The divine dance of forgiveness

This weekend (September 4-5, 2015) traditionally brings the Selichot service of inner awareness and penitence in readiness for the High Holy Day journey of teshuvah (return, amends). There’s no more apt moment to spiritually reflect on the source of forgiveness.

The thing is, Jewish thought is spiritually schizophrenic about the source of forgiveness.

In 1711, an ironically named poet, Alexander Pope, wrote about forgiveness in an ironically titled “Essay on Criticism.” It’s to Pope’s prose that we trace the seemingly timeless words, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” In one subtle literary gesture, Pope bore the popular sense that God – maybe only God – can forgive. When we ourselves forgive, Pope implied, we emulate the forgiving quality that we attribute to God.

How Jewish was Pope’s poem – well, sort of. Atop Mount Sinai, after the physical and spiritual rubble of the Golden Calf betrayal that pretended a god of molten metal, God’s glory passed before Moses with words that Jews invoke during Selichot as the Thirteen Attributes of God (Ex. 34:6-7): “YHVH, YHVH, God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, fount of goodness and truth; keeping mercy to the thousandth generation; forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; and acquitting….” In this sense, Pope was right: holiness is the spiritual source of forgiveness. To forgive really is divine.

But forgiveness also is human. Long after the Golden Calf, we find our Israelite forebears too afraid to enter the Promised Land. Torah records God ready to obliterate the obstinate Israelites, only to find Moses tossing the Thirteen Attributes back in God’s face (Num. 14:18). Moses heard God’s reply:Salachti kid’varecha / “I forgave as you said” (Num. 14:20). In this sense, Pope was wrong: forgiveness is human, for God forgives because we ask.

images-1Liturgy takes both sides of this dance. Our Selichot liturgy of forgiveness invokes the Thirteen Attributes because to forgive is divine, but immediately after Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur evening – apotheosis of the Jewish year – we invoke Salachti kid’varecha / “I forgave as you said.” God forgives as Moses asked – and so we ask, and so we ourselves are the agents of the forgiveness we seek. In this sense, to forgive is divine because it is human. Forgiveness is a dance, and God is our partner.

Maybe we seek in God a transcendent resonance of forgiveness that seems possible only from a source far transcending ourselves. But Salachti kid’varecha reflects that God looks to us to start this dance of forgiveness. With loving mutuality, forgiveness is possible because we ask and give it, so then God asks and gives it. It might even be that God wants to forgive even more than we may have the courage to ask for it: “More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse” (B.T. Pesachim 112b).

At Selichot we have a willing dance partner. All we need do is ask.

Originally published at My Jewish Learning.

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