Forgiveness: A Practical View

Cormorants on the Long Island Sound, JHD

Shalom, Friends! A colleague was asking for Jewish sources and practices on forgiveness, and I remembered this sermon that I gave some years ago. It includes a guided meditation on forgiveness. I hope it will be helpful to someone. I’m sure that I can use this myself.

 [I love to start with a joke.]

One day at the gym, Nate asked Dave, “Say, do you know Sol Roth?”

“Do I know Sol Roth? Of course I know him! He cheats at business, he’s a lousy husband and a terrible father. An all around bum.”

“Wow…how do you know all that about him?”

“Hey, Sol–he’s my best friend!”

Sometimes the people with whom we are closest are the most difficult ones to forgive. In a small and tight-knit community, we can feel almost like family. Unfortunately, part of being in a family can include all sorts of feuds, resentments, and old grudges. Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when it should be a bit easier to examine these issues.

Yom Kippur is a time when we speak easily of forgiveness. But forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is an enormous concept. Tonight I’m not speaking of existential questions like, “Can the Jews forgive their persecutors?” Neither am I speaking tonight of heroic forgiveness, of a Judea Pearl or a Yitzhak Frankenthaler, who responded to their respective sons’ brutal murders at the hands of terrorists to work for peace and reconciliation.  I’m not even focusing on really tough issues like forgiveness toward a person who has been abusive. These are all special and complicated cases about which Jewish law and tradition has a lot to offer. But in our short time tonight, I’m speaking tonight of something much more prosaic, down to earth, and ordinary: forgiveness in our daily lives, families and community.

A rabbi takes two women into her study the week before Yom Kippur, and says, “The two of you have been feuding for too long. Now before Yom Kippur comes, it’s time for each of you to apologize to the other.”

The women are embarrassed for the way they’ve been acting, and they apologize and hug. After Yom Kippur, one of them comes to the other, and says, “You know, after our talk in the Rabbi’s study, I just want to say…Whatever you were praying for me today, I was praying for you, too.”

The other one turns to her and says, “Starting up already?”

Let’s Get Real

It’s hard for rabbis to do things like this in real life. Instead, we give the obligatory devar torah about teshuvah and forgiveness, and everyone acknowledges that it’s a fine sermon, but no one thinks it applies to them. It only applies to the other person.

After all, we have heard many times that Judaism demands responsibility, that real forgiveness can only come when the offender regrets what he or she has done, asks forgiveness sincerely and resolves to be different in the future. That’s teshuvah; that’s repentance. And how many times has someone come up to you and offered to do teshuvah? It seems that we are off the hook as far as seeking or granting forgiveness.

And yet…the Torah in Leviticus 19 has those difficult commandments: “Do not hate your brother or sister human being in your heart…hocheach tochiah have the courage to tell them directly when they’re being hurtful so that you won’t be partly responsible for their continued mistakes…do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge among your people. Love your companion as yourself.” One of my mother’s mottos is a saying of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The Torah tells us to love our companion as ourselves. That must mean that we can.”* So we’re not off the hook. Ninety percent of the time, another person won’t come to us asking forgiveness, trying to do sincere teshuvah. Often we are in mutual conflict in which each of us feels justified in our side of the issue (of course I’m only 2 percent to blame and the other person is 98 percent J), and the burden is on us-to hold the grudge in violation of the Torah, or to forgive and lighten our hearts.

So I will try not to give another generic sermon about forgiveness. I’ll try to be real and practical. As they say, the job of a rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. But it is really a hard to give such a sermon, because a lot of people may think it’s about them. And in fact, it is about most of us…it’s about you and me; it’s about being human and being in community.

We are engaged in the sacred task of creating an intentional community in which everyone is loyal and respectful to everyone else. But if you’ve been in a community for a while, there are some people who are your good friends, and others who rub you the wrong way. There is probably at least one person whose personality irritates you, or at least one person who has offended you or hurt your feelings (maybe even years ago). There may be someone you disagreed with on a congregational decision, or someone who was on the other side of an issue in the larger community or embroiled in a controversy at work. [And if there isn’t anyone like that…you’re probably new!J]  If there is someone you can’t bear to speak to, volunteer, study, or socialize with …then the offense may well be theirs, but the corrosive pain of bearing a grudge is yours.

Then there is forgiveness in the family. While a rabbi can find lack of forgiveness in the community very frustrating, she can find lack of forgiveness in families tragic. People become estranged for decades, even lifetimes, until it’s too late, until death. Sometimes the falling out is based on true offenses but often it is the result of old rivalries and personality conflicts.

The inability to forgive can weaken communities and devastate families. But there are also completely selfish reasons to learn to forgive. There have been various studies that show that forgiveness is good for us. I disclaim giving medical advice, but forgiveness is said to reduce stress, be better for our heart and cardiovascular system, help with pain management, lead to better relationships, enhance psychological well being and create more happiness. We know that forgiving is good for us, but we don’t always know how to go about it.

How can we learn to forgive?

I found it very instructive to read an essay by Rabbi David Blumenthal, in which he describes three levels of forgiveness: mehilah (letting go), selichah (forgiving), and kaparah (atoning). Mechilah is the most superficial level. It is letting go, forgiving an emotional debt that the other person owes us.

“The second kind of forgiveness is … selicháh. It is an act of the heart. It is achieving an empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selichah…is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy.” “The third kind of forgiveness is ‘atonement’ (kappará)…This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness.

It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but [according to Blumenthal] it is only granted by God.”

To personalize these, I can say that I have granted mechilah many times. I’ve let go; I’ve moved on. Often, I haven’t waited for the other person to do teshuvah. I just needed to let go for my own peace of mind. And there have been rarer cases in which I’ve experienced true selichah-I’ve really healed my feelings about the person and forgiven them, because I realize that it was their own emotional distress or perhaps even an emotional illness that caused the person to offend. And the rarest of all have been that times that I have experienced kapparah. Yes, true kaparah, true atonement, can only be granted by God. But sometimes our outlook can be godly, when we get to the level where we realize that we are “at one,” that we are not really separate, that we are all part of the same story, and even perhaps that things happened for a reason. Then we are open to experiencing true reconciliation, like Joseph and his brothers. Those times are the rarest and most precious of all.

A Guided Meditation on Forgiveness

Let me suggest a forgiveness exercise from an old friend of mine in Texas, Glenda Rosenberg:

Picture yourself in very safe and loving setting, in your favorite place. It is a very happy occasion. Near you, surrounding you, are those you love the most, your most intimate family or friends.

Now picture the circle getting wider. Welcome in more extended family, or more casual friends. All of them are here to celebrate you, to rejoice in your happiest occasion. Your heart is so full that you welcome everyone today. You are safe, loved, and secure.

Now imagine welcoming in people to the party about whom you feel neutral, people you don’t know as well but have no reason to dislike.

When you are totally comfortable in this most wonderful scene, with all of your loved ones there, can you welcome in just one additional person to your mental celebration, one person with whom you feel an old grudge, like an old pebble that you need to take out of your shoe? Yes, they have offended you. But can you see one good thing they ever did for you? Can you think of one “nekudat hatov,” one good point about that person, one godly spark? Can you welcome them into the circle?

Try to take that energy and get at least to the stage of mechilah, or letting go. If you can work hard within yourself this Yom Kippur and get to forgiveness level one, to mechilah, and give that person a sincere “Shanah Tovah” at the break-the-fast, you have done good spiritual work. Then you can keep going from there, maybe even to selichah.

My great-Uncle Jay was always sending me inspirational  stories that I put into sermons, and this one in particular stuck with me: There were once two old friends. When one struck the other, the offended friend wrote the deed in sand. But when the offender later saved the second man’s life, the rescued friend carved an account of the deed in stone. The moral of the story was that we don’t have to just forget and forgive. We can go ahead and take note of other’s mistakes, but do it in the sand, so that the winds of time can quickly erase those recollections. But let us inscribe people’s good deeds and good qualities in stone, so that we recall them and keep them in mind.

I want to bless everyone in the most practical way possible to find one person whom you can forgive over this Yom Kippur.** At least try to get to the level of mechilah, of letting go of that burden you have tucked away in your heart. From there you can work on the higher levels of forgiveness with understanding, and of true reconciliation.

May we find at least one good point in everyone we know, write people’s failings in sand, and engrave their merits in stone. If we can do that, we will have happier and perhaps healthier lives, more loving families, and a stronger community.


* My mother passed away the next year, and that saying is on her headstone.

**Which is when I gave this sermon some years back. But we can forgive any day!

Acknowledgement: Thank you to Rabbi Liza Stern for the phrase, “creating an intentional community in which everyone is loyal and respectful to everyone else.”

Musar: Ethical Development as an Ascent

Musar: Ethical Development as an Ascent

Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair says, “Heedfulness leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to purity, purity leads to separation, separation leads to holiness, holiness leads to modesty, modesty leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to piety, piety leads to the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead, and the resurrection of the dead comes from Elijah, blessed be his memory, Amen