When we are guilty of harming another person, we can often acknowledge what we did, apologize to the person we wronged, offer to make amends, and promise not to do it again. Then our human victim may forgive us.
But what if we have wronged God, or the divine spirit within us? Is forgiveness even possible?
One answer is found in Psalm 130, traditionally read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which begins this year at sunset on Wednesday.
(A song of ascending steps.)
From the depths I called to you, God:
“My lord, hear my voice!
May your ears be attentive to the voice of my plea.”
If you kept a watch over avonot, my lord Yah,
Who could stand?
However, forgiveness is yours
So that tivarei.
I hoped for God,
My soul hoped,
And I waited for God’s word.
My soul [watches] for my lord
More than watchmen for the morning,
Watching for the morning. (Psalm 130:1-6)
avonot (עֲוֺנֺת) = wrongdoing, immoral activity, intentional sins. (Singular avon, עָוֹן.)
tivarei (תִּוָּרֵא) = you will be feared, you will inspire awe. (From the root yarei, יָרֵא = was afraid of, was in awe of, was reverent of.)
The speaker (whom I will call “they”) cries out to God from the depths of mental suffering due to guilt. How can they forgive themselves for deliberately doing something morally wrong? Their only hope is that God will forgive them. But at first they cannot quite believe God would grant forgiveness out of compassion. So the speaker hypothesizes two other motivations:
1) If God held every human being accountable for every avon, nobody would be left standing, left alive. Perhaps the speaker recalls that God swore not to destroy the world again after the Flood, even though “the inventions of the human mind are evil from youth”.4 Therefore God must look the other way sometimes.
2) Forgiveness is one of the ways God inspires awe. Being forgiven by God seems incredible to the speaker, so amazing they would be dumbstruck and trembling. And this is just what God wants; throughout the bible God asks to be regarded with fear and awe. Instead of rewarding awe with forgiveness, maybe God forgives in order to earn the awe.
The last two verses of Psalm 130 switch from a guilty individual to the Israelites as a whole. Being human, they have all transgressed in one way or another. But when the speaker steps back from their own need for forgiveness and embraces a larger perspective, they realize that God forgives out of kindness.
Israel will wait for God
Because with God is steadfast kindness
And abundant redemption.
And [God] will ransom Israel
From all its avonot. (Psalm 130:7-8)
Despite all the times the Israelites disobeyed God by worshiping idols, ignoring the poor, and committing injustice, God does redeem the Israelites from their captivity in Babylonia in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The speaker in Psalm 130 hopes that this means it is God’s nature to forgive. They wait and watch for the morning of a new day, a new life, that God will grant them.
If we have not already made atonement with human beings whom we wronged or who wronged us during the past year, Jews try to do it before Yom Kippur starts. We do not always succeed. I have found myself apologizing to people who don’t take me seriously, and to people who don’t remember the incident that I feel guilty about. Often the only people who ask me for forgiveness are the ones who have always been kind and respectful, while those who actually hurt me never apologize. But I do the best I can to make amends, clearing the way to seeking atonement with God on Yom Kippur.
How do we wrong God?
In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the high priest atones for the whole community in the Torah portion Acharei Mot (which is chanted at Yom Kippur services) through a ritual involving two goats. (See my post Acharey Mot: Azazel.)
And Aaron shall both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess upon it all the avonot of the Israelites and all their insubordinations, for all their chatot, and put them on the head of the goat. And it shall be sent by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness. (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:21)
chatot (חטֺּאת) = wrongdoing, misdeeds, lapses, unintentional offenses. (Singular chatat, חַטָּאת or cheit, חֵטְא. The root of the noun is the verb chata (חָטָא) = missed the mark, offended, was at fault, was guilty.)
In Leviticus, rules for purity and rituals, as well as ethical principles, are labeled as avonot and chatot. These words for intentional and unintentional offenses are applied to everything from touching an animal that died of natural causes to hating one’s neighbor.1
But in the liturgy for Yom Kippur, we wrong God only when we succumb to evil thoughts and unethical behavior.
On Yom Kippur, Jews chant two confessional prayers again and again: the Ashamnu and the Al Cheit, both extant in the 9th century C.E.2 The Ashamnu (אָשַׁמְנוּ = We have become guilty), is a list of 23 immoral actions that begins with betrayal, robbery, and slander, and ends with leading others astray. After confessing that we, as a group, have been wicked in all these ways, the prayer asks God to “make atonement for us for all our chatot, forgive us for all our avonot, and pardon us for all our insubordinations”.
The Al Cheit (עַל חֵטא = For the wrong) is a list of both immoral actions and bad attitudes (such as arrogance and recklessness) that lead to wrongdoing. Each line begins with:
Al cheit shechatanu lefanekha (עַל חֵטא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ) = For the wrong that we have done wrong in your presence.
“Your presence” means the presence of God. Some people think of God as the ruler of the universe; for others, God is the “still, small voice” inside.3 Either way, God notices the bad deeds and wicked thoughts we are guilty of, even when no humans do. And our souls or psyches are affected.
After each group of six or more bad deeds or attitudes in the Al Cheit, we sing this refrain:
Ve-a’ kulam, Eloha selichot, selach lanu, machal lanu, kaper lanu! (וְעַל כֻּלָּם אֱלוֹהַּ סְלִיחוֹת סְלַח לָנוּ מְחַל לָנוּ כַּפֶּר לָנוּ) = And for all of them, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, reconcile with us!
We confess that we are guilty as a group, and we wait, like Israel in Psalm 130, for God’s forgiveness.
Yet it is impossible not to think of our individual moral failings when we spend all day praying for forgiveness.
How do we wrong God?
If humans are made in God’s image,5 then we wrong God both when we wrong other humans, and when we damage our own souls. I believe we degrade our souls when we treat other people as objects, when we selfishly or carelessly hurt or neglect or endanger any of our fellow human beings.
If we are lucky, we realize what we did wrong—maybe the same year, maybe many years later. Then we feel guilty. We can make any amends that are possible, and we can sincerely change our ways. Then we only need to wait until we hear the still, small voice of God releasing us from guilt.
May we all find our way to forgiveness.
- See Leviticus 4:2-3, 4:13, 5:1-6, 7:18, and 24:15 on transgressing ritual laws, and Leviticus 18:6-25, 19:17, and 19:20-22 on transgressing ethical laws.
- In the Siddur Rav Amram, compiled by Amram ben Sheshna, the Gaon of Sura.
- 1 Kings 19:12. When God crosses in front of the cave where the prophet Elijah is hiding, there is a windstorm, an earthquake, and a fire, but God is not in any of these things. After the fire Elijah hears “a thin, murmuring sound” or “a soft murmuring voice”, and knows God is there.
- Genesis 8:21.
- According to Genesis 1:27 and 5:1.