We need not be defined by the choices of our past. Nor must we see our loved ones as permanently flawed, doomed to replay the worst parts of themselves again and again.
The ability to grant forgiveness, and the ability to seek it…that is what so many of us are in search of.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “In a world without forgiveness, evil begets evil, harm generates harm, and there is no way short of exhaustion or forgetfulness of breaking the sequence. Forgiveness breaks the chain.”
For Rabbi Sacks, the potency of forgiveness is its ability to plant seeds for a better future.
The great 20th century French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas saw it differently. Seeking and granting forgiveness are not just acts pointed toward the future. Forgiveness can also take us back in time to the past. Thus Levinas wrote: “forgiveness acts upon the past, somehow repeats the event[s of the past], and in doing so, [purifies them].”
That elusive task of purification…of taking the most shattered moments of our lives and transforming them…that is what we are going to focus on for the next few minutes this morning.
We’re going to reflect on forgiveness this morning by looking at poetry.
On the handout which I hope you picked up as you entered, you’ll find two poems.
One is “Poplar Street” by Chinese American poet Chen Chen. Chen reflects on the painful rift in his relationship with his mother, who rejected him after he came out as gay to her. Can he ever forgive her for the hurt she caused him?
You’ll also find “A Poem for S.” by Jewish American poet Jessica Greenbaum. Greenbaum’s poem is more opaque. She uses the Jewish liturgical form of an acrostic to probe the mystical power of the letters of the alphabet in seeking forgiveness. And, she reflects on our machzor’s disconcerting assertion that there is a connection between the choices we make, and our status in the Book of Life in the year ahead.
These two poems are a study in contrasts. One written by a man, one by a woman. One by a non-Jew, one by a Jew. One preoccupied with his own brokenness, and another preoccupied by that of others. But the difference between these two texts that I’d like to highlight concerns a sort of methodological question about seeking and offering forgiveness.
For Greenbaum, forgiveness is an act perfectly suited to solitude. Thus the central moment in her poem is when she writes:
Do you know that in one treasured story, a
Jewish ancestor, [on] horseback in the woods at Yom
Kippur, and stranded without a prayer book,
Looked into the darkness and realized he had
Merely to name the alphabet to ask forgiveness--
No congregation of figures needed, he could speak
One letter at a time because all of creation
Proceeded from those.
“No congregation of figures” is needed for Greenbaum. All we need in order to forgive is a little bit of peace and quiet. The opportunity to be alone with our soul-breath, meditating intentionally on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet “because all of creation proceeded from those.”
Chen’s poem suggests the opposite. As the narrator urgently seeks out a sense of connection with others, the poet writes: “I’m trying out this thing where questions about love & forgiveness are a form of work I’d rather not do alone.”
Two poems. Two choices, now calling out to each of you.
We’re going to pause for about 10 minutes, so we can study forgiveness together.
My hope is that you’ll have the chance to work your way through one of the poems. Take the other home with you, and give thought to it there.
Ultimately, I hope you’ll resonate with Chen Chen’s suggestion - that there is something powerful about doing this holy work together. If you’re comfortable, gather with a few of the folks that are sitting near you. Introduce yourselves. Choose one of the poems to read out loud, and then engage in a few of the discussion questions that follow.