Forgive your neighbour their wrongdoing
That your sins shall be forgiven when you pray
Shall one person cherish anger against another
And yet ask healing from God?
Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus, is the book that didn’t quite make it into the Hebrew Bible, but it has wonderful advice, especially at this part of the year.
The fist step in being forgiven, says Ben Sira, is forgiving others. We have no right to ask for gracious treatment for ourselves when we fail to demonstrate graciousness to those around us. The Talmudic master Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Shimon taught that we should be gentle as the reed in responding to those who seek our forgiveness, and not like the mighty cedar (Taanit). This gentle quality of quality of the reed, Rabbi Eliezer went on to teach, is what gives it the merit of being used as the quill for the writing of our most holy works.
This dynamic, of struggling to forgive the faults in others also, of course, applies to the allocation of blame. I am particularly good at blaming others, rather than myself. I’m better at spotting the faults in others than acknowledging my own shortfallings. I remember, more vividly, the times I have been crossed, as opposed to the times I have crossed. I look too easily beyond my personal ‘tchum’ boundaries.
A story is told about the Chofetz Chaim who, as a child wanted to change the entire world. As a young man he decided he would change the Jewish world (he may well have succeeded, but that is a different story). As he grew older and wiser his horizons shifted to changing his local community, and then his family and ultimately he set his heart on changing himself.
The process of Rosh Hashanah must begin with the only object whose ability to change, grow and develop, lies in our hands – ourselves. It’s always too easy to look beyond, outside, at others. The focus must be inside, internal and personal.