My family lived in southern Illinois where there were no Jewish places of worship; therefore, my father closed the store every Yom Tov, and we stayed with my St. Louis grandparents in order to attend the full spectrum of high holy day services with them at their synagogue.
The women sat in a balcony, high above the men, with a bird’s eye view of the entire lower level. It was tempting to focus on the males praying directly below us, but I, as a young girl, was equally fascinated by the females around me.
It was the 1950’s, and my mother, grandmother and I sat among several Holocaust survivors, many of whose husbands, fathers and sons had been slaughtered in the camps. These women weren’t concentrating on the men praying downstairs. Some of them were deep into their own memories and nightmares. One young American sitting nearby kept a photo of her GI husband, who had been killed in the war, on the open page of her prayer book, and I saw her tears dropping onto his picture. Some of the older women passed smelling salts around, to keep from falling asleep or getting “woozy” from all-day fasting.
Even though I was young, I knew serious business was taking place. My parents had explained that it’s just as important to beg forgiveness from people as it is to pray to G-d to forgive us. I was pretty sure I hadn’t offended G-d, but I was concerned about other kinds of misconduct, especially the time I caused my little brother to be blamed for a permanent stain on our dining room carpet, which I had caused when playing with indelible ink.
I had committed other transgressions, too. How many times had I wormed out of helping my mother with the laundry or garden? Worst of all, I was a murderer, responsible for the death of two innocent goldfish I had promised to care for and then consistently overfed.
There was nothing I could do about the poor goldfish, but, fortunately, my mother and brother were available for rectification. When my mother left the sanctuary during the recitation of Yizkor, I followed her out.
“Mommy, I promise to help you from now on. I’m sorry I didn’t help you enough this year. Please forgive me!”
My mother was caught off-guard, and I managed to surprise her even more. “And remember the ink on the rug in the dining room?”
My mother nodded, “You spilled it, didn’t you? I think you better talk to your brother about that!”
“But do you forgive me?”
“Of course, and I expect more help from you at home, but more important, you better clean the slate with your brother.”
When the service was over, I grabbed my brother and begged him to forgive me for the ink incident. He said he’d never forgive me, and why should he? I offered to make it up to him somehow, but he said it was too late.
Refusing forgiveness was frightening to me, and I knew I had done something mean, completely selfish and irreparable. I couldn’t roll back the calendar, and I couldn’t now take responsibility and change my brother’s hurt.
Does this long-ago incident seem minor? Not to me. From it I learned that some things will not be forgiven, and maybe they shouldn’t be. Every Yom Kippur I pray that I will not say or do harmful things that are irreparable, and I pray even harder that G-d is much more forgiving than we humans.