Beyond Conflict: Forgiving Others, Forgiving Ourselves -YK 2012
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
Sam is lonely so he goes to buy a bird that talks. But when he brings the bird home, the bird does not stop cursing. At first Sam asks nicely for the bird to stop, but he just continues with the curses. So Sam threatens him but that does not help. Sam is so exasperated, that he takes the bird and stuffs him in the freezer. At first he hears rustling around and cursing, and then suddenly the bird is quiet. The he hears the bird who is begging to come out. He promises he will stop. So Sam opens up the freezer and sees the bird all contrite. He asks why the sudden change of behavior. To which the bird answers, well I saw the chicken, what did he do? Asking for forgiveness should not just come out of fear or when we have made a mess out to things.
The high holidays is a time when we are supposed to seek forgiveness. On Yom Kippur we ask the Almighty to forgive us for all the mistakes, mess-ups, and wrong things we have done over the past year. The flip side of the forgiveness theme is when we think about someone who hurt us, are we are ready to forgive as well? Are we ready to forgive the co-worker who badmouthed us or undermined our work with the boss? Can we pardon the person who broke up by text after dating for five weeks? How about the relative who did not invite us to their celebration even though we invited them to ours? Or the friend who betrayed our trust and shared with other people something very personal we told them in confidence?
The Torah tells us ‘do not hate your brother in your heart.’ This is even if they have hurt you or done something really bad to you. On May 13, 1983 Pope John Paul II was shot at St Peter Square. A few days after the shooting by Turkish national Mehmet Ali Ağca, he asked for people to pray for Agca, who he called ‘my brother’ and offered his ‘sincere forgiveness.’ Are we supposed to forgive someone who tried to kill us, like the Pope did?
At the other extreme we have the story of the Count of Monte Cristo. In his famous work, Alexandre Dumas weaves a story of Edmond Dantes who is framed for committing treason and is thrown in prison for life. He is accused by a shipmate who wants the position of captain he is being promoted to, and by a jealous lover who wants his fiancée. Driven by hatred and the desire for vengeance, Dantes spends 8 years plotting his revenge and 15 years carrying it out. He systematically destroys the lives of those who destroyed his.
A few verses after enjoining us not to hate, the Torah tells us we are not allowed to take revenge. So what are we to do? We probably all have family stories of relatives who do not speak to each other. I have two cousins who are brothers who have not spoken in years. I once did not speak to someone who runs another Jewish organization for six years because they did something really wrong. Now I did not see them every day, but whenever we were around each other I simply ignored them. Or let’s say it is not even that bad, but we are upset at someone and the tiff is still lingering. I had a run in with a friend last March, and while she has texted me a few times and we went back and forth, we still have not spoken it out and are not really in touch much.
The wisdom offered by the Torah is very simple. In Leviticus 19:15 the Torah says, ‘do not hate your brother in your heart, but tell them what they have done wrong.’ Why? Because by doing so you give them a chance to apologize. But we are probably thinking: ‘why should I have to be the one to approach them, they are the one who were in the wrong? What if they do not apologize then I look like a real idiot? And then I will be even more upset at them.’
It is true, if you have an abusive co-worker it probably is not advisable to go over to them and say ‘you know what you are doing is really not nice.’ They will just take it as a sign you are weak and be even more mean. And yes there are people who are not capable of apologizing, who simply cannot say the words ‘I am sorry,’ and we will discuss what to do on those situations. And maybe there are some things which one cannot apologize for. Simon Wiesenthal tells the story in Sunflower of how after World War II he was summoned to the sick bed of a Nazi who asked for forgiveness. He said I do not have the right to forgive the acts you committed against the Jewish people as a whole.
But it incredible how most people will be responsive when they see that you open the door a little. They will choose to walk in that door and try to make amends. We may ask ourselves why I should have to be the one to initiate the dialogue when they are the ones who did the offense. Shouldn’t they be the ones to take the initiative? There can be many reasons why they do not engage. Sometimes they really did not do anything hurtful and you just misunderstood them. Sometimes the person who hurt us is not even aware that they have done so. Sometimes they are just not aware enough or sensitive enough to realize the implication of what they have done. Some people are too proud to humble themselves and to apologize and admit they did something wrong. And sometimes it is that deep down they know what they did was wrong and because they feel guilty they avoid it.
This is where the forgiving ourselves piece comes in. A person who does not feel good about themselves is often not ready to put themselves on the line to initiate an apology. The wrong doer has to realize that apologizing to a person who we have hurt or offended is the first step to forgiving ourselves and feeling better about ourselves. And because that is so hard, the Torah sets down this formula for reconciliation by enjoining the person who has been hurt to take the higher road and take the first step if the offender did not apologize, even if it may seem like the responsibility should be on them.
What does Judaism say about the act of Pope John Paul, of forgiving a person automatically and instantly without them apologizing. According to the Torah, If a person does not apologize, there is no obligation to forgive them. And sometimes maybe you should not forgive them in such a case because you might be enabling them or others like them. Sometimes they apologize and we are still too hurt to find the place in our hearts to forgive them. However, the flip side of this is to realize that if we carry around resentment or the hatred, then it means we are still carrying around the hurt, and we are still being victimized by them. Granting forgiveness can be liberating.
After the initial pain has subsided, the best path is to let go of our anger and resentment and to forgive the person, perhaps even more for ourselves than for the other person. This is the full text of the Torah’s teaching: ‘Do not hate your brother/sister in your heart, but tell them what they have done wrong, so that they do not continue to carry around the wrong-doing (by apologizing). Do not take vengeance and do not bear a grudge, love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord your G-d.’ Why does the verse end with the statement, ‘love your neighbor as yourself?’ If the think about it, we would want the other person to help us to apologize and let us know the that door to forgiveness is open on behalf of the offended party. Doing so requires summoning within us a concern for the other, even if they have hurt us. Maimonides explains that when we tell them what they have done wrong we can even tell them that we are doing it out of concern and care, and for their own good so they can make amends. Or we could understand it as the Talmud does when it tells us that it is a saintly quality, an act of spiritual greatness, to forgive the other person even if they did not apologize, even if the Torah does not obligate us to do this.
I would like to end with the following story told by Rabbi Eliyahu Maksumov, who introduced it by saying the story is true. A number of years ago there was a taxi driver in Israel who impatiently swerved around a school bus which had stopped in the street. He did not see the boy who had gotten off the bus and was crossing in front of the bus, and he hit and killed the boy. Because it was involuntary manslaughter the taxi driver was sentenced to five years in prison and not life. However, he was the sole breadwinner, and it was not clear how his wife and children would pay the bills without the income from his job. A number of weeks after the accident, the family of the cab driver found a box at their front door. In the box was food: staples, chickens, fruits and vegetables. And at the bottom of the box was an envelope with money in it. The care package continued every month for months and for years. A few times the wife of the taxi driver saw a boy as he was walking off, but when she tried to catch up with him, he ran away. Finally, her husband came out of prison, and they still did not know who the secret benefactor was. A number of months later the wife saw a boy a bus who looked familiar, and she realized it was the boy who was bringing the packages. She asked him his name, and she was shocked because he had the same last name as the boy who had been killed. When she pressed him for more information he told her to speak to his parents, and he gave her the phone number. She called the family and they arranged to go over and meet them. When they arrived there was an awkward silence. The taxi drive broke it by telling them how sorry he was for what had happened and how he wished he could undo the terrible action. And then he asked them about the packages. They invited him in and spoke to him. They said that after their son was killed they harbored a terrible hatred towards him and what he had done which only continued to grow. At the same time, they knew it was not good for them to feel this way. They spoke to many Rabbis who tried to offer them consolation for their loss, but it did not get rid of the feelings. Finally, one Rabbi told them that they needed to get rid of the hatred, and the only way to get rid of it would be to give in some way to the family of the taxi driver. By helping them, they would come to care for them and empathize with them, the guilt the taxi driver must have been carrying, and the difficult circumstances they were in. This is what the Torah is telling us, when we have a conflict with someone and there is resentment, find a way to give to them, and that will get us beyond the animosity and allow us to truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
We can now come back to the theme of the importance of forgiveness at this time of year with a deeper understanding. If we hope to have forgiveness from the Almighty for our wrongs and mistakes this time of year, then the best way to obtain that is to show the same forbearing towards others. The Rabbis tell us that the attitude we have towards others is the attitude the Almighty will have towards us. May we all merit this Yom Kippur to forgive others, and to forgive ourselves so that we can be more open to asking others for forgiveness.