On Saturday evening, August 31 a rabbi, a Catholic priest and an imam walked into Beth Shalom Synagogue in Edmonton. With them were an Aboriginal elder, a Jain, and 65 guests there to hear about “Repentance and Forgiveness from Religious Perspectives”. On that evening Jews around the world began their preparations for New Year (Rosh Hashana) which begins Wednesday evening, September 4, and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), with penitential prayers known as Selichot. The new rabbi at Beth Shalom, Kliel Rose, working with the Edmonton Interfaith Centre and Elexis Schloss, invited representatives from four other faith traditions to discuss this important issue.
The service began with the late afternoon Sabbath prayers, followed by the speakers. First was Dr. Usama Al Atar, a professor of chemistry from the University of Alberta. He stressed five stages of repentance celebrated during the month of Ramadan: regret for your misdeeds, personal commitment to reform, repair of the damage done, reaching out to other people affected by your action, restoring your relationship to God to regain a life of restored peace and justice. He reminded us that the Prophet Mohammad, when he conquered Mecca, forgave the citizens for their bitter warfare against the followers of the new faith of Islam.
Elder Betty Lafferty is an Aboriginal consultant with Edmonton Catholic Schools. She said that the Cree language doesn’t have a word for “forgiveness” but practices personal fasting to restore inner peace and renewed relationship with everyone. As a child she was afraid of the Christian God, but her aboriginal faith restored her inner spirituality and communion with God and with all those around her. For her, working with children is a spiritual experience.
Jitendra Shah, one of the founders of the first Jain temple in Edmonton, reminded us that Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world. Their leaders, or Gurus, have long led the movement for non-violence, brought to a climax by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent fight for independence from Britain. He told the story of the blind men describing an elephant by feeling different parts of the body, and of course coming to widely different conclusions. Differences are essential to life, but they can also reveal common themes or issues that bind us together. He urged time for daily meditation that restores our inner selves and brings us to the peace of nirvana.
The fourth speaker was Father James Holland from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown Edmonton which has a large congregation of Aboriginal people. He emphasized that although there are many religions, they all share an inner spirituality. He believes that holding grudges is self destructive, and that forgiveness frees oneself to live fully. He felt he had learned a great deal from his association with his Aboriginal congregants.
The last speaker was Rabbi Rose. He sees elements of the Judaism in all religions that experience one God within us. For him, sinning is missing the mark of a good life, and forgiveness is essential to restoring it. A Jewish member of the audience remarked on three essentials for forgiveness: recognition of what you did that was wrong, true repentance for it, and forthright reparation to all who were affected by it.
The differing practices of all speakers actually highlighted the common recognition of the essential need to forgive in order to restore your own life, and that holding grudges of any kind was self-destructive. It seems that for many of us it is very difficult to forget anyone or anything that hurts us, but how often we forget the many good things that we daily experience from those around us.
The evening ended with Rabbi Rose celebrating Havdalah, the service which formally ends the Sabbath, and immediately after he recited the Selichot.
John G. Wright & Netta Phillet