Yom Kippur Morning: 5771/2010 Forgiving Others

Yom Kippur Morning, 5771/2010 
Forgiving Others
One of the major themes of these Yamim Noraim is asking for and granting forgiveness.  Why is it so difficult to ask for forgiveness?  It is difficult because it requires that we take stock of ourselves. It is difficult because it requires us to overcome the shame that often comes with the knowledge that we have wounded another person.  It is difficult because it calls for courage to face that other person. It is difficult because we risk the anger or rebuke that might well up when we ask the other to forgive us.  Yet, as difficult as it is to ask for forgiveness, it is also a challenging and daunting task to grant forgiveness.  This Yom Kippur, I would like to talk about forgiving others.

Our Torah teaches, “Lo Nikom ve Lo Titor” – “you shall not seek vengeance, you shall not hold a grudge”.  Yet, how many of us sit here today nursing grudges, some of which go back many years.  In many cases, the person who hurt us may not even realize that in their words or in their actions wronged us. Or, perhaps they do realize they wounded us, but do not feel they have anything to ask forgiveness for.  Or, perhaps they are simply afraid to ask for forgiveness.  Or, perhaps they have already asked for forgiveness, but we could not grant it because we, ourselves, are stuck.  Nevertheless, as our life goes on, we are left with our feelings of pain, of violation, of shame and of anger.  What do we do with this affective legacy? How do we deal with it? It is human to think that, perhaps, the solution to heal your wounded self is to get back at the offending party.  We seem to believe that we will, then, free ourselves from the grudges we hold.  Let the offender suffer so that we will feel better, becomes our motto! But the Torah forbids seeking vengeance  in the same verse it cautions us not to hold a grudge.  An ancient Chinese proverb hints at the reason: “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself.”  Research has shown that holding on to grudges is also harmful to our well being.  Unforgiving people often experience increased anxiety, tension, and heart disease, diminished immune systems, increased psychosomatic symptoms, and poorer sleep patterns.  Forgiveness, it turns out, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and reverses many of the deleterious health effects that come with maintaining a grievance.  Forgiveness increases ones overall sense of well being and inner peace. The Jewish tradition is very clear that we have an obligation to forgive the person who asks for our forgiveness.   Maimonides puts it this way:  “When a person asks your forgiveness, forgive him completely and happily.  Even if he has caused you a great deal of trouble, and sinned greatly against you”.  Of course, a person cannot simply ask for forgiveness and expect that it will be granted.  The person needs to understand and own up to the suffering brought about by his/her words or actions. At times, this might involve monetary compensation.  That person needs to demonstrate through their actions that they have indeed changed.   Curiously, if the person persists in asking and we consistently refuse to forgive, then the sin is ours, the wrong belongs to us. This raises a major dilemma for us.  I recently heard an interview of a rabbi on the radio. Her father had been murdered when she was eleven years old.  She eloquently spoke of her inability, even her refusal, to forgive the culprit.  World religions teach us to be forgiving, she said.  American values emphasize that if we do not forgive we cannot move on with our lives, we cannot heal emotionally.  She recounted that once, after one of her talks with an audience whose members had lost a loved one to violence, many came up to her and expressed how healing it was to hear of her inability to forgive.  They had felt criticized by others for being unable to forgive.  Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi hunter, wrote a book called The Sunflower in 1969. Wiesenthal was born in Austria in 1908 and was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis. Eighty nine members of his family, including his mother, were killed in the camps.  One day, while working in a labor camp, he was pulled in to a hospital by a nurse. There was a badly wounded German soldier who wanted to see a Jew.  The soldier told him that he had killed many Jews but he wanted to tell him only about one particular case. He had killed a Jewish family while burning down a house they were locked in.  The soldier asked Wiesenthal’s forgiveness.  The soldier sounded sincerely repentant. After hearing the story, Wiesenthal walked out of the room without saying a word.  In the first part of his book, Wiesenthal recounts the story of his encounter with the prisoner. In the second part, he asks leading intellectuals, clergy, and ethicists whether they thought he had done the right thing.  Wiesenthal struggled with this question for the remainder of his life.  What, exactly, is “forgiveness?”  What is it not?  First of all, forgiveness is not about forgetting. Deep hurts cannot simply be wiped out of one’s awareness.  Forgiveness is not about excusing. Forgiveness is not about denying or minimizing hurt. Forgiveness is not about reconciliation with the offender.  It does not mean we give up our right to be angry. Forgiveness does not mean we have to give up any feelings about the incident.  Forgiveness means taking the offense seriously.  Forgiveness is one person’s moral response to an injustice.  Forgiveness offers us an opportunity. Forgiveness is a gift to oneself.  Forgiving is important because we cannot allow the actions that others took in the past to control our lives today. We cannot let injuries from times gone by affect our emotional and physical health in the present.   We cannot afford to waste our energy being trapped in anger over what others did to us years ago. Yet, how do we heal the wounds of a past that cannot change?   We are often told that we should forgive, but we are not taught how to forgive.  We are not taught the process we need to go through in forgiving others.  Here, then, are three essential elements in the process of forgiveness. 1)    Do not deny feelings of hurt, anger or shame.  Accept that another person had the ability to wound you, and did so. 2)      Try to find meaning in your suffering. Try to make sense of it. 3)      Do not remain a victim of your story, become the hero of your story. Instead of saying, "Look at what life did to me, and I’ll never recover,” think: "Look at what life did to me and look how well I’ve coped with it.” Simon Wiesenthal died in 2005 at the age of 96 in Vienna, where he lived the rest of his life.  I do not know whether Wiesenthal ever answered the question of forgiveness that he set out to explore in The Sunflower.  Yet, his life illustrates the three steps in the journey to forgiveness that I outlined above.  Wiesenthal never forgot his own suffering or the suffering of his people.  He dedicated his life not to revenge, but to justice.   He discovered new meaning in the Holocaust by understanding it not only as a particularly Jewish tragedy, but as a human tragedy as well.   In 1945 Wiesenthal left the concentration camp of Mathausen as a 97 pound walking skeleton with an uncertain future.  By the time of his death he had become known throughout the world for his deep humanity. Wiesenthal was one of the moral giants of the 20th century. Wiesenthal refused to remain a victim.  He became the hero of his own story, and a hero to us all.  He was able to cope with his own tragedy by overcoming events in his life that he had no way to control.  All forgiveness is not the same.  There are different types of forgiveness.  Forgiveness depends on the nature or severity of the offense.  The ability to forgive also depends on the relationship one has with the offender.  When trust is shattered, say, between a husband and a wife, it is of a different order of magnitude than when trust is broken between two friends, or between a government and its people.  There are also different outcomes to forgiveness.  One outcome is a detached forgiveness.  In this type of forgiveness there is a reduction in the intensity of feelings toward the other, but there is no resumption of the relationship.  Another outcome is a partial forgiveness.   Here, the link between people is restored, but it is never the same.  A friendship may still exist, but it has become more distant, cooler.  Only in a total forgiveness are the wounds incurred healed completely, and the relationship fully restored.  Forgiveness does not happen all at once.  It is a process that could take years.  Forgiveness takes time.  It is an internal process.  One can forgive, without having the second party ask for forgiveness.  The other person may never say they are sorry.  This means that there will not be reconciliation.  It means there need not be a resumption of the friendship.  Yet, it is important to know that forgiveness can happen without the connection to the other being repaired.  It takes only one person to forgive. It takes two to repair a relationship.

This Yom Kippur, may we all find a burial place in our hearts where we can lay to rest all of the wrongs that we have suffered.   May we all free ourselves from carrying around the dead weight of un-forgiven injuries.  This is truly the path to the freedom, peace and to the wholeness we all seek in our lives.  May we find our way to a forgiveness that renews us, gives us a fresh start, heals our broken hearts, and allows us to love again. May G-d grant us the courage and wisdom to forgive others, and to even forgive ourselves, when we find ourselves unable to forgive.

Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph  Congregation Beth Shalom, Naperville, IL      YK morning 5771/2010    Forgiving Others