The Gift of Forgiveness

[Yom Kippur morning, 5777]

A friend recently told me about his 95-year-old grandmother, who is friends with 3 women who are sisters, living in her building. The sisters are 99, 102 and 105 – kinna hurra! The 99-year-old and the 105-year-old live together in one apartment; the 102-year-old sister lives alone, in the same building, one floor above them. The two sisters live apart from the third one, because they don’t get along with her – they find her irritating, they talk behind her back ……. It may reflect a long-standing pattern among them, stemming from some long-lost, perhaps long-forgotten history, leaving now only the pattern of isolation and disconnect. I wonder, what could possibly have happened, that after almost 100 years, it couldn’t be put to rest?

Merriam-Webster defines forgiveness as the capacity to stop feeling anger or to stop blaming someone. It comes from the Greek, meaning ‘to let go’. Psychology teaches that forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision to release resentment or vengeance, whether they deserve forgiveness or not.

The ability to forgive is what sets us apart from all the other creatures of the Earth. From the first words in Torah, we are reminded that we are created, b’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image. We know that isn’t about what we look like, the color of eyes or hair or skin, our height or our facial expressions. Scientists once thought that our capacity for language distinguished us from all other living beings, but now we know animals clearly have a capacity of emotion, to a degree– picture the loving nuzzle of any mother, animal or human, for her offspring. Even plants communicate with one another. But Forgiveness – the ability through what we say and what we do to transform ourselves, to transform a relationship, is the divine gift to us. This is one of the qualities that our tradition ascribes to God, labeling it mercy.

The struggle of forgiveness – between mercy and justice – is not ours alone. A midrash on the creation story explains that when God created the world, God said, “If I create the world with the attribute of mercy alone, its sins will be too many; if with justice alone, how could the world be expected to endure? So I will create it with both justice and mercy, that it may endure!”[1] The Talmud goes on to ask “What does God pray?” The answer given is: “May it be My will that My mercy conquer My anger. . . that I behave towards My children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake I go beyond the boundary of judgment.”[2] Even God must pray that the mercy to grant forgiveness will prevail above judgement. If this prayer is good enough for God, isn’t it more than good enough for us?

I admit that I struggle with forgiveness in certain situations. This is especially true when the transaction is not two-sided. I know I am not alone in this. We are troubled and confused about how respond to harm when the other person does no repair or restitution, or we do not feel we can do the repair or restitution ourselves.

Reconciliation doesn’t always require forgiveness, and forgiveness doesn’t always require reconciliation. We can forgive someone and not want to be reconciled. It is all too easy to get caught up in the rights and wrongs of what our actions should be.

So why do we continue to carry anger for wrongs done to us? We are here today, in part at least, because we want to begin, continue or resume the work of putting ourselves back together. How can we find wholeness in the midst of this anger?

What is anger, really? The word “anger” is from Old Norse and means: grief. Anger is grief. When we have been hurt, we are grieving the realization of an imperfect relationship. Grief arises from loss; if we can recognize that it is grief that underlies our rage, then perhaps we can begin to get unstuck, and become open to finding a way out. Usually, when we think of grief, we think of death and mourning. For a mourner, their loss and grief is apparent; while the path is unique for each mourner, the destination is same: toward healing and wholeness. I would like to apply here the same steps from the mourner’s path toward healing the grief that is anger – which is forgiveness. Those three steps are: getting unstuck, letting go, moving ahead.

Most often when we cannot forgive, we are stuck in anger. We are out of balance on the mercy-justice scale. The idea of forgiveness gets stuck in our throats, like a dried old crumb of bread. To move through grief, we do not have to excuse the hurt done to us, but we can refuse to be consumed with anger. We can choose to get unstuck from our angry place. That is where the healing process actually begins: with a choice not to be stuck. We have to want to move from our stuck place. To begin, we have to turn away from the facts. Even when we know all the facts – who to forgive, what to forgive, why to forgive – we still struggle with how to forgive. We want to figure out how to deal with the emotional residue, the scars of our grief– a lack of trust, lingering feelings of guilt, of shame, of inadequacy – it is not about litigating the facts. To get unstuck we have to ask: we can we give ourselves the permission to let go of destructive feelings, regardless of facts?

Being right does not release us from punishing ourselves or holding onto a narrative that no longer serves us, or even hinders becoming our best selves. Rather, we should ask ourselves the question: “what gets in our way of forgiving?” The answers help us to get unstuck, to begin to be able to move out of the quicksand in which we find ourselves.

The second step therefore comes in the awareness that healing from losses does not change them; forgiveness begins with letting go of the resentments that we hold, righteous or not. Being freed from the notion that we can change the past. The open heart we seek requires letting go of the anger that suffocates the heart and soul.

We often think of forgiveness as a blessing extended to the transgressor, easing the conscience of the wrong-doer. In this view, the person who does the forgiving is seen as engaged in gallant self-sacrifice, while the person who is forgiven finds benefit. With further observation, can we see that forgiveness is just as important for the person who forgives – perhaps even more so – as for the person forgiven? Could we be better off when we forgive? While it may take some deep work to remove the angry fire from long-held resentments, this step of letting go can happen in an instant, propelling us right into step three – moving ahead.

Imagine a tree swing, one of those old rope ones, suspended from a tree branch high up over the edge of a river bank. Sit down, grab the rope, swing back and forth, gather some momentum.….is it nerve-wracking? What will happen if we let go? Will the river be deep enough? Our tense grasp on the rope is keeping us on the swing, afraid. But, it also keeps us from soaring. If we let go of the swing, if we take a ‘leap of faith’, we might just soar above that river in graceful flight, landing in the water- safe, wet, and changed – for having taken the risk. When we think about letting go, we are afraid. We think we know what will happen if we let go, but really we do not. We imagine – we have whole stories we tell ourselves of everything that will happen when we let go. But we still are holding the rope. To let go, means to accept that we cannot predict what happens next. That is when we move on.

That moving ahead is the third step. The riskiest step yet – this whole day of Yom Kippur is one big gamble. The liturgy illuminates the unconditional atonement embodied in this day. Our prayer ‘al cheit shechatanu – for the sin that we have committed’, acknowledges that we atone and we forgive; but it does not say what happens next. Yom Kippur isn’t about neat and tidy apologies between people. Human relationships are complicated; they don’t always resolve, but they do move on.

Recognizing the good in ourselves can help us to judge that our own well-being is more worthy than continuing to hold our resentments. Finding the good within ourselves enables us to move on to find worthiness in others. One of my favorite Chasidic masters, 18th Century Reb Nachman of Bratzlav says this is the key to our own spiritual wholeness. He urges us to seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in the person who has wronged us, some place where he or she is not evil. When we find that bit of goodness, he says, we can raise that person up to goodness, allowing them to be restored. He writes: “The first little dot of goodness will be hardest one to find, or the hardest one to admit you find! The next ones will come a little easier, each one following another……these little dots of goodness in become your own melody. You sing them, and you then rescue your own good spirit as well.”[3] For Reb Nachman, forgiveness is the song of the soul.

Forgiveness then becomes about entering into these three stages of a grieving process: getting unstuck, letting go and moving on. These three things enable us to see ourselves and others in a new light, one that no longer weighs heavily on the heart. They enable a changed perspective that we can choose. Studies show forgiveness is essential to happiness. Experiencing anger or hatred only causes us to descend into misery and resentment, giving the person who wronged us even more power. We suffer from the original transgression and the burden of anger and grief.  Getting unstuck, letting go and moving on lifts the burden that we all carry.

This is hard. We need help. Just because we should be doing something, even something that is good for us, we all know that does not mean that we will actually do it. Habits are hard to build and hard to break. So we build time in as a community, filled with the ritual and symbolism of these Holy Days, to bring us together and to knock on the deep recesses of our souls.

Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook) that we will use beginning next year is filled to the brim with awesome and powerful words to help us along this journey. Here is a beautiful example by poet Marge Piercy, who exquisitely unwraps the murkiness of forgiveness in the last stanza of her poem, How Divine Is Forgiving,

We forgive mostly not from strength

But through imperfections,

For memory wears transparent as a glass with the pattern washed off,

‘til we stare past what injured us.

We forgive because we, too,

have done the same to others

easy as a mudslide;

or because anger is a fire that must be fed

and we are too tired to rise and haul a log.

The poet paints for us the exhausting burden of carrying anger, a load that scars us. We churn over all we cannot control. And that is why forgiveness is so hard. We can’t control what has already happened to us, how we were wronged, or how the other person behaved. Living in that turmoil, we suffer.

Through this perspective of forgiveness – getting unstuck, letting go, moving onward – we can reinterpret our own experiences. The truth is that we don’t live with the facts of our lives, but rather, we live with the conclusions that we make about the facts of our lives. Forgiveness allows injuries and injustices from our past to transform from building blocks of our persona, to being ‘just a part’ of our life; a part of who we are, and not our entire being. Our grudges and resentments, hatred or self-pity are no longer needed. We can accept the things over which we have limited or no control, or rage against them – that is our choice. We can make peace with how we have been wronged, with incomplete or imperfect relationships – and doing so allows us to receive the present and the future with an open heart.

I am thinking still of those three sisters. After 100 years, is there anything that cannot be forgiven, that we must still hold on to? Do we have to wait that long? And if not, what are we waiting for?

[1] B’reishit Rabbah, 12:15

[2] B’rachot 7a.

[3] Likkutei MoHaRa’N 282