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After a long day, my children got into a tussle over a piece of gum.  My daughter attempted to pry this treasure from my son’s fingers, and he whacked her. After I intervened, he sobbed a heartfelt, “Sorry.” My daughter, chest heaving, panted, “I do NOT accept your apology.” I sat her down and explained, “Forgiveness is also for the forgiver. When you forgive someone, you let go of the anger in your heart and you become lighter and happier.” “Okaaaay, I forgive you,” she sighed and he fell into her arms.

Lest you think I am an emotional Jedi Knight, you should know I ripped this bit of wisdom directly from an ancient Jewish story called “Rabbi Eleazar and the Beggar,” which I just read to my kids from Eric A. Kimmel’s wonderful collection of holiday folklore, Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the story, a deformed and filthy beggar listens through a crack in the door of the temple as the great Rabbi Eleazar gives a sermon about how everything in creation is perfect in its own way because it has been molded by the hands of God. The hideous beggar approaches the Rabbi to express how moved he feels, but the startled Rabbi, riding home on his horse blurts out, “Heaven shield me from such ugliness!” The beggar is enraged and humiliated.  The Rabbi knows he has acted against his own principles, so he begs the beggar for forgiveness. The beggar refuses to forgive him, so the rabbi shreds his clothes and prostrates himself in the dust at the feet of the beggar and refuses to move. Still, the beggar withholds forgiveness. Each of the Rabbi’s four sons try to convince or bully the beggar into forgiving their father so the patriarch can come home and they can have Rosh Hashanah dinner already, but to no avail. Finally, the Rabbi’s daughter speaks gently to the battered and friendless beggar:

“My friend, the One Who Made You has already forgiven our father. He is always ready to forgive. Our father requires nothing from you. Instead, he afflicts himself for your sake. He understands the bitterness of withholding forgiveness, of storing up malice like stones. He will not leave this spot until you accept this apology and drop this bitter burden from your shoulders.”

The beggar forgives the Rabbi, who cloaks him in his own coat, and takes him home to share the holiday dinner.

This story gets to the heart of why the Days of Awe, the days of self-reflection and atonement encompassing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are so powerful. Atonement is not just about recognizing your sins and shortcomings and making up for them through a fast, it’s also about forgiving yourself and those who have hurt you so that you can move on and flourish. Forgiveness is the doorway to renewal. Letting go of negative emotion is the key to a fresh start in the New Year. Thank you to storyteller and folklorist Eric A. Kimmel for giving me a narrative way to express this wisdom to my kids!