Awe Inspiring Love


By Rabbi Manis Friedman

10355122_lCan Love Be Frightening?

The Days of Awe are upon us and some of us are a little uncomfortable. Ask Jews who fear Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur why they are so nervous and they answer, “It’s the Day of Judgment. You’re not afraid of punishment?”

It’s true. Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment. But why do you equate judgment with punishment? Are you so certain that you are going to be punished?

In other words, if judgment is synonymous with punishment—if punishment is a foregone conclusion—then that’s not judgment at all. That’s a kangaroo court. The trial is just a farce so that G-d can get on with punishing you.

So we need to understand what G-d’s judgment really is. Being judged is a good thing that actually works in our favor because, you see, when we say that G-d judges, we don’t mean that G-d is judgmental. G-d is not looking to condemn you. He is very carefully evaluating your situation. He is being discerning, weighing all possible factors and taking all of the extenuating circumstances into account, because He’s a good judge.

And when G-d considers all of the mitigating aspects of your case, He can’t possibly punish you because, at this point in history, there is not a Jew in the world who truly deserves punishment for anything.

G-d spoke to us at Sinai over 3,300 years ago and told us to keep His laws. Since that time, we have been through exiles, inquisitions, pogroms, persecution, not to mention a Holocaust. You’re going to tell me now that G-d blames you for the fact that you don’t always listen to Him? He doesn’t blame you! If anything, He blames Himself!

When G-d judges and evaluates us in this light, His conclusion is that He has no choice but to let us off the hook. He can’t punish us. It would be unjust. To the contrary, considering the circumstances, every little mitzvah we do is a big deal. A Jew tells his non-Jewish neighbor that he’s Jewish. That’s amazing. That Jew is a hero.

But, now we have to ask a question. If on Rosh Hashanah, The Day of Judgment, I am going to be acquitted, then why do I still need Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement? I was already pronounced not-guilty, so why do I need forgiveness?

The answer is that forgiveness isn’t a legal concept. It’s not an acquittal. So even though you are not going to be punished, you still need forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a verdict; it’s the restoration of a connection. It’s about strengthening the bonds of a relationship.

Now, there are two different ways that this forgiveness or reconnection can occur. One kind of forgiveness is like we say in the Yom Kippur prayers, “Darkcha Elokeinu l’haarich apecha—It is your nature, G-d, to be forbearing.” In other words, forgiveness is in G-d’s nature. But another kind of forgiveness is like we say in a different prayer on Yom Kippur, “Slachti k’dvarecha—I have forgiven you as you have requested.” That means that the forgiveness comes about because of the one who is asking for it.

The first kind of forgiveness is about G-d. He is forgiving. The second kind of forgiveness is about us and the effect we have on Him. He forgives as we have requested.

To better understand this second type of forgiveness, imagine that somebody wronged you and you wrote the guy off. You decided you were through with him. But then he comes and begs forgiveness. You don’t think it will move you, but somehow it does. His words have an effect and you realize that your feelings for this person are deeper than you thought they were. In a case like this, the fact that you forgive the guy doesn’t show how forgiving you are, but how much he matters to you. Something about him is making you want to forgive him.

So too, when G-d forgives us because we ask for forgiveness, this doesn’t show how forgiving G-d is. It shows how much we matter to G-d.

The truth is that G-d is the one who invented Yom Kippur, not us, as if He needs to forgive us more than we need to be forgiven. And that’s an awesome thought. G-d loves me and cares about me so much, that He can’t bear for my sin to get in the way of our relationship. How does one even respond to such love? It’s overwhelming.

And this is the real reason why this time of year is known as The Days of Awe. When someone loves you so much that you don’t know how to respond because you don’t think you’re even capable of that kind of love, it is humbling.

When someone loves you in a way that you can reciprocate, that kind of love makes you feel great about yourself. But when someone loves you so much that there’s no way you can possibly reciprocate, that kind of love makes you feel small.

This is the awe of the Days of Awe. G-d’s love for us is awesome and when we realize this, we are humbled and awestruck.

G-d loves you so much it’s frightening!