Allen S. Maller

Forgiveness requires self-improvement

The first of two basic steps or stages in the repentance process is confession, admitting that you have done the wrong thing. Until you acknowledge your responsibility for what’s wrong you can’t hope to change it. This applies in interpersonal relationships whether you are solely responsible, or as is more frequently the case, when you are only partly responsible.

It also applies to sins you do to yourself. Admitting responsibility for past actions and inactions is the beginning of the process of changing the future, but by itself it doesn’t take you very far.”

The second step is reconciliation. You have to go to the person whom you have wronged, admit your responsibility and ask for forgiveness; and if that person refuses to forgive you the best thing is to give the person a week or two to think about your desire to be forgiven.

Frequently people need time to adjust to the prospect of a changed relationship. When you make a second attempt at reconciliation it is often successful, even though you were rejected the first time.

Some religions say you must always forgive someone no matter what. It is a mitzvah to forgive but forgiveness shouldn’t be an automatic response whenever someone says, ‘I’m sorry’. If that person has said it many times before, and then kept repeating the same negative behavior, you would be wise to withhold forgiveness until you see evidence of a real change in behavior.

Sinners do need love and forgiveness in order to change. But if the sinners keep repeating the same sin over and over again they make the victim more likely to get hurt again. Christianity seems to focus so much on the needs of the sinner that it doesn’t do enough to protect the victim. Indeed, it sometimes makes the victim feel guilty for feeling angry at the wrongdoer.

I have seen people repeatedly victimized because they were too forgiving. Christian women are particularly vulnerable to this. For every person who has not changed on their own, but has miraculously changed as result of someone else’s love and forgiveness, there are ten cases where unearned forgiveness leads to co-dependent relationships that perpetuate and even exacerbate what’s wrong.

When what’s wrong involves alcohol, drugs, gambling or other addictive vices it is almost always wrong to forgive before people have changed their behavior. On the other hand there are people who will not forgive because they want to use your guilt in order to manipulate you again and again. How does Judaism avoid this situation?

According to Jewish law you should approach a person on three separate occasions in order to seek forgiveness. If you are rebuffed on all three occasions then the sin becomes that of the other person and you are forgiven by God.

Judaism teaches that you must first reconcile yourself with your fellow human beings. Only after you have done that will God forgive you. So it isn’t easy to get God’s forgiveness because it isn’t easy to change your life but it can be done, and God helps us do it.

God’s name YHVH signifies the dynamics of growth, change and evolution; that apply both on the cosmic scale of nature, and in the personal scale of morality. When we try to improve ourselves we are moving with the spiritual current. When we act selfishly, viciously or irresponsibly we go against God’s spiritual current and it becomes counterproductive.

Forgiveness thus becomes a reward to encourage change rather than a reward for feeling sorry.

Many people, especially a perfectionist or the children of perfectionist parents, have a great deal of trouble forgiving themselves for what are quite normal failings. They sometimes even refuse to give themselves the understanding and compassion they are able to give to others. That is where God comes into it.

If you take the atonement process seriously, you have to forgive yourself because God has forgiven you, and who are you to be unforgiving if God has forgiven you. Evangelical Protestant Churches always do claim there is no atonement without the offering of a bloody sacrifice i.e. Jesus. Since the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed 19 1/2 centuries ago these churches claim that Jews cannot attain atonement for their sins now.

The rituals in the Temple were to dramatize for the people the spiritual principles of the Torah. But the rituals are means, not ends. Jews have functioned very well in the 19 1/2 centuries since the Temple was destroyed. Long before the Temple’s destruction the Prophets of Israel had prepared the people by stressing that ethics and repentance were more important than the ritual sacrifices offered in the Temple.

In the 8th century BCE the Prophet Hosea (6:6) said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God is (worth) more than burnt offerings.”

And a century and a half later Prophet Jeremiah (7:3-12) speaking about the Holy Temple said that those who enter the Temple’s gates need to amend their ways and their behavior: to execute justice, to avoid oppressing the stranger, the orphan and the widow. For if they come to offer sacrifice and pray while continuing to steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to an idol, and walk after other Gods, then they turn the Temple into a den of robbers and God himself will cause the Temple to be destroyed.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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