Seeking Forgiveness


“Estoy…um, how do you say ‘cold’?” Emmett asks.

We are attempting a conversation in Spanish.

“What are you trying to say?,” I inquire, as I bite into the street taco I brought back to our heavily air conditioned hotel room in Mexico City.

“I’m cold.”

“Cold is frio. But it’s *tengo* frio. Not *estoy* frio.”

“No,” my curly-headed kid corrects me, “Not I have a cold. I am cold.”

“Oh, it’s complicated. It’s *tener frio,* to have cold, not *estar,* to be cold. That’s how Spanish is.”

I am the luckiest man in the world. Life circumstances have unfolded to me doing a beautiful wedding in Mexico City. (‘Cause, I don’t know if you know, this rabbi speaks Spanish.) And my son agreed to come with me on the trip.



In graduate school for education, we learned about *schema theory*—juxtaposing something you are learning with something you know. Like me telling you “the plural of schema is schemata, just like the plural of stigma is stigmata.”

Good educators link new information back to prior knowledge.

I started with the above, about how languages differ, to introduce Jewish notions of atonement.

Why? What do languages not always having one-to-one word substitutions have to do with forgiveness?

I wanted to activate in your mind the notion that cultural differences, like language differences, aren’t a one-to-one substitution.
Your cultural understanding of forgiveness might not plug and play one-to-one with the Jewish traditions I want to share.

And that’s fine.

What I’m presenting isn’t better or right.

Just different, like how Spanish speakers aren’t told, they *have cold.*


Judaism’s most solemn, holy day, is Yom Kippur—the day of atonement.

For the past thousand plus years, the formulaic hearing of the Hebrew and Aramaic verses named for their opening words *Kol Nidrei* (all the vows) is said to release those who hear it from any unmet commitment.

How that fits with atonement (and in the details of what it does and doesn’t work for) is where it gets interesting.
These “rules” of atonement and forgiveness might be different from that with which you are familiar.

Kol Nidrei officially annuls the vows, pledges, and oaths made between a person and (the) God (of their understanding).

For all vows, pledges, and oaths made to another person—the liturgy is clear—the day of atonement does not atone.

That is, if you commit to stretching every evening but don’t, that’s covered.
But, if you commit to stretching with a partner and don’t, you are culpable.

For contracts breached with another person, one must make amends to that person. Here are the four steps to this as written by Maimonides, a 12th-century Spanish rabbi:

1. State your mistake and ask for forgiveness
2. Express remorse, vowing not to make the same mistake again
3. Make amends to those who have been hurt
4. Act differently if the same situation happens again.

Fine print: should they not accept your apology after you have made three sincere attempts to do so—some suggest bringing three impartial witnesses on the third attempt—Judaism declares you forgiven.


Judaism asks and then answers the following question: What if a person does something that requires amends but is unaware of the transgression? How do they atone then? Does the day of atonement cover that situation?

Let me give an example.

Jane recently told my niece she was disappointed that my niece didn’t respond to repeated emails and texts Jane had sent. Finally, my niece explained, “I sent you a text about a month ago that you didn’t respond to, so I didn’t respond to yours.”

It’s hard to make amends if you didn’t know you upset someone.

Judaism’s solution to this: ask people.

In the weeks before the upcoming Jewish High Holy Days, I receive emails or see facebook posts from rabbinic colleagues with some formulation of the following: If I have done anything in the past year to hurt or offend you, please let me know. I’d like to make amends.


And, that being said, , If I have done anything in the past year to hurt or offend you, please let me know. I’d like to make amends.

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With love,
Rabbi Brian

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