Forgiveness liberates us from being held captive by the past

September 25, 2009
ThoughtForTheDay 20200515 RabbiLordSacks mp3 image 1
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 25th September 2009

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which begins on Sunday night, is the holy of holies of Jewish time, when even the least committed Jews are to be found in the synagogue. Which is odd, because it's the hardest day of the year.  A day entirely spent in prayer, penitence, and confession.

What's more, it's a fast -- and a Jewish festival without food is a rare thing indeed.  A wit once summarised the other Jewish festivals in three sentences.  “They tried to kill us.  We survived. Let's eat.”

So what is it about the Day of Atonement that gives it such power? The answer lies in one word: forgiveness.  It's the day on which we ask God to forgive us, and God asks us to forgive others.

The concept of forgiveness is perhaps the most transformative idea ever to have entered the human situation. It's hard, perhaps even unnatural, to forgive people who have done you wrong.  Why even bother?

To which the answer is that there is no worse self inflicted injury than harbouring a sense of grievance.  Life’s too short to bear a grudge or seek revenge.  Bad has happened, but it won't be made better by dwelling on it.  Let it go. Move on.

Forgiveness liberates us from being held captive by the past.  People who don't or can't forgive keep fighting old battles instead of creating new possibilities. And it sometimes seems to me that half the political conflicts in today's world are just that: an endless replaying of old grievances, a ceaseless scratching of ancient wounds, when what we need for the 21st century is to focus on the future, on our grandchildren not yet born.  We can't change the past, but we can, by avoiding the mistakes of the past, change the future.

That's what we'll need if we're to tackle climate change or third world poverty or the politics of the middle east.  It's almost as if we need a global day of atonement, in which nations forgive and are forgiven, so that we can focus on the problems of the future free of the shackles of the past.

I once asked Bob Geldof, one of the heroes of famine relief, what he would say to inspire the next generation.  He quoted the line from Tennyson: “Come my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

That is the message of Yom Kippur.  Let’s forgive one another for the past so that we can help one another build a better future.