Three Aspects of Forgiveness
WHY IS FORGIVENESS SO HARD?
In Sue Monk Kidd’s fabulous book, The Secret Life of Bees. The author writes that, “If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.” We cling to our woundedness and declare our hurt. It is hard to forgive because we confuse forgiveness with:
- Forgetting- When we forgive, it does not mean that the wrong is erased, but that we are letting go of our right to seek revenge.
- That we no longer feel pain- We may forgive and still need time to heal.
- That there are no consequences- There may be things that we need from the person who hurt us in order for us to forgive.
- That trust has been restored- No, we may very well want to allow time before we reconnect on a deep level.
For many of us, forgiveness is the greatest spiritual challenge of our lives. It is part of the deep wisdom of our tradition to set aside these Yamim Noraim for us to examine not only our relationship with God and the ways in which we need to do better, but also our relationships with each other, to take responsibility for the pain we have caused and to seek and offer forgiveness.
HOW TO APOLOGIZE?
More than 800 years ago, Moses Maimonides wrote Hilchot Teshuva, The Laws of Repentance, in which he detailed the 5 major components of a successful apology. First is hakarat ha-khet- recognizing that we have done wrong. We cannot begin this process of return, to restoration of our relationship with others or with God, until we become aware of our errors. This is followed by a sense of regret. It is so easy and so tempting to rationalize our behavior. We excel at making up excuses. That still small voice of conscience within must be heeded, that nagging sense of guilt which is the moral equivalent of physical pain, alerts us to the fact that something is very wrong. If we are wise, we will treasure it as a divine gift.
The third step is viddui- a process which is an important part of our ritual for this holy season We acknowledge out loud the nature of our misdeeds and our regret at having performed them. This is followed by the resolve not to repeat our errors in the future. We know that our repentance is truly completed when we reach the final stage- when we have an opportunity to repeat the same action and we restrain ourselves from doing so.
Maimonides articulates 5 steps in the process of teshuvah, of repentance and return- recognition, regret, confession, acceptance of responsibility, which included resolve not to repeat the action, and, finally, actually following through when presented with another opportunity to commit the same wrong.
May we all be blessed today and every day, with the emotional maturity and strength to acknowledge and accept responsibility for our wrongdoing, to be willing to do what it takes to right that wrong, to resolve to do better in the future, and, in the end, to ask for forgiveness.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FORGIVING AND LETING GO
Forgiveness is not the same as letting go. We may not be ready to forgive. The person who hurt us may not be asking for forgiveness. Yet, it may be healthier for us to let go of anger even without forgiveness and reconciliation. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that when we hold on to anger, we mobilize our own inner criminal justice system to punish the offender. As judge and jury, we sentence the person to a long prison term without parole, and incarcerate them in a prison that we construct from the bricks and mortar of a hardened heart. Now, as jailer and warden we must spend as much time in prison as the prisoner we are guarding. All the energy that we put into maintaining this prison system comes out of our own “energy budget.” From this point of view, bearing a grudge is very costly, because long-held feelings of anger and resentment drain our energy and imprison our vitality and creativity.
In most cases we don’t forgive because we feel that the offending party deserves to learn a lesson, and we arrogate unto ourselves the task of being the instrument of instruction. In our innermost heart we say, “How can I forgive them when they haven’t shown regret, learned their lesson, and made restitution?” But, as our experience demonstrates, the wronging party usually does not apologize. As the anger etches its corrosive mark on our soul, we carry an emotional voucher wherever we go that reads, “Accounts receivable”. With our vindictiveness anchored in the past, fixated on the slights, ouches, and resentments, we may wait fifty years to collect our due from ex-spouses, business partners and family members- often to no avail. Imagine how many people and nations exist in this state, waiting to collect their unpaid bills. That’s why the Bible proclaims that after seven years comes the Sabbatical year, in which there is a remission of debt- not just financial, but emotional as well.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to tell this story- he came to the United States from Vienna as a teenager escaping the Holocaust. As an adult performer, he went back to Vienna to give a series of concerts. A lot of people wondered why. “Don’t you hate them?”, they asked. His answer was this, “If I had two souls, I would devote one to hating them. But since I have only one, I don’t want to waste it hating.”
My friends, each of us is blessed with only one soul and only one short lifetime. Do we really want to waste it harboring anger and hatred? As we enter this new year, may we all find within ourselves the resources to forgive, to reach out, and to build a foundation of love and understanding.