clutching it, dragging it with us, and refusing to put it down.
Then there’s an even more difficult situation. Let’s suppose we can’t speak to the person. Perhaps the person who hurt us has died or otherwise cut off relations with us. Or perhaps we do tell the person they have hurt us, and they simply don’t care. Or claim it’s not really their fault. The pain is compounded and continues to grow.
Let me share the words of that eminent theologian, Dr. Phil, who writes in Life Strategies: “People who carry around the burden of anger invariably say they do so because they could never get emotional closure on the treatment they got at the hands of that other person. They tell me that they hold on to the emotion (anger, disappointment, revenge) because the person who did this to them is not sorry, and may not even admit or understand that he or she has done such terrible things. ‘I can’t forgive, because they aren’t sorry and they don’t deserve or even want my forgiveness.’ If that’s the standard, there are many people in this world who, clearly, will never be entitled to forgiveness.
“Ultimately, and this may be extremely difficult for you to accept, forgiveness of those who have transgressed against you, or those you love, is not about them. It is about you. Forgiveness is about doing whatever it takes to preserve the power to create your own emotional state. It is about being able to say, ‘You cannot hurt me and then control me, even in your absence, by turning my heart cold and changing who I am and what I value. I am the one who makes those choices. You cannot choose for me how I feel, and I will not give you that power.’”
Put another way, my colleague Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of preaching just this kind of sermon one Rosh Hashanah, urging people to forgive those who have hurt them. Did he really mean forgive? Did he mean we should say that what was done to us was OK, understandable, forgivable? Of course not. What he meant was to put the hurt behind us. In the sense of forgiving a loan, we set the debt aside and move on. The story goes that after the sermon, a congregant came to him, furious. She had gone through a particularly difficult divorce some 10 years earlier. The rabbi knew how difficult things had been for her. She demanded to know how she could possibly forgive her former husband for all he had done to her. “You missed my point,” Rabbi Kushner told his congregant. ”It’s been 10 years. Your husband has moved on. He doesn’t even live in the same state. He has a new life. You’re holding onto your anger like a hot coal, and all you have to show for the past 10 years is a burnt hand.”
Then there is the story of Cheree Johnson. She’s a woman who was infected with HIV by her husband and undoubtedly had so many kinds of angry in her heart. But how did she resolve her anger? “Forgiveness is letting go of all hopes of ever changing the past.” No burnt hand. No pain locked in her heart. The past will not change, but how we expend our energy, in anger or in surviving, is our choice.
How many of us are holding on to anger or hurt or deep pain? How many of us have vowed never to forgive? And who is being punished?
There is an even more troubling aspect to our inability to forgive others. How can we stand before the throne of heaven and ask forgiveness for all we have done or failed to do in the year just passed if we are unable to forgive others? I have often told my children, when they become frustrated by the behavior of others, that the only person whose behavior we can control is our own. And the corollary is that the only contrition we are responsible for is our own.
It’s about letting go, putting away the hurt, the anger, the feelings which have ironically become too familiar to dispel. Perhaps the metaphor should be not the setting aside of toys but the cleaning out of a closet. Take the clothes that are only taking up space, pack them up, and send them on, to the trash or the recycle bins. Take the anger and the pain and send it on, put it in a box and throw it away.
Has someone called to ask your forgiveness? Has someone refused to acknowledge their culpability? Has someone left your life with unresolved issues? What would God expect of you? Would God expect you to be less forgiving than God?
We are often told that children are closer to God. Perhaps in their ability to pick up new things, examine them, and then set them aside, children mimic the God-like ability to examine the human heart, recognize the flaws, then focus on the potential for good.
What are you holding on to? Isn’t it time to let it fall onto the carpet?