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ROSH HASHANAH FEATURE (7) Digging deep within oneself helps process of forgiveness

WAYLAND, Mass., Aug. 14 (JTA) — Students in an advanced adult Hebrew language class were discussing what the High Holidays meant to them. Said one young man, “It’s good to have one day during the year when I stop and really think about what I have done.” One day. Is one day enough? Perhaps sometimes. Perhaps for some people. The noted philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was on the verge of converting to Christianity in early-20th-century Germany when he attended Yom Kippur services. As a result of that experience, his thinking did an aboutface, and he immersed himself in Jewish thinking and learning. But for most people, one day is not enough.
Consider how often you need to think about what you are doing, and how hard you need to think about it in order to change an ingrained behavior? If I hurt you and then ask for forgiveness, and you forgive me, and then tomorrow I turn around and hurt you again, I am no better off. You are no better off. Nothing has changed. Recent research on chemical brain activity is proving what was, in its spiritual essence, self-evident to the ancient rabbis: We can, to be sure, learn new behaviors, but not just because we want to make a change. We must make an effort — a big effort. If I hurt you and ask forgiveness, and you forgive me, I had better be prepared to work hard to ensure that I do not do the same thing to you again. This is what forgiveness is really about. Changing our brain connections. Changing our behavior. Changing one’s self is not an easy process. In fact, it is incredibly difficult — so difficult that we rarely do it unless we feel squeezed between the Red Sea and the army of the Pharaoh. Change takes time, energy, self-awareness, sensitivity to others and commitment. It also takes faith. Faith that change is possible. Faith that we have the strength to change our viewpoint and our habits. Faith that we have the strength to grow up a little bit more, no matter what our age. Faith that we can alter our brain chemicals. The sages knew what they were doing when they made sure that we would stop and think about our behavior at least one day a year. It would be a whole lot easier not to question our behavior, not to think about how we have hurt someone, not to change. The sages also knew what they were doing when they increased that period of introspection to 10 days, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, and then tagged on another month — Elul — for preparation. Because it can be so hard to see that we have done something hurtful, it can take a lot of digging to unearth our buried awareness of it. It can be so hard to see what we have done that we may need to stop, consider and ponder before we can even begin to see. Once we have seen — and accepted — the dark side of ourselves, we need to go beyond that seeing. We need to change. But changing requires understanding. And so we need to ponder what we see, and that is no easier than the seeing. Perhaps I see that I refuse to truly listen to my teen-age son. I must ask myself, “Why? Am I afraid of what he might say? Do I think he might want something from me that I feel unable to give?” Perhaps I see that my spouse’s habit of picking up after me angers me. I must ask myself, “Why? Do I feel my autonomy is threatened? Do I think I am being criticized?” Perhaps I feel put-upon every time someone asks me to do something. I must ask myself, “Why? Am I already doing something that is so dear to my heart and my soul? Do I feel I am already giving in ways that are not being noticed or appreciated?” Perhaps I react violently — either physically or verbally — when someone crosses my path. I must ask myself, “Why? Is there some deep-seated inner pain of which I am unaware? Do I doubt my own self-worth?” In order to answer questions like these, we need to dig even deeper. We need to listen to that “still small voice,” the voice that tells us who we are and why. We must be honest, nakedly honest, with ourselves. But we must also tread tenderly, for understanding requires compassion. If we break out in anger at what we find within, we will have taken a detour. For, coming full circle, to have compassion for ourselves requires forgiveness. We may have been forgiven by someone else, but in order to enter the place where we are worthy of that forgiveness, where we can understand and appreciate that forgiveness, we must first forgive ourselves. The Days of Awe are a time for family gatherings, fasting, prayer and more. Together, our own personal combination of rituals, customs, and traditions — ancient and modern — has the potential to transcend any single aspect of our observance and to precipitate a change in our brain chemistry and, as a result, a lasting behavioral change. We need take only one small step in a new direction, but when we make that turn, as the gates of heaven close and the shofar sounds one last, long blast, we will find ourselves with no choice but to continue in our new direction, and when we do, slowly but surely, every day of the new year, we will strengthen our new brain connections; we will strengthen our new behavior; we will draw ever closer to our true selves, ever closer to our God, every single day of the year. ____________________ Katy Z. Allen is a Jewish storyteller and free-lance writer. __________________