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The Art of Forgiveness

Last night I was burning a candle that had beautiful silky smooth gray leaves of sage on top of it as I sat writing this kavannah (a kavannah literally means "intention" or "sincere feeling, direction of the heart"). As I watched the flame burn the leaves, and I saw the oils of the leaves get released…I started to smell the familiar scent of clarifying and cleansing white sage smoke, and I realized how appropriate this moment was, as I sat there thinking and writing about forgiveness/letting go/releasing and accepting. Sage is used in indigenous traditions and rituals as a symbolic and powerful purifying smoke - today we are influenced by these traditions when we sage ourselves and our physical spaces - because we are aiming to release that which does not serve us. We ask the energies and the spirits that surround us to move along and to rid a physical space of negative or toxic energy. This is similar to the burning of the understory, especially when it is a purposeful, and not accidental, act. The burn focuses on the undergrowth in order to create a rich humus from which all new growth will spring from.

When we use sage, we connect with a deep history of releasing and letting go. What old stories need to be cleared away? When we take time to focus on this process of releasing and letting go, and planting purposeful seeds in ourselves for our personal and collective futures, we seek comfort and calm for ourselves, for a physical space, for the energies of others. This is similar to the process we follow when we do the hard work of seeking forgiveness and acceptance from others.

How do we forgive others and how do we forgive ourselves? In the Jewish tradition there are three stages that are identified by the words s’lichah (forgiveness), m’chilah (letting go), and kapparah (atonement/at-one-ment). In the process of seeking forgiveness from others, we are simultaneously hoping to forgive ourselves. We are seeking to repair, to understand, to be compassionate and to show empathy to others, and to ourselves. We are committing brave acts to bring attention to past wrongs we have committed, things we said out of anger, actions we performed when out of patience, or not being open and receptive to a friend’s needs, or looking the other way when asked for the donation of our time or our help. To approach someone we feel we have wronged takes great courage. It is simply one of the truest and hardest things we can do as compassionate and empathetic human beings.

This process of reaching out, connecting, discussing, making meaning, and finding calm and peace is similarly performed at the end of our lives, when we are reviewing our lives for meaning, and attempting to understand what our legacy will be. We are in the act of bearing witness to our own humanity.

When we explore meaning, we are being given an opportunity to explore both our integrity and our despair, even if it is painful. But this work doesn’t need to be hard or demoralizing, it can in fact be spiritually uplifting. And it can be a gift to do this work before we, or a special person to us, is in the dying phase. We are collectively exerting influence over how we, how a friend or loved one, will be treated, considered, and ultimately remembered.

There are parallels between these days of atonement and the days that precede death. It is good medicine to do this hard work, because the relationship you have with yourself and others will absolutely change from it, and most often for the better. It is a significant and symbolic moment to honor the work we do today, that Jews do all over the world. It’s like a global energetic wave we are creating by focusing on the hard hard work of forgiveness. We are being present and mindful. We are focusing our energy. We celebrate this process during Yom Kippur because we are attempting to reach at-one-ment with another, to forgive, to be forgiven, and to move forward from a place of understanding, acceptance and peace.

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