These were the days before Yom Kippur. I was lonely and couldn't figure out why. The loneliness had been there for months.
Things were good with my wife and kids. I'd been on the phone with my sisters and in close contact with my friends.
So, what was the source of this loneliness?
I was missing G‑d.
I was and had been feeling distant from Him. A strange feeling for me. Even in my late teens I had been able to connect with Him when I needed to. He always answers my calls. Sometimes I don't even need to call. I just feel his companionship as I journey through life.
We share the same disease, so we never have to worry about boring each other
But these last months had been lonely. I had been separate from Him, unable even to call out. And I didn't know why.
Just before Yom Kippur, I received an e-mail from a friend. He's not a religious Jew, though we discourse often about G‑d and Torah. He's a writer and has a way with words. We also share the same disease, and talk much about our symptoms, history, fears, treatments and aches. There's a special something that happens with people who share the same disease. We never have to worry about boring each other. All our concerns and obsessions about the daily changes in our health or symptoms, our latest internet discoveries about new cures and clinical trials may bore others, but are continuously fascinating to us.
At the end of this email my friend wrote: "Jay, this Yom Kippur, I don't think you should go to shul and ask G‑d for forgiveness. This Yom Kippur you should stay home and G‑d should come crawling on His knees and beg you to forgive Him for what He's done to you."
When I read these lines I laughed. My friend is a sacrilegious provocateur. He believed what he said, but he mainly wrote those words to shock me. I filed his words, but paid them little attention.
As Yom Kippur drew close, I continued to wonder what was taking place between G‑d and me. I worried that this day of prayer and fasting would be void of the usual connection that Yom Kippur brings.
And then in a flash I realized that I was angry at G‑d. And had been for some time. I was angry about my disease and I was angry that I was not yet healed. I was angry about my pain. And I was angry at the disruption to my life, the fear, the worry and anxiety that my disease was causing my family and those who loved and cared about me. I was angry about the whole thing, and He, being the boss of everything that happens in the world, was responsible and to blame.
And so, I entered Yom Kippur angry at G‑d.
I put on my kittel and my tallit and I went to shul. I had received permission from my doctors and rabbi to fast. I beat my chest and listed my sins. I asked forgiveness. And yet, no matter how long the list of sins was, no matter how much I sought forgiveness, I could not find any act so heinous as to deserve the punishment that I felt was being inflicted upon me.
I prayed for G‑d's forgiveness, and in my prayer book I read the words that promised His forgiveness. He would forgive me, I read, because that was His nature. He is a forgiver. He loves me. He wants me to be close to Him. And so He forgives me not for any reason, not because I deserve it, but simply because that is who He is. He is merciful and forgives and wipes the slate clean so that we -- He and I -- can be close again for the coming year.
I read these words, nice words, yet my anger remained.
Then I again remembered the email. In his cynicism, my friend had hit the mark: I needed to forgive G‑d. I needed to rid myself of my anger and blame for the sickness He had given me. I needed to wipe the slate clean so that He and I could be close once again.
I realized that I was angry at G‑d
But how? On what basis should I forgive Him? If He was human, I could forgive Him for His imperfections, His fallibility, His pettiness, His upbringing, His fragility and vulnerability. I could try to put myself in His shoes, to understand His position. But He is G‑d, perfect and complete! Acting with wisdom and intention. How could I forgive Him?!
As I continued my prayers throughout the day, with my anger and inability to forgive foremost in my mind, the words in my prayer book began to transform from pleas for forgiveness to instructions on how to forgive. Could it be that on this Yom Kippur, G‑d was teaching me how to forgive Him? Were these words lessons on forgiveness from the Master of Forgiveness?
The instructions seemed clear: Forgive for the sake of forgiveness. Forgive not because there is a reason that you understand (for you may never understand My ways) nor because I deserve it (for the ways that I manifest are often terrible and frightening). Forgive solely out of love, so we can be close once again. Forgive because you, created in My image, are also a forgiver. I created you with that capacity so that always, no matter what happens in your life, you and I can be close, so that you and whomever you love, despite what transpires between you, can always reunite and begin again, clean and pure, ready for a new start.
The message and instructions were there and I began to hear through the prayers G‑d speaking to me, reaching out for reconciliation, waiting for my forgiveness, providing instruction on how to forgive Him.
Again I remembered my friend's provocative e-mail. No, G‑d was not crawling. But was He begging? Was He beseeching me for forgiveness and reconciliation? Was our unity more important to Him than any sin I had committed against Him or any pain He had inflicted upon me?
Still, I could not do it. Even seeing the extent to which He was reaching out to me, I was incapable of forgiveness. Though I wanted to forgive, on this day of truth, I saw that I could not. What He had done to me remained too terrible, too intentional to forgive.
As the closing Ne'ilah prayer approached, I was in despair. It all seemed hopeless. When I presented my case before my invisible set of internal of judges I carry with me, I was judged right, He guilty. He deserved my distance and rejection and I would stubbornly and righteously continue it.
As the sun began to set I felt completely alone. The loneliness was intolerable.
The feeling reminded me of times when I argue with my wife. We fight about some injustice or hurt that has occurred. I present my case before my internal judges and I am proven right. I withdraw in righteousness, punish her with rejection and distance. Sometimes it will last a few hours, sometimes a couple of days. But finally, the loneliness sets in. The distance becomes unbearable. The withdrawal demands an end. My desire for reconciliation and reunification overpowers any need to be right or to punish. And so, without needing to even speak about what it was we were fighting about, eventually we forgive each other so that we can be together again, loving again, carrying on our lives and relationship and family in good will and with a fresh start. We don't forgive because of any reason, nor out of our acceptance of each other's human pettiness or frailty or imperfection. We forgive simply from the desire to love and reunite. Simply so we can be together again. So that things will be the way they should.
We forgive simply from the desire to love and reunite
And in the last minutes of Yom Kippur, out of my unbearable loneliness and separation from G‑d, I found my ability to forgive. I forgave simply so that we -- G‑d and I -- could be close again. So that we would return to the unity that is meant to be between us. Out my love for Him, my need of Him, my inability to carry on without Him I found the capacity somewhere in me. I reached out to Him in forgiveness and in that moment the pain and blame began to recede.
For me, Yom Kippur has not ended. This forgiveness business is not so easy as to be learned and actualized in a day. My anger and resentment, frustration and intolerance still flare, still cause damage. On my bad days it is hard for me to accept all that is happening, changing, challenging my life. But some new dynamic has entered the process. A softening. An acceptance. A letting go. A…. forgiveness.
For, you see, the last thing I want during the fragility of this time in my life is to be separate from G‑d or from those whom I love or from the rising sun or a star-filled night.
I don't want anger and blame to ruin any moment of my life nor rend me from the unity with which G‑d has created the world and that only I have the power to destroy.
Thankfully, G‑d has provided me with the capacity to forgive and, now, in these days since Yom Kippur, he has provided me with the opportunity to reveal that forgiveness. He knows that both He and I, and all those that He and I love, will eventually, continuously do unforgivable things to each other. And despite the pain we will cause each other, we will need to forgive each other.
To not forgive would be an unbearable breach of the unity of creation.