Letting Go: Thoughts for Yom Kippur
Before Hollywood glorified the revenge drama, Alexandre Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo, one of the most famous stories of revenge. In the tale spun through this famous novel, Edmond Dantes is betrayed by his best friend, his shipmates and a web of co-conspirators, and is sent to a prison on a deserted island. After six years, a new prisoner, Abbe Faria, becomes his cell mate and his mentor. He not only teaches him many skills, but because he is ill, Faria reveals to Edmond the location of a secret treasure which will bring him great wealth. He beseeches him to use it for good, and helps Edmond escape before he dies. Edmond recovers the treasure and spends many years plotting his revenge on those who betrayed and framed him. He hides his actions through a new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo, and brings ruin upon them. He winds up killing his friend Fernand Mondego who stole his fiancée when the latter challenges him to a duel over her. However ultimately Edmond goes beyond his vengeance and realizes that it will not bring back the past, and he lets the others go after bringing them to partial ruin and teaching them a lesson.
In contrast, the first story of forgiveness in the Torah, the story of Yosef and his brothers goes one step further and teaches us a lesson about the greatness of being able to pardon. In a similar turn of misfortune, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery because they believe he is a threat to the family when he bad mouthed them to their father and dreamed of ruling over them all. Out of hatred and jealousy, they send him into twenty years of exile from his father, twelve of which were spent in prison. We would expect that Yosef, who becomes supremely powerful as the viceroy of Egypt, would seek out revenge on his brothers for destroying his life. However, when the brothers are reunited, Yosef tells them that he does not hold what they did against him, but rather he forgives them. According to David Konstan in The Origin of a Moral Idea as quoted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, this not only the first scene of forgiveness in the Torah, but also in the history of civilization.
The Torah forbids us from taking revenge. If we are betrayed by a business partner, we can seek justice, but we cannot carry out a personal vendetta. If someone hurts us, we can distance ourselves, we can even express our hurt, but cannot lash back. We all probably have stories of family members, or people we know who have not spoken in years because they have a falling out. Does the Torah expect us to turn the other cheek and forgive a person who hurt us, or even worse, who destroyed our lives?
In the Yosef story, there are two factors that contribute to his being able to forgive his brothers. The first is that he sees their behavior has changed. Through a hidden identity as viceroy of Egypt, and an elaborate unfolding of events which he stages, Yosef tests the brothers to see if their behavior will be different. When misfortune happens to them, they confess their bad treatment of Yosef without being aware they are in his presence, and show their contrition. The ultimate litmus test is when Yosef puts their loyalty to their younger brother on the line. Benjamin was Yosef’s only full brother, and also their father’s favorite. When Yehuda offers to go to prison in place of Benjamin, Yosef sees the brothers have changed and can then reveal himself and forgive them.
The second factor which brings Yosef to forgiveness is that he sees in the unfolding of the events in his life a Divine purpose. His being sold into slavery in Egypt brought him to become viceroy and be in a position to save the entire family during the time of famine. The Chafetz Chaim tells us that if someone hurts us, rather than focus on how hurt I am, or how wounded my ego is, we should try to ask ourselves why the Almighty placed us in this painful situation. We can ask ourselves what are we supposed to learn from it. (We must state that viewing it as a part of a bigger plan does not take away the culpability of the one who did the wrong, but it allows us to frame our hurt in a different light).
The third and perhaps most important factor in forgiving someone which is not found in the Yosef story is their ability to apologize. We are all imperfect, we all make mistakes and we all give in sometimes to our petty and lower side. However, when a person apologizes they are taking the first to making amends for what they have done. They are admitting that what they did was wrong and are taking responsibility for their wrong actions. So we see that each side needs to take steps to reconcile. The person who hurt the other can change their behavior, can show contrition and apologize. The person who is hurt can view , and the person who is hurt can view the episode a life lesson or a test coming from the Almighty.
Most of us do not go through what Edmond or Yosef went through, having their life destroyed through a dramatic betrayal. But relationships can be damaged or destroyed through the erosion of hurt feelings. Being critical towards others, saying things that are hurtful or insensitive, or by just not being caring enough. We know how to be cordial in social settings, and to have good manners, but then sometimes we do not accord the same attention and sensitivity to those who we are closest to.
It is sometimes very hard to let go of the hurt when we feel wronged. Our connection to those we love can be jeopardized if we walk around with unresolved resentment and grudges that we cannot could be letting go of and as a result we are distant of angry. It takes a greatness of spirit to let someone know when we have been hurt so that they can apologize, and even more to forgive. If the Count of Monte Cristo let go of his desire for vengeance, then surely we can learn to let go as well.
So back to our original question, do we forgive someone who has not apologized and or made amends? There is a private prayer in the beginning of the Yom Kippur Machzor where we declare I forgive anyone who may have hurt me. This is more for us than for them, for as we see in the story of the Count of Monte Cristo, our resentment or hatred can consume us. This Yom Kippur, as we turn to the Almighty and admit our wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness, we should also think about adopting the same quality for ourselves that we hope the Almighty will have with us, and find it in our heart to forgive others. Through this new outlook we can reset and find wholeness with others and within ourselves. And of course, if we hurt anyone we should apologize if we have not already done so!