Forgiveness (i.e. forgiving others and forgiving ourselves) may be the most difficult challenge we ever have to face. However, we often make it more difficult than it needs to be because we misunderstand what forgiveness is and is meant to do.
Forgiving others doesn’t mean excusing their bad behavior or forgetting that they wronged us. Even if people who hurt us don’t apologize to us and even if they continue to justify what they did that is contrary to what we believe actually happened, we ought to forgive them not for their sake but for ours. Forgiveness means “letting go” of resentments because these negative and toxic feelings are damaging to us.
Having noted this, the ideal goal of forgiveness is to reconcile and reestablish some kind of relationship with the offending “other.” Let me be quick to say, however, that reconciliation isn’t always possible if, for example, the person who harmed us or we harmed is deceased, nor is it always desirable if the “other” is so incorrigible, narcissistic, and damaged that we have no desire for reconciliation.
Here, however, is one positive example of what forgiveness can do.
A woman in her 70s hadn’t spoken with her sister in forty years. Out of the blue one day her sister called to tell her that she was dying and wanted to see her. They met, her sister apologized for the wrong that caused the breach so long before, and asked for forgiveness. They wept together and reconciled. After her sister died the woman felt a heavy burden lifted from her heart, and the love she once felt for her sister returned.
There is no time like the present (in this season of Elul before Rosh Hashanah in particular) to summon the courage, take the risk, and seek forgiveness from those we’ve wronged even if the event occurred many years ago. Hopefully, those who wronged us will do the same. There is no expiration date nor is there a statute of limitations on forgiveness.
Michael McCullough extends the principles of forgiveness to groups, communities, and nations:
“The forgiveness instinct … can change the world. Groups can be helped to forgive other groups, communities can be helped to forgive other communities, …and nations can even be helped to forgive other nations. Leaders… can offer apologies on behalf of their people to groups with whom they’ve been in conflict. They can also offer … remorse and empathy for the suffering of another group, and they can provide compensation to groups of people whom they’ve harmed – just as individuals can. When they engage in such gestures, it is often to great effect.” (Beyond Revenge – The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, [Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2008] p. 181-2)
Think of the power of Pope John Paul II’s apology to the Jewish people for Christendom’s participation in the Holocaust, the Japanese apology for war atrocities it committed against China and Korea, the United States’ apology to Japanese Americans interred in concentration camps during World War II, and the Irish Republican Army’s apology for the deaths of noncombatants during the war in northern Ireland.
Imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu on behalf of Israel and President Abbas on behalf of the Palestinians taking a similar step and apologizing to the other for the pain and suffering each people caused non-combatants on the other side. If this were to happen, if either took the initiative, I believe that a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible.
Longfellow wrote: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
Note: Selichot (the Holiday in which Judaism teaches that the Gates of Heaven begin to open to receive the petitionary prayers of the community) this year falls on Saturday night, September 16. Those who live in Los Angeles and are unaffiliated are welcome to join us at Temple Israel of Hollywood. We’ll convene for learning with the Rabbis at 8:30 pm considering all aspects of forgiveness, followed by a presentation by Theater Dybbuk on the theme of forgiveness, and then we’ll join together in the mystical service of Selichot in which we will change the Torah mantles on all our sifrei Torah to white. Come dressed in white.