December 19, 2018

The Sins God Can’t Forgive

If Harvey Weinstein went to synagogue on Yom Kippur hoping God would forgive him for his hideous sins against women, he’d be out of luck. Sorry, pal. God may be all-powerful, but he’s not powerful enough to forgive us for the hurt we inflict on others — whether it’s a horrible sexual assault or a hurtful comment.

This is not a new idea. I’m guessing most of us already know that if we hurt someone, the only one who can forgive us is the person we aggrieved. God can’t do it for us.

Still, it does feel awkward to acknowledge a limit to God’s power. After all, this is the Creator of the world, the almighty God of miracles who redeemed us from slavery and gave us the Torah at Sinai. How can there be any limit to this limitless divine power?

I brought this up when I spoke at Kol Nidre at the Beverly Hills Community Synagogue, and it stirred some discomfort. If we hadn’t yet received forgiveness from anyone we may have hurt this year, I said, all those appeals to God in the Yom Kippur prayer book wouldn’t be of much help.

For 25 hours on this holiest of days, I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind. It was as if God was telling me: “If you sinned against your parents, your siblings, your children, your friends, your colleagues or anyone else this year, please don’t come to me. I can’t forgive you, David. You’re on your own.”

“Learning how to stay humble when we’re sure we’re completely right is a difficult and holy act— one that I’m still working on.”

I felt alone with a God who was sending me to a place other than where I was. I kept thinking throughout the day of the people I may have offended this year, and I felt guilty that I hadn’t taken care of all that before entering Yom Kippur. From the reaction I received to my talk, I don’t think I was the only one.

As the day wore on, though, my guilt was replaced by gratitude. I realized more than ever the genius of the idea: God takes human relationships so seriously that he nullifies himself to help us work on them. How blessed we are, I thought, to be part of a tradition that doesn’t let us off the hook when we hurt one another; a tradition that compels us to repair our relationships without leaning on our Creator.

But what damages our relationships in the first place? As I mentioned in my talk, a big part is our obsession with “being right.” That certainty can blind us to hurtful language. If the price of being right is to hurt others, isn’t that too high a price?

I spoke about “being right” versus “doing right.” If my kid makes a mistake and I’m consumed with being right, I’m more likely to respond with anger. If my kid makes a mistake and I’m thinking of doing right, I’m more likely to respond with kindness.

Being right feeds our egos; doing right feeds our souls.

So many of us have “been right” this year about so many things. The chaos of our politics and the breakdown of decency and democratic norms have triggered enormous anger and emotion. I’ve seen how some of that anger has infiltrated relationships. When I asked a large audience on Yom Kippur, “How many of you have had nasty arguments this year over politics?” most hands shot up. What made those arguments so nasty? Maybe each side was sure they were completely right.

“God takes human relationships so seriously that he nullifies himself to help us work on them.”

Learning how to stay humble when we’re sure we’re completely right is a difficult and holy act— one that I’m still working on. But if conveying even strong views with humility can reduce the amount of toxic and hurtful language in our community, it’s more than worth it. 

Hurtful language jeopardizes the most valuable asset we have— our relationships. As Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said in a holiday sermon, “When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid—double down on your relationships.  Cherish them.  Nurture them…Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart. Double down. Make things right with the people you love.”  

I can only thank God for giving us perhaps the most powerful lesson of our tradition: What counts more than anything for our Creator is how we treat one another. If you ask me, that may be God’s finest moment.