When we think of Yom Kippur, a few buzzwords might come to mind – sins, atonement, Book of Life, forgiveness – and the list goes on. I’ve always been a bit sceptical as to whether these often impersonal, widely broadcasted ‘apologies’ are sufficient to satisfy the halachic bar of repentance that we need to meet in order to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. To me, the gravity of the day seemed incongruous with such messages, even the ones that are more heartfelt. So, am I right or am I just a bit judgemental?
In Hebrew there are three words for forgiveness, and each offers us something unique about what this process really entails. The first word, mechila has the root machal which means “remitting a debt.” This is probably the idea of forgiveness we most associate Yom Kippur with – approaching our friends and family and asking for forgiveness for actions we may have done that hurt them. On most commentaries and analysis, mechila is a practical and almost legalistic version of forgiveness – it can be dry and largely unemotional, a heartfelt apology is not needed. A simple, polite apology, even pro forma ones such as those Facebook posts and broadcast messages essentially ‘pays the debt’ we owe the other person. The second word, selicha is a more involved version of forgiveness. Sharing a root with the word chasal, meaning “to finish”, selicha entails the decision to move on from the hurt and pain someone has caused us or that we have caused. The process of selicha requires us to grapple with ourselves and with others in order to emerge stronger and better than before, despite the hurt we suffered or caused. Finally, kapara, meaning ‘atonement’ is found in the name of the day itself and represents a clean slate. Kapara can only be granted by G-d, once we have done the work on to achieve forgiveness in our relationships with others.
So, it seems the forgiveness we are meant to seek in the lead up to Yom Kippur is multi-faceted. Rather than think of forgiveness as a box we need to tick off as the Jewish year comes to an end, the different meanings reveal the power of forgiveness to allow us to begin the new year without the mistakes and pain of our past. So whilst your Facebook post might tick that box, perhaps we should take this Yom Kippur, one where so many of us will be facing challenging circumstances, away from our communities, to forgive with intention, to consciously strive to repair the damage you may have done in 5781 and move into a 5782 unburdened and able to fulfil your fullest potential.