Far too often, when I served as a congregational rabbi and was called to officiate at a funeral and meet with the family of the deceased, someone was missing from the inner circle of close relatives and friends—a brother, sister, child, or longtime friend. They were absent not because they were unavailable, but because some serious breach occurred long before, and the parties never forgave one another nor reconciled.
All of us will be hurt, sometimes deeply by those close to us. Knowing this, our task is to determine how we will cope when we or one of our dear ones are victimized, and what we will have to do to arrive at a place of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is among the most difficult emotional, psychological, and spiritual challenges we ever face. Our inability and/or unwillingness to forgive has a profound negative impact on our well-being and overall health. But if we can find our way to forgiveness, we can not only restore relationships but relieve our deepest hurts.
As I have thought about how to forgive (a central theme during this period leading to and including the High Holidays), how to reach the place inside us that allows us to lay down the burdens that come with being wronged, I have gleaned six truths about the nature of forgiveness:
- Forgiveness is a step-by-step process and not a single event. True forgiveness does not paper over what happened to us in a superficial way, nor does it suppress or ignore our pain. It cannot be hurried, and it comes only when we are able to honor the grief and sense of betrayal that are part us and our past, without letting them take over our lives in the present.
- Forgiveness requires a courageous act of will. It is not about forgetting or pardoning, condoning, falsely reconciling, or appeasing an aggressor or wrong-doer. Forgiving takes fortitude, which is why Gandhi taught: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
- Forgiveness requires us to believe in our basic goodness. It needs to be anchored in the belief that we are all “nobly born” by virtue of being created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the Divine image,” and that we have an innate capacity for wisdom, purity, goodness, and love. Our noble birth means that we aspire to do better, even when we are hurt and justifiably filled with the desire to seek vengeance.
- Forgiveness frees us. When we hold onto our anger and resentment, we bind ourselves to the person who hurt us, and if we say “I will never forgive him/her,” we consign ourselves to a prison in which we are both the jailor and the prisoner. Consider this dialogue between two former prisoners of war:
“Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“Well, they still have you in prison, don’t they?”
When asked if he could ever forgive the Chinese for their military occupation of Tibet and the systematic destruction of Tibetan monasteries and culture, the Dalai Lama replied, “They have already taken my country. Why should I let them have my mind, too?”
Forgiveness does not depend on anyone except us—it is unilateral. It doesn’t require the other person to apologize or ask to be forgiven. It doesn’t even require the other person to be alive or aware of our decision to forgive. Forgiveness is ultimately simple – it means releasing ourselves from the pain inflicted upon us in the past and letting it go in the present.
- Before we can forgive others, we have to feel fully the injury we sustained, to grieve as if we suffered the death of a loved one, and then reconstitute our lives after an appropriate period of mourning. This is perhaps the most difficult challenge of all, because so many of us have allowed the hurt, grief, fear, resentment, and rage to pile up over time, one negative emotion sitting on top of another, each adding density to our negative feelings, a black hole of intensifying negativity that sucks the life out of everyone around us.
Many people wrongly assume that we should simply move on without the necessary emotional work. Negative emotions, however, do not really go anywhere. To make forgiveness possible, we need to strive to understand how the hurt fits into the rest of our lives, how it changed us and our world view, and how it closed our hearts.
The goal of forgiveness is a reshaped life, and if we come to it late, forgiveness can reshape death as well. We will know that the process of forgiveness has been effective and we are different when we can recall those who hurt us and nevertheless want to wish them well.
- Forgiveness does not re-write our history, but it allows us to re-write the story of our history. Our willingness to change, and then to see the world through a more positive lens, resets the compass of the heart so we can reclaim our larger self, our larger consciousness, our larger capacity for loving-kindness. It allows us to open our hearts to others, and it frees us from the debilitating fear of being hurt again.
When we forgive we heal the hurts we do not deserve. By forgiving, we reverse the flow of our history. We are released from the pain born in the past but which poisoned our present.
This blog appears in my book Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove (Nashville: Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of Turner Publishing, 2017) 106-113. It is available on Amazon.