William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Be on nodding terms with your former self

Forgiving yourself isn’t easy. Some people set the bar high. They base their approach on a tough standard. Their favorite maxim may sound something like this: ’How can you tell when a sin has been forgiven? When you no longer commit it’. This asks much from us.

Others rush self-forgiveness to the scene of the crime too quickly. Their standard is low. It comes too freely and asks too little.

This week’s primary portion of the Torah offers a plentiful study on forgiveness. After all, the sin is grievous. Mere weeks after experiencing God’s voice atop Sinai, the people at the base of the mountain turn into an unruly mob, jubilantly praising a Golden Calf. What then follows the punitive consequences, is a scene unlike any other in the Torah. We get to know God’s core predisposition to forgive.

A forensic look at what helps bring about forgiveness in this case, and sets the stage for all future Yom Kippur atonement, is a readiness to bring along formative memories from the past. Part of what earns forgiveness for the Children of Israel is recognizing past promises to Abraham and more recent tendencies of the people to test divine patience.

As much as forgiveness is earned by owning mistakes, it is not like an organ transplant. It’s more like refueling. New fuel gets added to what was there before. The key lubricant that reduces friction is called gracious favor. The Hebrew word ‘chen’ recurs five times in the span of five verses. (Ex. 33:12, 13, 16, 17).

How can you operationalize gracious favor in your life? With self-empathy. We all try to grow and change for the better. In so doing, it’s so easy to harshly judge our former selves. Memoirist Tara Westover urges, ‘Go easy on yourself – your current self and your former self.’ She invokes the writer Joan Didion who urges us to remain on nodding terms with the people we used to be.

Showing and finding favor makes a forgiving impulse more attractive. First, apply it to yourself. See how it feels. Then, in those instances when you feel you can do so, consider generously extending its warmth to others in kind.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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