As the seventh Psalm wraps up, representing the seventh day of the week, the congregation at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on 30 West 68th Street sits down. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch approaches the front of the Bimah, where the Torah is read, to begin his weekly Friday night sermon. 

Instead of focusing on a piece of scripture, Hirsch begins with a story from pop culture. 

“I never met Whoopi Goldberg,” he began. “And I don’t watch The View.” 

A couple members of the congregation reacted with nervous laughter at the mention of Goldberg in light of recent events. Hirsch waited a couple beats before continuing his speech. Earlier in the week, Whoopi Goldberg was suspended for two weeks from her daily talk show, The View, for saying that the Holocaust was “not about race” on air. 

“Whoopi Goldberg said some truly offensive and ignorant things, but she apologized immediately and sincerely,” Hirsch said. “Repentance, forgiveness and atonement are central concepts in religion.”

As Hirsch spoke, his congregation nodded their heads slowly in agreement. They too believed that forgiveness is a crucial part of their worship and faith. 

“Americans nowadays seem incapable of accepting apologies,” Hirsch continued. 

For both the teacher and his students, the message was about how to face “cancel culture,” or the fear of societal backlash over a genuine mistake, as an observant Jew. Hirsch’s sermon used Goldberg’s offensive comment as an opportunity to talk about forgiveness and trust in God. Both of these tenets are core to Judaism, according to Hirsch. 

Hirsch explained to his congregation that human nature resists wanting to own mistakes and apologize for them, emphasizing that “it is hard to do.” 

Many quizzical looks filled the faces of Hirsch’s listeners then. If forgiveness was essential to their faith, but it was difficult to do, what were they supposed to do? Was there a way they could combat this human urge with their religion? 

Hirsch had an answer: The High Holy Days. 

According to Hirsch, the High Holy Days, also known as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are meant for repentance and forgiveness. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means, “Beginning of the Year,” and Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” Hirsch’s sermon focused on both the literal and spiritual meanings of each by explaining how to react and forgive Goldberg for her comment. Hirsch said he believes she should be forgiven because she genuinely apologized and atoned for what she said. 

“Judaism is so insistent on contrition and forgiveness that our holiest season of the year, our highest of High Holy Days, is devoted to urging people to repent and forgive,” Hirsch said. “The reason we make such a big deal about it — ten full days of almost nonstop prayer and lamentation, beating our chests in sorrow — is that it is hard to do.” 

Hirsch was teaching his worshippers to forgive Goldberg not because it is the easy thing to do, but because from his view, forgiveness is the right thing to do. The reason why forgiveness and acceptance are so important to human relationships is because without them, society will end up “nasty, brutish, violent and tribal,” Hirsch said. 

Instead of using a reading or lesson from the Torah, which is the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in Hebrew, Hirsch used a news story to teach the Jewish values of forgiveness and atonement. 

Cantor Daniel Singer explained that the Friday sermon is different from the Saturday sermon each week during Shabbat services. Singer said that the Rabbi, Hirsch, has never given the same sermon twice. At Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, the Torah is only read on Saturday and holidays, according to Singer. 

Most Saturdays, the sermon or speech is given by a Bat or Bar Mitzvah, instead of Hirsch, after their Torah reading, Singer said. According to Singer, Hirsch draws from all areas of life for his weekly sermons, but enjoys preaching about Jewish heritage, history and social justice issues the most.