Newton and Rosh Hashanah

Newton and Rosh Hashanah

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

Newton’s third law of physics states that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” I learned it in basic physics in school. It always appealed to me, because it was logical, observable, and true. Physics wouldn’t be my field of study, but basic laws, like this one, weren’t lost on me. I see a link between physics and spirituality.

On the High Holy Days, during the Ten Days of Repentance, we’re called to seek forgiveness from those we’ve wronged, knowingly or unknowingly. The expectation is that we ask for forgiveness for something specific that we did. We can’t ask for forgiveness for just anything we might have done in the last year; that would be insincere, so it doesn’t count. But, if we can be specific and sincere, then the person from whom we seek forgiveness is supposed to say, “I forgive you.” Therefore, the action is met with an equal and opposite reaction. But, it’s not just a reflection of a law of physics. It’s also a means of finding spiritual harmony, too. The energy between two people is reset. They might not become fast friends; they might even go in separate directions after all that, but there would be peace between them.

Now, let’s consider the real possibility that the one from whom we seek forgiveness doesn’t forgive us, initially. It happens. After one attempt, it should already be granted; but, what if we approach the person from whom we seek forgiveness a second time, and this time with a card and flowers, and he or she still doesn’t forgive us? Try one more time. If on the third attempt there is no forgiveness, then our tradition explains that we are forgiven, anyway.

This formula is powerful. The rabbis’ goal in prescribing acts of repentance was never to condemn an individual; but rather to create the opportunity for forgiveness. God wanted us to repent and return, too. But, the simple act of forgiveness was just the start. Eventually, complete repentance depended on changing behaviors if the same circumstances were encountered again. If the accused found himself or herself in the same situation under similar conditions and acted in a new and improved manner, then repentance was complete. So, there was never anything to lose by saying from the beginning, “I forgive you.” The proof always followed in deeds in the New Year.

The rabbis didn’t rely on Newton’s laws of physics, but they did want people to find peace between them. An equal but opposite reaction created spiritual harmony and peace between people. It set the world in order just at the time when the judgment of the world, Yom HaDin, the day of judgment, commenced.

As the New Year comes soon, with whom will you make peace? In whose presence will words of forgiveness, contrition and apology make a difference? What spiritual harmony will you create with meaningful words and important deeds? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s an immutable law of physics. It’s an immutable law in spirituality, too, and there’s evidence of it. If you’re not convinced, try the rabbis’ prescription for yourself this New Year. Perhaps you’ll find peace in your heart because you made amends for good.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateviu, may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.