We are two days away from Yom Kippur. In two days, after a very intense 24 hours of fasting and praying, we will all go home from the synagogue feeling spiritually refreshed, forgiven for our sins of the past, able to go out and start the new year fresh.
But being forgiven is only half the battle. If we don’t find it in our hearts to forgive we will be starting the year still carrying a bunch of baggage from the year before. Perhaps from many years before.
Perhaps the process of teshuva, repentance, that we teach has a little flaw. We teach that if you have wronged someone you are supposed to fix up any damage you did and go and ask the person for forgiveness. After they forgive you, God forgives you on Yom Kippur and everyone is happy.
When we do cheshbon hanefesh, take an accounting of our soul, we’re supposed to reflect on the ways we’ve wronged other people, and try to fix the damage. Forgiveness follows from our efforts to fix things up, as it says in the Midrash “If you do well, I (God) will forgive you; but if not, your sin overflows the brim.” The Zohar says those who repent and feel remorse are forgiven by God, while those who cling to their sins and refuse to repent in the end descend to Hell and never come up again.
Our model of teshuva also emphasizes the importance of asking for forgiveness. A teaching in the Talmud says that regarding the hurt feelings of a person, even if the offender brought all the compensation in the world, the offence is not forgiven until he asks him for pardon.
The little flaw in our model of teshuva is it doesn’t really address the times when we are the victim. What about the times when we’ve been wronged? What if the other person never comes and makes it up to us? What if the other person never asks for our forgiveness? What do we do then?
One of the great tragedies in life is how sometimes families become distant. People who should be close – brother and sister, parent and child – can become estranged. Someone does or says something unkind, sometimes intentional sometimes accidental, and all of a sudden this one doesn’t want to talk to that one. If you don’t have it in your own family, consider yourself blessed. I know all too many families, my own included, where there is someone who absolutely refuses to have anything to do with someone else. Sometimes people will carry bitterness with them years after they forgot what started it all. More often though, they remain obsessed with what started it all, and refuse to consider talking to the other person until the other person comes crawling back asking for forgiveness. Meanwhile the other party who also feels wronged does the same thing. No one makes amends, no one forgives.
Sometimes people’s inability to forgive and move on holds their lives back. I knew a woman who had been divorced ten years before and still had never forgiven her ex-husband, or gotten over the fact that they broke up. He had remarried and was living a normal, successful life, but she was still single, and one reason undoubtedly was it was impossible to have a conversation with her without it somehow coming around to what a bad guy her ex-husband was. Who would want to have a relationship with someone who had nothing better to talk about than painful ancient history?
And sometimes we carry around more than one grudge. Fred Luskin brings a great image in his book “Forgive for Good:” “Picture the crowded screen in front of a harried air traffic controller. Picture the chaos in the room and the jumble of planes on the screen. Now imagine that your unresolved grievances are the planes on that screen that have been circling for days and weeks on end. Most of the other planes have landed, but your unresolved grievances continue to take up precious air space, draining resources that may be needed in an emergency. Having them on the screen forces you to work harder and increases the chance for accidents. The grievance planes become a source of stress and burnout is often the result.”
How many of those unresolved grievances are cluttering up your radar screen? To truly start the New Year with a clean start you need to forgive as well as be forgiven. You need to somehow get those grievances off the screen.
The British poet Alexander Pope said “to err is human, to forgive is Divine.” Which perhaps makes many people think that only God has the capacity to forgive. I suggest we read the famous quote differently – to forgive will make you feel divine – as in heavenly or especially good.
To forgive does not mean to condone improper behavior. It does not mean making believe the wrong never occurred. But forgiveness is something that we do in the present. Forgiveness is about how we respond to the hurt we received.
The Biblical hero Joseph provides an excellent role model for us. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Years later, when Joseph was Pharaoh’s number two man and his brothers come looking for food he tells them “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life.”
Many people would have clung to their bitterness. Many people would have punished the brothers. How could the brothers make up for what they did to him? But Joseph was still able to forgive. He certainly didn’t forget—did the brothers really need the little reminder “whom you sold into Egypt?” But he was willing to forgive. He was able to put the horrible experience behind him and move on.
The Talmud tells us that someone who does not insist on receiving what he has coming to him from people who have wronged him is himself forgiven all his iniquities—the Torah says God is “Forgiving iniquity and passing by transgression.” The Talmud says “Who is forgiven iniquity? He who passes by transgression.”
By “passing by transgression”—by letting go of the wrongs that were done to you—you are forgiven. You forgive the transgression, and you get the benefit of feeling forgiven, instead of feeling hurt and bitter.
We all encounter situations where someone treats us unkindly. What is up to us, however, is how we react to that unkind moment. We can carry a grudge; we can wallow in our righteous indignation. But that of course is to put another “grievance plane” circling on the radar screen, using up precious space. Alternatively we can let it go, we can forgive, and not carry the unpleasantness around with us.
To forgive someone who does something wrong does not mean they are off the hook for paying a penalty for the wrong they did. Did God forgive Moses for the episode where he struck the rock to make water come out of it instead of talking to it? I think God did forgive Moses – they continued to have a close relationship after the episode. But even though God may have forgiven Moses, Moses still was not allowed into the Promised Land, as we read in this week’s Torah portion, Haazinu, “And die in the mount where you go up, and be gathered to your people; as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor, and was gathered to his people; Because you trespassed against me among the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you sanctified me not in the midst of the people of Israel.”
The Midrash also tells us that God only half forgave Cain because he only did a partial repentance, not a full repentance.
And there are some sins that are unforgivable. Simon Wiesenthal was working in a camp when a nurse summoned him. A dying SS soldier wanted to be forgiven for all the terrible things he had done to the Jews. He was afraid that his soul would be eternally tormented if he was not forgiven. Wiesenthal wants to leave, but he stays and listens because the soldier begs him, and he feels pity for him. Wiesenthal recognized that man had truly repented, but he knew that he was part of a group of people who had killed his friends and family. When the soldier finished telling his story and asked for forgiveness, Wiesenthal simply walked out of the room. He couldn’t forgive—but he was later haunted by whether or not he should have.
In such a situation, we may not be able to forgive. And the
question of offering forgiveness to a Nazi certainly would never have come up if the man had not repented and asked for it. In such circumstances, perhaps the best we can do is work not to be consumed with anger over the wrong done to us, to try and move on with our lives.
But the truth is, for most of us fortunate enough to be living in America today, very few of the hurts that are those “grievance planes” circling around taking up our energy are for sins that are truly unforgivable. Is it really impossible to forgive a harsh word? Is it really impossible to forgive someone’s selfishness?
The Talmud gives us a wonderful role model. The rabbi Mar Zutra, when he climbed into his bed would say, “I forgive all who have vexed me.”
“I forgive all who have vexed me.” What a wonderful way to end your day! Not in a spirit of aggravation but in a spirit of forgiveness – in a spirit of peace. The next day you can be sure that Mar Zutra got out of bed feeling calm and well rested – instead of tired and angry as he might if he had gone around carrying the grudges of the day as many of us do.
Kol Nidre is tomorrow night. In the time we have remaining, let us pray that God will help us forgive others. Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, help us to forgive others, that we may we live up to your example as it says in Psalm 86 “For you, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive.” May our readiness to forgive others show that we too should be forgiven, even if we are undeserving.