Forgive and Remember

Some years ago I delivered a sermon on ‘letting go’ of grudges as something we do for ourselves, not to as a favor we do for another – who may or may not deserve it.  The next day a woman appeared in my study to challenge my message.  “For twenty years I’ve had to work two jobs just to make ends meet” she continued.  “They kids have worn second-hand clothes and been unable to go to movies with their friends.  For twenty years my ex has been irresponsible about meeting his obligations under our divorce agreement. You expect me to forgive him?!”

I took a deep breath and said, “Yes, but not to forgive him but to let go of him.  What he did was so wrong, perhaps even criminal.  And just as he long ago forfeited the right to live in your home, he has lost the right to continue to reside in your head.”

A biblical Joseph is ready to forgive his brothers.  His words are intended to be reassuring.  It wasn’t your fault.  Don’t feel sad or afraid.  Come close.  I will provide for you.  Bring our father.  What appears hurtful and hazardous will be made purposeful by God.  In this week’s portion of Torah, Joseph says everything he can say to relieve his brothers.  He seeks to rebuild trust.

Two dimensions of the unique texture of Jewish forgiveness are conspicuous in this story: first, scars don’t suddenly disappear; second, earning forgiveness requires hard work.

Judah opens the portion, eliciting Joseph’s disclosure of his true identity, by referring thirteen times to the rapport between his family and the Egyptian leader (Joseph) as avadecha ‘your servants’. This number corresponds to the thirteen family members bowing down to Joseph in his earlier dream interpretation (Gen. 37:10)).  Yet because their history of mistrust runs so deep, Joseph’s reassurances will not heal lingering wounds and doubts.  Freighted feelings over past hurts cannot be completely calmed as a bell cannot be un-rung.  The Torah’s primary story of human forgiveness does not convey forgive and forget.

Yet there is a silver lining to the strenuous investment of time and effort we expend in striving to earn forgiveness.  When another person perceives we are struggling sincerely to earn it, our effort counts almost as much, even if we don’t say or do everything they need for us to say or do.  This is because when we break a sweat over efforts to heal, we demonstrate how much we care about a relationship.

Letting go also requires hard work.  But it is rewarded.  How many of us walk around with hot coals in our hands, hoping some day to throw them at those who have wronged us?  If and when we get the chance, the villain may not even realize when he or she has been hit.  Meanwhile the hot coal continues to burn our own hand.

Remember the wrongs done.  Carry around less baggage.  You deserve to live lighter.

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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