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#Thoughts4YomKippur from Rabbi Sacks - Forgiveness / God's Faith In Us
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Leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rabbi Sacks has written a series of short thoughts to help focus our minds on the challenges and opportunities of this special time in the Jewish calendar. This is the third of three emails that have been sent out in the past weeks. To read his other pieces, please click here. You can also listen to each piece as they are released by subscribing to Rabbi Sacks' iTunes podcast here. Wishing you all a g'mar v'chatimah tovah.

Forgiveness

I don’t know whether you ever noticed, but teshuvah, the whole cycle of repentance and forgiveness, plays no part in the early dramas of humankind. It doesn’t in the story of Adam and Eve. As for Cain, God mitigates his punishment but he doesn’t forgive him for his crime. There is no call to repentance to the generation of the Flood, or the builders of Babel, or the people of Sodom and the cities of the plain.

The first time God forgives is after the sin of the golden calf. He hears Moses prayer and agrees. “Although this is a stiff-necked people,” he said, “forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” And God did. Moses pleaded again after the sin of the spies: “Forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.” And God replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked.”

Why the change? Why does God forgive in the book of Exodus but not in the book of Genesis? The answer, I think, is extraordinary and it made a huge difference to me when I realised it.

The first recorded instance of forgiveness in all of literature is the moment when Joseph, by then viceroy of Egypt, revealed his identity to his brothers, who had long before sold him as a slave. He forgives them. He says, it wasn’t you, it was God. He said: “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” And it wasn’t only then that Joseph forgave them. After their father Jacob had died, the brothers were anxious that now Joseph would take revenge. Once again Joseph forgave. And on that note the book of Genesis ends.

God did not forgive human beings until human beings learned to forgive. It took Joseph to bring forgiveness into the world. That is what God was waiting for. Had God forgiven first, He would have made the human situation worse, not better. People would have said, ‘Why shouldn’t I harm others? After all, God forgives.’ We have to forgive others before God can forgive us.

So, before Yom Kippur, take time to apologise to others you may have offended. Forgive others who have offended you. Resentment is a heavy load to bear. Let go of it and you will travel more lightly.  Now is the time to heal the wounds of the past. Then you will have more energy for the future.

God's Faith In Us

Professor Reuven Feuerstein who died aged 92 in April 2014 was one of the great child psychologists of the world, a man who transformed lives and led severely brain-damaged children to achievements no one else thought possible. I knew him and admired him, and I was recording a tribute to him when his son told me a wonderful story.

Feuerstein had been working with a group of Native American Indians and they wanted to show their gratitude. So they invited him and his wife to their reservation. They were brought into the Indian chief’s wigwam where the leaders of the tribe were sitting in a circle in full headdress.

As the traditional welcome ceremony began, the professor, an orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, was overwhelmed by the incongruity. He turned to his wife and said to her in Yiddish, “What would my mother say if she could see me now?!” To his amazement, the Indian chief turned to him and replied in Yiddish: “And what would she say if she knew I understood what you just said!”

The Yiddish-speaking Indian chief told Feuerstein his story. He had grown up in Europe as a religious Jew, but having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, he decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life as far away as he could from Western civilization, so he joined the Indians and became their doctor. Feuerstein was the first Jew he had met in his self-imposed exile.

There are certain people around whom strange things happen and Reuven Feuerstein was one. Born in Romania, he studied psychology in Bucharest, but was forced to flee by the Nazi invasion. He settled in Israel after the war, and began by treating traumatised child survivors of the holocaust. Returning to Europe he completed his education at Geneva and the Sorbonne. Later he returned to Israel where he established the Institute for the Enhancement of Learning Potential.

He dedicated his life to children with disadvantages, some physical – autistic, brain-damaged and Down Syndrome children – and others cultural or social. His methods have been adopted in more than 80 countries. He was a genius, a magician, a small, slight man with twinkling eyes. Children opened up to him like flowers in the sun.

I tell his story because he was a deeply spiritual Jew. His methods were elaborate and his theories complex, but seeing him at work you knew that there were three reasons he achieved miracles. First, the basis of his work was love. He loved the children and they loved him. Second, he had transformative faith. Under him children developed skills no one thought they could because he believed they could. He had more faith in them than anyone else.

Third, he refused to write anyone off. He insisted that children with disabilities should be included in society like every other child. They too were in the image of God. They too had a right to respect. They too could lead a full and meaningful life.

I learned from Professor Feuerstein that faith really does change lives. The one thing that can rescue us from despair and failure to fulfil our potential is the knowledge that someone believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.

That is what God does. He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. However many times we fail, He forgives us. However many times we fall, He lifts us. And He never gives up. As we say in Le-David Hashem ori ve-yishi: “My father and mother might abandon me but God will gather me in.” (Psalm 27: 10).

At the heart of Judaism is one utterly transformative belief: our faith in God’s faith in us. That, as Reuven Feuerstein, showed can lead us to a greatness we never knew we had.

In 2009 and 2011, Rabbi Sacks published 'Letters to the Next Generation: Reflections on Yom Kippur' and 'Letters to the Next Generation 2: Reflections on Jewish Life'. Both booklets are aimed at helping the reader to answer some of the questions we as Jews reflect on during Yom Kippur: how we have lived in the past year and how we will live in the year to come. These booklets can be downloaded at no cost using the links below.
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