Congregation Or Chadash
5763 Rosh HaShanah Evening
The Difficult Task of Forgiveness
Friday, September 6, 2002
Jewish Community Center
1 It has been a long year for all of us. For most the roller coaster seems to have been on its downhill slide with the terrorism of September 11, US armed forces in Afghanistan, the meltdown of the peace process in the Middle East, the stock market, to name but a few of the concerns on our minds, let alone our personal and family concerns.
But tonight, we celebrate new beginnings! Tonight we begin a new year! And tonight I want to talk to you about attitude, your attitude as you face these and future concerns in your lives. For I believe it is not what happens to us that matters. What matters most is how we respond to what happens.
Victor E. Frankl, psychiatrist and leading advocate of logotherapy wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning,
We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who
walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece
of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient
proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last
of his freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circum-
stances, to choose one’s own way.
For the past thirty days, our tradition has asked each one of you to reflect, to think, to consider “your attitude” about your relationship with God and others, and to thoughtfully “choose your own way” for the coming year. We are all asked to “return.” Return to God. Return to family. Return to your true self. And if you need help, there is a vast and heartfelt literature in Judaism to assist in your teshuvah; your “return.”
But tonight I don’t want to spend time with you on repenting for past wrongs; rather I want to spend this time talking to you about how you must “forgive” those who have wronged you.
This is not a sermon touching on the philosophical question about global atrocities, about people capable of heinous crimes against humanity, the dying Nazi SS soldier desiring forgiveness from a Jew. This is not a sermon about whether the Catholic church ought to seek forgiveness from its religious community. It is not about whether the world needs apologize to the Jews for 2000 years of anti-Semitism. This is a sermon about every day trauma which has been wreaked upon each one of you and which some of you may have wreaked upon others. This is a moment when you need to seriously look into that mirror of your soul and answer the question; must I grant forgiveness to stop the torment of my soul and theirs?
In the Talmud we read an interesting story about forgiveness:1
Rabbi Elazar was coming from the house of his teacher and was very proud of because he had learned much Torah. A certain man happened to meet him who was extremely ugly. He said to him, “Peace be unto you, my teacher.” But Elazar did not return the greeting. Instead he said to him, “Worthless person, how ugly you are! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?” The man said to the rabbi, “I do not know, but go and say to the Craftsman who made me: ‘How ugly is this
1 Taanit 20a-b, p 81 in Steinzaltz
2 vessel that you made!’” When Elazar understood that he had sinned, he got down from the donkey and bowed and said to him, “forgive me!” The man said to him, “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman who made me and say to Him: ‘How ugly is this vessel that you made!’”
The two walked into town where everyone had heard what had happened. The townspeople were aghast at the story. The man asked them, “Whom do you address with such deference? If this man is a Torah scholar, let there not be many like him in Israel!” “Even so,” they said to him, “forgive him for he is a man who is a great in Torah knowledge.” He said to them: “For your sakes I will forgive him (mochel), provided that he agrees to guard himself against arrogance and pride and does not become accustomed to behave in the way he did.”
Immediately Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon entered the Academy and expounded: A person should always be soft as a reed, and should not be hard as a cedar. And therefore, the reed merited that a pen be taken from it with which to write the Torah scroll, tefillin, and mezuzot.
A person should always endeavor to be soft in his relations with other people, like a reed that yields even to a gentle breeze, and should not be hard on others, like a cedar that stands firm even against a strong wind. It is a person’s hardness or arrogance toward other people that lead him to sin. According to some authorities this is why a scroll must be written with a reed rather than a quill. Today, Ashkenazi scribes use a quill while Sephardic scribes use a reed.2
From the story, it would appear that, like God, one must be “ready to forgive.” But even if one is not sure of the sincerity of the request, like the rabbi, the person must be ready to forgive after appropriate acts of humility and, even more so, after public humiliation.
But we just don’t want to forgive. We just don’t want to give it up. We want to dwell on it. We want to swim in it—the pain, the emotion, the garbage of it. We, as individuals, are fully aware of the emotional pain that has resulted from a deep, unjust injury. Characteristic feelings of anger or even hatred—Yup. We feel that. And we carry this with us like an old piece of baggage, for months, yes, and for years. We carry small pieces and large, heavier pieces of luggage around with us. Sometimes we show them to our friends. “Look what I’m lugging around. Look who caused it. Aren’t I a martyr?” Sometimes we try to hide the baggage we lug around. But those close to us see it and know it.
None of us are in good enough shape to carry this baggage with us every day without it having an effect on our families and our friends.
Now is the time to face these negative emotions, to confront them, look at the injury, and allow it to be honestly understood. All of us have experienced considerable emotional distress. Do I have to tell you how much energy we use dwelling on this hurt? In the course of a lifetime, most of us have been or will be unjustly harmed by another person in ways we cannot hope to remedy. There are those minor violations of a spouse forgetting our birthday, a child who stays out past curfew, or the friend who stands you
2 Yoreh De’ah 271:7
3 up for a date—the day-to-day stresses and strains of daily life. These, hopefully, can be remedied and forgiven quickly, though we may still have a strain on the amount of trust we can now allocate to these relationships. “All is forgiven.” Maybe. Maybe not. We tend to have long memories.
Then there are those major violations, those incidents where a trusted individual has harmed our spouse, our children or us physically or psychologically. We mark these as “unforgivable.” Our first and only desire is to completely sever our relationship with that person. We do so in the hope that the infraction will never reoccur and that the pain we feel will go away. Well, the infraction may never occur again, but I guarantee you, that the pain has never subsided, never disappeared . . . has it?
These problems disturb us and our relationships with others. They, in some manner, require mending the torn fabric of connection. There are times, often unexpected times when the fabric of our lives seems to have been shredded and run through the garbage disposal. No matter how much we try to distance ourselves from this hurt, this emptiness, time and again we relive it. We talk about it with others. It will not go away.
Though we may not want to face it. The only way we can heal, the only way we can regain a sense of shleimut, “wholeness,” the only way to “choose one’s way” (as Frankl remarked) is to forgive and move on.
The traditional Jewish perspective of forgiveness is that it enables the wrongdoer to achieve atonement for his act. It is a firm doctrine of Jewish belief that God doesn’t grant full forgiveness for our sins against our fellow man until we obtain forgiveness directly from the wronged individual.
But there is a problem with this. What if the “jerk” doesn’t apologize? What if he doesn’t apologize sincerely enough? “Francis, apologize to your brother!” “Ok, mommy. I’m sorry!” This doesn’t mean much. Furthermore, what if we just don’t want to see this person again? We have been hurt so badly that “nothing he says to me is going to make a difference. And you know what I could care less about his teshuvah.”
The most important thing to understand about forgiveness is that it is for one’s own benefit (in a cosmic/mystical sense) and not always for the person who has hurt us. Forgiveness is a letting go of the pain another has caused us. It must be entered into freely without obligation. The reason to forgive is not because the other person wants it, rather because picking at the open wound harms the victim, harms us.
Forgiveness does not mean pretending to forget what happened. Forgiveness does not require re-entering relationship with the person who violated you. Forgiveness does not mean giving up a legitimate claim for justice. You can forgive the person who stole your wallet and still want that person to go to jail.
Forgiveness does not require restoration of relationship. A daughter can forgive her father for physical abuse in her childhood but require a great deal of remorse, repentance and restitution before letting him anywhere close to her emotional life.
The key to forgiveness is giving up the grudge, which only the victim can do. One can give up the grudge independently of whether the perpetrator shows any remorse. The primary reason to give up the grudge is not because we are all sinners and only God can judge us but rather because of the tremendous harm it does us to hold the grudge. We can murder, draw and quarter our enemies a thousand times in our minds but ultimately the only one who suffers is us.
4 I am told that a rattlesnake, if cornered, will become so angry it will bite itself. That is exactly what harboring hate and resentment against others is—a biting of oneself. We think that we are harming others in holding these spites and hates, but the deeper harm is to ourselves. It is quite possible, that a person’s buried rage can compromise an immune system and make one vulnerable to a variety of ills. Forgiveness is for the victim’s physical and mental health, NOT the perpetrator’s.
As I think we all know, giving up a grudge is hard to do especially when we have been greatly and profoundly wronged. The prisoners of war, of conscience, and of domestic violence carry deep festering wounds that ooze venom not outwardly but inwardly dripping into the heart, slowly poisoning the soul. Giving up a grudge requires moving beyond the wounds and beginning to see something we would rather not: The humanity, the inherent worth and dignity as well as the hardness coexisting in the person who has wronged us.
I am sorry; I do not believe that there are sinners and saints among us. I think that there are those who are ignorant or operating in their own self-interest, who cause harm by running through us in their wakes. By placing horns on that person’s head does not make the hurt go away. We are all made of blood, bones and brains. We all harm each other. We all help each other. We all have the potential to heal each other.
But when we are violated, we passionately bury any sign of betrayer’s goodness, and for that matter, our own goodness. We are horrified at how friendly and kind con men can be as they take full advantage of our trust and the warmth of our affections. And all of them, whether we like it or not, will still have good and decent qualities which coexist with their capacity for evil.
So no matter how vile the person who stabs us in the back may seem, they are still human. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human, and therefore, brothers.” Seeing the humanity of our enemy brings them closer to us and prepares the way for the next stage of forgiveness: Letting go of our right to get even.
Who is mighty? He who makes of his enemy a friend.3
Letting go of one’s right to get even is letting go of the need for revenge. It is relenting from the demand for a pound of flesh, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It does not require the abandonment of the call for justice. In fact, a tremendously healing thing can be to direct the pain into action. Forgiveness, in fact, can be the key to freedom. The tremendous pain of the mothers who have lost family members to drunk drivers gave Mothers Against Drunk Driving the power to dramatically change the drinking and driving behavior of this country. The abused woman who works in a battered women’s shelter and the crime victim who organizes a Neighborhood Watch all transform their pain by trying to make a difference. Letting go of the need to even the score allows the wounded person to liberate that anger and use it toward the good rather than as a weapon of self- destruction. Our tradition teaches:
To an earthly monarch one goes with arms flowing with gifts and returns empty handed. To God, one goes with empty hands and returns with a full spirit (Pesikta Rabbati). The problem is that when we are full of anger, we feel constantly empty handed.
3 Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, chapter 23
5 By reaching past our hatred to seeing the other’s humanity and releasing the need for revenge, our feelings can begin to change. It is only in the softening of our feelings that forgiveness can fully take place. A change of feelings cannot be commanded or programmed; it is a spontaneous restoration of love, which truly accepts the humanity of the other and welcomes them back into the human race. The problem is that this change of feeling can be quite unwelcome if we are still clutching the grudge. The final stage of forgiveness is to wish the bastard well as he journeys on in life with or without us.
In addition to forgiving the other person, you have to forgive yourself. Then the quality of your life and love can grow.
Before he offered his evening prayers, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great medieval cabbalist, would begin: “I hereby forgive all who hurt me this day.” Ridding himself of everything that might weigh him down during prayer— “taking his heart in his hands,”—he was able to lift himself heavenward. If we can’t leave the baggage behind, we will drag it everywhere, slowing and weighing us down.4
It is so easy to hide behind the illusion that we are always right. Others are out to get us or hinder us, want to see us fail. This kind of thinking will destroy us. Before we are so willing to point the finger, look in the mirror. There we might see the adversary we fear!
We are responsible for our own behavior. But we are not responsible for other people’s reactions; nor are they responsible for ours. We put too much energy into taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts, and behavior. That’s Jewish guilt and that is part of our tradition!
One of the key aspects of forgiveness is humility. This is so difficult for many of us. It is tough to be humble, especially when you live life always being in the center. When things go right, I did it. When things go wrong, we ask, “why did this happen to me?” Rather in Judaism, we need to learn and understand that only God is in the center. That being true, then the question ought to be, “What is it that is taking me from the Source of Life and Love?
If we truly live in a God-centered universe and not the ego-centered one we dwell in too often, then we know and have been taught that our task is to restore order and goodness to the world. We need to mend imperfections in the world, Tikkun Olam. We often look outside and see a world torn by injustice, poverty, imperfections, and inequalities. Well, maybe this year we can be a bit more shortsighted and look at the imperfections, the defects within our own world, within ourselves. The Psalmist cried out Bakesh shalom v’rodfeihu, “Seek peace and pursue it.” The commentator teaches, “seek peace/wholeness/well-being within yourself and your home first, then pursue peace elsewhere.” Let us put our own house in order first. Bring God’s mercy and justice to your own life as your first order of business this year.
There are injustices caused by what we have not done. “But I have harmed nobody,” we insist. “They wronged me! They need to apologize!” Listen to the power the energy of those words. Does it sound like a person who is wounded, scarred and hurt? Hurt, yes. But look and listen to the amount of energy expended on a hurt that will never be healed by another. Use that energy in a positive direction instead.
But let us not be completely deluded however, that your act of forgiveness will somehow miraculously change the other person. What we need to do is let people feel
4 Olitzky, Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days, p. 50.
6 the way they want. I have met too many people who thought they could change their friend or spouse. It rarely happens. Don’t count on it. All that you can count on is your own attitude; how you react to others and to circumstances. You can’t affect how people will feel about you. What you say and do tomorrow may not change the way they feel about you, but this act of contrition will help change the way you feel about yourself.5
I am here today to tell you to forgive yourself first for being flawed. Then approach the other (if you can), with the hopes of returning to the loving relationship you once had, and still desire. Don’t wait, as our tradition insists, for them to come to you. You may have judged them wrong anyway.
If re-evaluate the relationship you must, then do it. Move on. No longer will you feel that emptiness. You must give up your anger which does more harm than you can imagine. Just ask anyone who has been with you at those times.
Will you be able to make amends with everyone? No. Return to humility, however. Put your trust in God’s power. You are not the center of the universe. Ask God for healing, refuah shleima et haguf v’et haneshema. Learn and pray with a full heart the prayer we as congregation pray weekly:
Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M’kor ha-b’rachah l’imoteinu
May the source of strength
Who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing
Mi shebeirach l’imoteinu
M’kor ha-b’rachah avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with r’fua sh’leimah
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit.
You have to go out and pray for it and do it. Wonderful thoughts do not repair the world. Whatever you do, do it l’shem shamayim, “for the sake of heaven.”
More than just words, true forgiveness takes place in the heart. It begins on that day when we no longer carry ill will toward the person who hurt us.
Forgiveness for some may come suddenly, like a “spiritual flash entering the soul.” For others it may come more gradually, where we feel inside telling us to move forward slowly and improve our ways.
Norman Cousins calls life “an adventure in forgiveness.” If we are ever to begin to approach the commandment to love thy neighbor, we must learn to forgive. Peter Ustinov calls love “an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.” Maybe this can be our new habit for the coming new year.
Remember that forgiveness is not turning into a mushy doormat on which the world can wipe its feet but rather a clear-eyed and large-hearted attempt to live in an impossibly flawed world where at times injustice reigns, the bad guys live to a ripe old age eating caviar and drinking fine wines, and the good die young. In the midst of wrong, love can be recovered whether or not justice is served. It is possible to forgive and not forget as an individual or as a nation. Not only is it possible, it is imperative for our own health and the health of the world. Forgiveness returns us to shleimut, tranquility, wholeness and the ability to love fully.
5 Olitzky, pg. 74
7 At the same time: