As the pages thin, on last year’s Book of Life, it’s time for introspection and self examination of our souls and our purpose on this earth. I love High Holiday season in the Holyland, more than Passover, Purim, and even Channukah. It’s my favorite time of year. The supermarket checkouts are landlocked with hurried shoppers, planning extravagant menus. Clothing and shoe stores compete for holiday sales with deals and reduced prices. The constant frenzy of festivity, in the still very hot summer air, can be felt from Eilat to The Golan. Eight days ago, Jews around the world lit candles and welcomed Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. We greeted each other with, L’shana Tova, Ketivah vi-chatima Tova, which means, For a good year, you should be written and sealed in the Book of Life. We prayed for forgiveness and we begged G-d to write us into The Book of Life for the coming New Year. On Yom Kippur, G‑d mercifully erases all the sins we committed against G-d. For on this day [Yom Kippur] He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before G‑d, you shall be cleansed from all your sins – Leviticus 16:30. Additionally, we specifically ask and (hopefully) receive forgiveness from anyone we may have hurt, insulted, or wronged during the previous year.
Many Jewish communities share the custom of performing Kapparot before Yom Kippur. The ritual involves waving a chicken over your head three times while reciting a passage. The chicken is then slaughtered and donated or its monetary worth is given to the poor. Perhaps if we show exceptional mercy on G-d’s creatures during Kapparot, G-d will show His mercy on us too. Watching from afar, I’ve seen my share of chicken-waving. Feathers flying is a sure symbol that Yom Kippur is coming. As someone who grew up with the feathered creatures as pets, I’ll stick to the alternate ritual of swinging coins over my head.
After my life-threatening diagnosis, The Book of Life, took on a new meaning for me. The timing of my diagnosis and beginning of my cancer journey was remarkable. Fighting for my life, not figuratively, is spiritually awakening. I decided that I want to be a kinder person and share and reflect the kindness that has been and is being shown to me. As Yom Kippur approaches, this Shabbat, The Book is forever closing on last year. We are handed a clean slate. What will be written on that slate is still open for discussion. That’s the situation for everyone; healthy or sick, each of us is given a fresh start. When I close my eyes and let my soul open to the rush of emotions, what emanates and emerges is love, faith, and forgiveness. In the past, during the process of asking for forgiveness, I might have found myself remembering moments when I felt hurt, cheated, or ignored. Old wounds from past relationships inevitably reopened; weepy and bloody. As an observant Jew, I know that we are commanded, by G-d, to forgive. In Leviticus 19:18, the holy Torah explicitly forbids us from taking revenge or bearing grudges. It also commands us, Do not hate your brother in your heart – Leviticus 19:17. In the past, pain from old or current relationships held me back. Did I need forgiveness from those who had hurt me? I’ve definitely caught myself holding onto negative emotions about myself and others and it can be extremely challenging to let go. Those left over negative influences were felt each time my fist beat against my chest, and I could feel them, physically and spiritually, reminders that my slate wasn’t completely clean. Possibly the greatest gift that cancer gave me was a renewed desire and ability for forgiveness. The unequivocal act of faith and love is being able to forgive myself and the other souls in my life regardless of who was at fault.
Most of our interactions are with people whose pain is private and hidden from us. I learned invaluable lessons during my weekly visits to the hospital. Week after week, forcing myself to show up for chemotherapy treatments, I had quiet access to raw life and death suffering. There are many ways that different people choose to behave and express their challenges along life’s journey. We notice the spirited and loud ones and sometimes ignore those who suffer in silence. So much pain and insight can lurk behind both smiling and scowling facades. I remember feeling especially sad and low on yet another miserable morning of waiting for blood tests and results before chemo. My husband and I had I secured the loneliest bed in the corner of the most distant room because I didn’t want to make small talk and I wanted to curl up into a ball and stop the world from spinning out of control… for just a few moments. We turned off the lights and enjoyed the silence. Mere moments after settling down in my peaceful corner, a very loud crowd joined me in my private room. A bald and strained woman took a bed, subsequently, her family went about turning on all the lights, speaking loudly on their cellphones and eating pungent aromatic food that left every one of my senses assaulted. What I felt in my heart was rage and self pity yet I gently asked them to turn off some of the lights, and make less noise. The lady reacted very angrily to me. She yelled at me and accused me of being an “elite Ashkenazi” and shamed me for thinking I had “protektzia” to take over the whole room! Verging on tears, I got up from my bed, walked right up to the miserable woman, grabbed her hand and I looked right into her watery eyes. Gazing at her face, I saw such wretched anguish and despair, my heart crumpled, and my rage left me. She squealed, “Aiy! Your hands are so cold! Just like mine!” I hugged the woman and told her that we both are having chemo and we’re both feeling the same pain and fear. I acknowledged her discomfort and her illness. Suddenly, her anger changed and she began blessing me and wishing me a full recovery! I felt relieved that the energy in the room had changed to peaceful! In that moment, I vowed never to react to a stranger with anger again. This complete stranger, who had moments ago cursed and offended me was now immediately forgiven and a painful weight was lifted from my shoulders.
Every New Year, well meaning people make resolutions about their health; exercise more, quit smoking, lose weight, eat healthier, whatever! Without health we have nothing. Good health includes the body however, without a healthy mind and soul, there is no foundation for the vessel which G-d gave us. Without grievances, we would never know what we truly want, or want to make better. Even negative emotions are an essential part of life. Pain, skepticism, sadness, and anger are priceless reminders and guidelines for deciding what we desire for ourselves and, in relationships with others. Our heart, mind, and body feel incredible stress when we carry grudges. Avoiding someone in the supermarket or screening phone calls adds to life’s daily stresses. Resisting or prolonging the process of forgiveness also perpetuates sadness and a stressful state which is detrimental to physical and spiritual health. I finally realized that holding on to anger or grudges, no matter how justifiable, keeps me from learning and growing beyond whatever it was that made me feel uncomfortable to begin with.
My prayer, for Yom Kippur, is that you forgive yourself! Completely and fully forgive yourself for the mistakes you made and acknowledge that, in being unkind, you were experiencing slivers of your soul that need healing. These forgivable chunks of yourself do not define who you are. The negative result of betrayal, sadness, and perhaps anger, was because someone else was incapable of meeting you where you needed them. They failed your expectations. The memory of betrayal is replayed in your heart, over and over again, until it generates a life of it’s own, growing out of control like a monster of childhood nightmares. Such intense pain makes forgiveness gargantuan and seemingly impossible. When I’m faced with that seeming nightmare of betrayal or pain, I identify what I want for myself and focus on it with all my might but as long as I repeatedly replay visions of emotional pain, and seek validation for how awful it was, I’m paralyzed. Moving forward is a choice. When resistance to forgive consequently ripens the fruit of forgiveness, it’s courageous and delectable! Forgiveness is the tiny miracle that makes it happen. That is one of the greatest gifts that G-d gave to humans; the ability to forgive just as He forgives us. I no longer wait for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. I try to forgive every single day. Each day that I forgive myself, it gives me such relief to embrace the feelings that brings me a peaceful mind, heart, and body. I give myself the gift of forgiveness every morning and evening and I hope that gift will be reciprocated by those who love me.
I would like to bless all of my friends at Hevria, with the gift of forgiveness and I wish every reader, every friend, every family member the gift of a clean slate filled with good health for the coming year! L’Refuah Shleimah l’kol Cholei Yisroel!
Shanah tova u’metuka! A good and sweet year to all!