Regardless of what month the secular calendar shows, religious traditions have their own ways of marking time. For example, for Christians, the new year actually begins sometime in late November/early December, with the first Sunday in Advent. For Jews, the new year actually begins today, with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Anyone who was not aware of the date was reminded in the pages of The New York Times by the myriad businesses—Tiffany’s, Macy’s, Bloomingdales—who offered wishes of “L’Shanah Tovah 5772.
Rosh Hashanah is the first of the high holy days in Judaism, and it begins the ten day period that culminates in Yom Kippur. During these ten days, the “Days of Awe” [the “Days of Repentance”], particular emphasis is given to reflecting back on one’s own conduct during the past year, and actively seeking forgiveness—both from God, and from those one has wronged or slighted. It is a solemn time to be sure, as one experiences the weight of one’s misdeeds, but at the same time, there is hope and optimism, as one looks forward with renewed commitment to one’s relationships—with God and with others—as the new year begins.
As I keep my Jewish brothers and sisters in prayer today, I have been reflecting on my own Lutheran practice of forgiveness, which I must confess sometimes feels like it lacks a little “teeth.” Don’t get me wrong: I cherish the “Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness” that begins the Sunday liturgy [and in my humble option should never be omitted!], that weekly invitation to come clean before God and receive the joyous words of absolution. However, sometimes I fear that this short interaction with God has become a quick-and-dirty shortcut for a more robust engagement with the difficult and humbling process of forgiveness-giving and receiving. It is of critical importance that we come before God and confess our sinfulness and the brokenness that characterizes our relationships with God, with one another and with creation. But at the same time, I think that confession calls us—indeed frees us—to incorporate the more challenging practice of seeking someone out, looking her in the eye, and saying “I’m sorry”: I’m sorry for what I said; I’m sorry for what I did; I’m sorry I gossiped about you; I’m sorry I yelled at you; I’m sorry I broke my promise to you. There are few things that are more necessary and more difficult in a relationship than being able to say “I’m sorry; please forgive me.” Asking for forgiveness makes us very vulnerable, as we are publicly acknowledging that we are not the people we are supposed to be, that we are not as good as we often think we are, and that we continually screw up, even when we know better. Who wants to do that?
It seems to me, then, that this powerful, intentional Rosh Hashanah practice of forgiveness is a gift the Jews can offer Christians, as it invites us to consider our own practice of forgiveness, perhaps expanding and enriching the ways in which we come before God and before others to say both “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.”