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The Promise of Forgiveness

The great drama of our Torah revolves around the themes of sin and forgiveness - human error and Divine forbearance. The great teaching of our scripture is that forgiveness is available to those who seek it. The great hope of our tradition is that we all avail ourselves of this gift and turn in repentance from our errors and mistakes to live fuller lives. The great dream of our people is that we can use this insight to strengthen the spiritual bonds that unite us with each other and with our God.

Our great fall festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrate this basic principle of Jewish faith. In the imagery of the High Holy Days, the Gate of Repentance is never closed to those who in sincerity seek God's life-renewing, forgiving presence. Five times on Yom Kippur, as part of the five recitations of the Amida, we recite a brief liturgy we call Selichot or "Forgiveness Prayers."

The heart of this short service, which includes our confessional prayers Ashamnu and Al Cheit, is the recitation of a passage from this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, known as God's "Thirteen Attributes." These moving words - "Adonai, Adonai, God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Who Cleanses" (Exodus 34:6-7) -connect our High Holy Day worship to the covenant crafted at Sinai between our ancestors and our God. These divine words, God's promise to forgive, were first heard by Moses when he successfully beseeched God to pardon our erring ancestors after the shattering of the two tablets of the law and the destruction of the Golden Calf.

The Torah informs us that these "Thirteen Attributes" witness God's abiding promise of forgiveness. With these words God was reconciled with our ancestors after their sinful worship of the golden calf. Throughout our history, we have used them as a prayerful way of spiritually reconnecting to God when we become aware of our sins and turn in repentance (see Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17b).

These words, God's promise of forgiveness, form the climax of the awesome but troubling account of the revelation at Sinai - the proclamation of the Ten Commandments and the enumeration of the civil, criminal and religious laws that provide the framework for the unfolding of Jewish life.

As Jews, we understand life is a journey and for us our Torah is our guide along the way. When we wander off the path, as we surely will, our Torah informs us that God is not there to punish us but to redirect us down the proper course.

The miracle of Sinai was not merely the revelation of the Torah but the transformation of our ancestors from a band of freed slaves into a nation, a family, a tribe. The rules and regulations laid out in the Torah, summarized by the Ten Commandments and expounded by our teachers and sages over the generations played a crucial role in this metamorphosis. Ever since Sinai, they have described the characteristic patterns of behavior that reinforce the bonds we have with our fellow Jews and with our God. They have helped us put into action our people's ethical and spiritual insights and define what it means to be part of the Jewish family.

Rules and regulations, however, are not enough keep families together. Our mutual ties of love and respect, our shared stories and our common dreams cement us to each other. Our ability to seek forgiveness from those we may have hurt and to forgive those who have hurt us strengthens the bonds that connect us. God's ability to forgive our ancestors after the sin of the golden calf and keep them as his people is our abiding model of the spirit of forgiveness.

The spiritual drama at Sinai is the very human drama of high expectations and deep disappointments followed not by despair and rejection but by struggle, forgiveness and reconciliation. We live out that drama every day of our lives. Once a year, on the High Holy Days, the sacred season of reconciliation, we draw strength from our biblical heritage. We use the words and images of this week's Torah portion, to create a spiritual framework within which we can seek and receive the blessing of forgiveness.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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