[Sermon] Forgiveness, Shedding the Load

Rabbi Yuval Keren
Erev Yom Kippur 2018/5779

Some of you know that over the last couple of years, I developed a fondness for walking. I gradually increased the range of my walks and I found them serene and therapeutic – most of the time. Wherever I go I always take a backpack with me. I spend time and effort in selecting the right backpack. It has to be strong as it needs to last many miles of my walking. It has to be comfortable and adjustable. It needs to be protected from the elements. It needs to have plenty of space and a good number of pockets and pouches. It needs to fit a change of clothes, food, water, a map, a phone so on. It also needs to be light – the lighter, the better.

I would like to tell you a mashal, about a trek. mashal is a story with a moral at the end of it.

This story is about a man; let us call him Johnny Walker, who was just as keen on trekking as I am, perhaps even more. Johnny Walker decided to go on a trek of a lifetime – a Coast-to-Coast walk from the Lake District to Robin Hood Bay in the North Yorkshire Moors. It was going to take him a couple of weeks, maybe less if he raced ahead. He purchased the lightest backpack he could find. He only took the bare minimum and he was sure he could find anything else he needed along the way.

Johnny Walker hopped on the train and travelled to the scenic St Bees Village in Cumbria. He began his march.

After a few minutes he was stopped by a man and the man asked him for his destination. “I am going to Robin Hood Bay!” He answered. “Wow, that’s a long way! Could you do me a favour and take this little pebble with you to the Bay? There you should toss it into the sea. It will bring you and me good luck!” “Sure”, he answers “it’s just a small stone after all”.

Johnny Walker put the stone in his backpack and continued walking. An hour later he was stopped by a woman, and she asked him for his destination. She gave him a small black stone and asked him to toss it into the North Sea. “It will bring good luck to you, and me…” He put the stone in his backpack and carried on light-hearted and light-footed. The same thing happened to him again and again. His backpack was becoming fuller and heavier every day. Still more and more people approached him and asked him to take stones. Some of the stones were small and light, some large and heavier, some smooth, some rough and pointy. But Johnny Walker is a nice man, and faithful to his mission and kept every stone he collected on his way and thought about his good luck.

After a few more days Johnny’s backpack felt heavy and uncomfortable. The stones poked through, damaged the backpack and hurt his back. His walking became slower and slower, and his whole body hurt. Jonny Walker had to stop. He was too ill and too tired. He would never reach his destination.

Johnny Walker is our mashal – the parabel.

What is the nishmal – the moral of the story?

Johnny’s journey is our own life journey.

The stones are the grudges we pick up along the way as we interact with other people – with our family, our friends, our work colleagues, and our enemies.

When someone hurts us, we become chained to that hurt, and it weighs us down. It is like another pebble in our emotional “rucksack”. We often refuse to let go of our hurt and grudges. We carry them with us and refuse to let them go and be discarded along the way.

What is the solution? We need to shed that load by letting it go, and we do it with one special quality called forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean that the wrong done to us is justified in any way – it remains wrong. Forgiveness does not mean that we should let others treat us as if we were doormats. The wrong needs to be stopped and corrected, and justice should prevail.

Yet, forgiveness is not about those who hurt us – it is really about us as we are the ones who reap the benefit of it.

Bearing our grudges against others does not correct the wrong that was done. In many cases it only generates its own momentum of wrong. If we are not careful with our emotions and actions, we can easily become like those who wronged us.

Forgiveness means that that we cut the cord connecting us with the wrong that was done to us. It means that we shed the heavy burden that someone gave us when they wronged us. It means that we are able to clear our minds and become lighter and freer for the rest of our life’s journey.

Forgiveness means that we stop being occupied and controlled by the past, and we can therefore start dreaming and living our future.

Releasing ourselves from our grudges help us to laugh more, be happier, and witness the beauty in creation
Forgiveness is all about freedom.

Nelson Mandela recognised that freedom means freedom from past grudges. After his release from prison he said:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Pirkei Avot (Avot 5:11) teach us that there are four types of angry people…

  • One who is easily angered and easily appeased–his gain is cancelled by his loss.
  • One whom it is difficult to anger and difficult to appease–his loss is cancelled by his gain.
    One who is easily angered and is difficult to appease, is wicked.
    One whom it is difficult to anger and is easily appeased, is pious.
    The message is clear. Holding onto grudges could push you to bad places, while being able to shed the load of resentment and let go of your anger is a righteous act.

    Maimonides, in his laws of Repentance, picks on the teaching from Pirkei Avot:

      “It is forbidden for you to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, you should be easily appeased and hard to anger.
      When the person who wronged you asks for forgiveness, you should forgive him with a perfect heart and a willing spirit.
      Even if that person aggravated and wronged you severely, you should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.”

      The Book of Proverbs connects us beautifully with the story of Johnny Walker and resentment. It states:

        A stone has weight, sand is heavy,
        But foolish anger weighs more than both.

      In order to perform full Teshuvah on this Yom Kippur, and during every day of our lives, let us free ourselves from past resentments that weigh us down and obscure our judgement. Let us obtain freedom by forgiving others.

      I would like to conclude with a prayer for forgiveness.

        Ribbono shel olarn – Ruler of the Universe
        As we stand before you on this Yom Kippur and ask for Your forgiveness
        Give us the ability to forgive
        All those who hurt us
        And those who wronged us
        Whether deliberately or accidentally,
        Whether physically, financially or emotionally,
        Whether by word or by deed.
        Shed from us the heavy weight of resentment
        Remove from us the shackles of grudge
        And award us with strength, happiness and freedom

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