Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

God of Pardons Hear My Prayer…

September 2017

The number 3 is encountered frequently in our Jewish traditions. Some examples, by no means exhaustive, are: the Biblical patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob); the Jewish Trinity (God, Torah, & Israel); the divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures (Torah, Nevi’im, & Ketuvim); & the major festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, & Sukkoth). This time of year affords us many more examples of 3s to ponder.

The upcoming High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, offer their own rich selection of 3s. For instance, the 3 major days themselves. (Yes, Rosh Hashanah is a 2 day observance!) On these days, we encounter the 3 sections of scriptural verses corresponding to the sounding of the shofar: Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, & Shofrot, as well as the prescription for salvation: teshuvah, tefilah, & tzedakah, repentance, prayer, & righteousness. There are many others, & the liturgically astute might have some fun finding them.

One set of liturgical triplets is found in the confessional, Al Het Shechatanu, For the Sin We Have Sinned. Several times we chant, “For all of them, O God of Pardons, pardon us, forgive us, redeem us.” The 3 verbs in this verse are somewhat synonymous & the verse can be translated in a number of ways, all of which convey the same general idea. The last of these, kahpair in Hebrew, is the root of (Yom) Kippur. Thus, we might think of Yom Kippur as a Day of Redemption rather than a Day of Atonement. This is not so far fetched; ideally we should have been atoning since the beginning of Elul, 40 days earlier. Yom Kippur is the conclusion of this process which, optimistically, should end in redemption.

One way to understand this progression of 3s is to regard it as an escalating evolution of a concept. Pardon does not absolve guilt, one who grants pardon may still consider the person guilty but is willing to forego any sort of punishment or retribution. There is no requirement for the pardoning agency even to have a relationship with the one being pardoned. Turning this concept around, the guilty party who asks for pardon ideally admits culpability & expresses regret for the action on some level. However, an admission of culpability or an expression of regret is not required. The concept of pardon can be as profound as a presidential pardon or a stay of execution, or it can be as superficial as expressing regret over sneezing in one’s presence.

Like pardon, forgiveness also does not absolve the sin. However, forgiving the sinner is stronger than merely granting pardon for the sin. Forgiveness wipes the slate clean & gives the offender a 2nd chance. Whereas a pardon is a remission of punishment & release from penalty, forgiveness is a cessation of resentment or any need for revenge against the offender. Unlike pardon, forgiveness begins to renormalize a broken relationship between the offender & the offended. Turning this concept around, one who seeks forgiveness does not merely express regret, but something much stronger - remorse. The penitent sinner is truly sorry the that the sin evoked such strong emotions on the part of the forgiving agency. The sinner is bothered by the sinful actions, or in many cases, the response they invoked - not so much because of the consequent punishment, but due to a perceived moral failure in committing the sin or genuine remorse for the consequences.

Kapparah, when translated as “atonement,” ups the ante even further. One who atones cannot live with the consequence of their sin. Such a feeling goes beyond remorse & becomes unbearable guilt. Thus, one who grants atonement, is one who shows extreme hesed, lovingkindness, in the sense of granting that which the sinner may not believe himself or herself worthy to receive. In this sense, turning the concept around, one who grants kapparah redeems the soul of the sinner.

A major liturgical theme of Yom Kippur, actually the entire penitential season, is the granting of pardon, forgiveness, & redemption - even though we may not merit such beneficence. Regarding redemption, then, as the most complete healing of a broken relationship that we can achieve, we begin to understand the full import of this penitential season. Throughout the month of Elul & the 1st half of Tishre, in an escalating fashion, we must convince ourselves that despite our lack of merit, we may, in fact, ask for forgiveness, be it from the Divine or from those we have hurt. That is to say we grant ourselves pardon & ask others to do the same for us. However, self pardon can only come about with introspection & soul searching, what we might call teshuvah, or repentance.

Once pardoned, we may ask forgiveness for our deeds. As with pardon, this request is made both to Divine & human agency. This is tephillah, or prayer. We pray that those we have hurt, God & human, forgive us our past deeds. And, finally, kapparah, redemption, we seek to heal completely the relationship which is broken. The month of Elul is the time for selichah or pardon. This is followed by Rosh Hashanah, the time for mechilah or forgiveness which, in turn, is followed by Yom Kippur, the time for kapparah or redemption.

A final caveat: What we are willing to ask, we ought to be willing to grant. Just as we petition God & human to grant us pardon, forgiveness, & redemption, we must be willing to grant it to those who seek it from us. We see, then, that the request we make in the confessional, Al Het Shehatanu - selach lanu, mechal lanu, kappair lanu, that God pardon us, forgive us, redeem us, is an overt reminder to ourselves that we must do the same for ourselves & for others. Moreover, when we claim that uteshuvah, utiphillah, utzedakah, repentance, prayer, & righteousness can bring about redemption, we are implicitly invoking God’s blessings as well as asserting what our actions ought to be.

In that spirit, then, to all those I have wronged, to those I have hurt, I humbly beg your pardon. I formally ask you to forgive me, I pray that you grant me redemption. To those who feel the need to make these requests of me, they are already granted. You are pardoned, you are forgiven, I will pray for your Divine redemption as well as my own. And, I wish for each & every one of you, a shannah tovah umetukah, a good & sweet new year.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman