Eighteen years ago, my husband and I walked into Hillel for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. As was the custom there, the greeter was giving out honors as people walked in, and I agreed to do a reading during the service. Just to give a little context, Perl and I were still newlyweds, he was starting his second year of law school, we had absolutely no money, and just two hours earlier I had found out that I was somewhat unexpectedly pregnant with my lovely daughter Molly.
Sarah Talks to God by Lillian Elkin
And why, Oh King, my God, should the blood of a child
Run precious in your house.
My small boy has brought wheat to your altar
And in the summer gathered fruits and wild flowers.
What will you do with small fingers
And the fright of little hands.
More feeble is he than a bird on your altar
And his heart is a wing.
If we have sinned against your greatness
We have been humble too.
And in the shadows of your timeless sandals
The small gods were weeds.
We have set our house for your guests
And I have brought water and I blessed their coming.
I have wept in strange lands
But never questioned Abraham or his will
Which was your own.
But I am a woman and this is my child
And my love for him is greater than fear
And my sorrow surrounds me with knives
And I am bitter in my doubts.
My question today is: what happened when Abraham came back down off the mountain? In trying to fulfill his covenant with his God, he violated possibly the most timeless and sacred covenant, to protect one’s child. Did he ask for forgiveness? Did Sarah grant it? Did Isaac? There’s nothing in the Torah to suggest they did, and a lot that suggests they didn’t. Sarah dies immediately afterwards, and we don’t hear much from Isaac. He’s the patriarch with the least space given for his life and actions, which to me implies a life crippled by this experience.
For the past 10 days, we have reflected on our actions. We have asked for forgiveness. We have recited the Vidui and beaten our chests. But what about the other side? What about granting forgiveness?
I know this room is full of people with so much to forgive. We have been humiliated as children. We have experienced violence at the hands of those we have trusted. We have been betrayed by a spouse or a friend. We have felt the kind of hurt that no one should ever experience. It has forever shaped who we are as individuals. The memory is the dark shadow the relationships we have tried to nurture. The person who has done this to us may have asked us for forgiveness. Or maybe we or someone else told us that we needed to forgive that person.
I realized in the process of preparing this drash that I didn’t really understand what forgiveness was. I didn’t really know what I was being asked when I was asked for forgiveness, or what I was telling myself I needed to do. So over the course of a few months, I asked people whom I respect and admire to share their perspectives on forgiveness. I asked it as an open ended question – what did forgiveness mean to them?
I started by asking my children. They are, after all, teenagers and therefore experts on everything. One daughter told me that asking for forgiveness is a cop out – an excuse. It’s a way to make yourself feel better. It’s a way out for those who don’t think of their actions. Unless you have amnesia, there’s no such thing as forgiveness. My other daughter told me that forgiveness is a way of no longer dealing with something. We don’t want to hurt anymore. Even though what the person has done is bad, we accept it. Forgiveness is no longer punishing or blaming then. (You can guess which one is my first born.)
I talked about this with my husband. He suggested that the person asking for forgiveness is asking you to give what they’ve already taken, in essence, to give them permission to do wrong.
This stopped me in my tracks. I realized that what I thought I was asking for, and what they thought I was asking for, weren’t the same.
Too often the process of forgiveness seems to have more to do with the asker, not the granter. When we ask for forgiveness, we tend to focus on ourselves. “I feel bad. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do it. I did it because I was sick/tired/pre-menstrual/child of an alcoholic” or whatever reason we fill in here. I’m not knocking this – we should be sorry, we should reflect on our intentions, we should be aware of what our triggers are, and what is compromising our ability to act in the way we should.
But it is too easy to just look for the response: “It’s OK.” The whole point is that it’s NOT “OK.” Forgiveness doesn’t happen – and really, it shouldn’t happen - just because we feel bad about what we have done.
My friend Susanna told me that one should be as conscientious about giving forgiveness as receiving it. Some forgive too easily, some not easily enough. It is worth giving as much consideration to the request as to any other serious conversation. Part of giving forgiveness is showing the asker that you take his request seriously, and think about one’s own part in it. My sister pointed out that forgiveness is equally important to both parties, both the person asking for and the person considering forgiveness.
My birthmom told me forgiveness was either very easy, or very hard. Sometimes it’s easy because of love and a long relationship, and because not to forgive someone with whom you live would be miserable. Sometimes it’s hard because the interactions, especially among family members, can end in anger and resentment. Over and over again, we realize that the person will never be the person we want them to be, that we think they should be. Forgiveness is a long term goal. Acceptance is a good medium term goal and that may be enough for right now.
My friend Djina said that once you have forgiven yourself, it is very easy to forgive others. For her, it was much easier to just let it go, wish the person well, and move on, than to harbor and carry all that bad juju. Based on my research, she’s definitely an outlier. What she said highlighted just how much energy it takes to hold on to negativity and anger. Unfortunately, most of us have plenty of energy for that particular task.
Over the Rosh Hashanah dinner table last week, we talked about these ideas of forgiveness with our friends. Rebecca said she was taught during her training in counseling – though she doesn’t necessarily believe it – that everything is forgivable in a relationship except abuse and addiction. Jonathan pointed out that just as love is selfish, so too is forgiveness. Mary told me that in asking for forgiveness, we are asking the person we have wronged to see us as our whole selves, and not just as the transgression.
In my various conversations at different times, the same themes kept coming up: The personal toll of not forgiving. The need for civility. The need for acknowledgement and accountability. The need to forgive to be able to have successful relationships. That it can’t be forced. That it takes a lot of time. And questions – how much does intent matter? How do you evaluate whether it’s “worth” forgiving someone? How “bad” does it have to be before you are justified in not forgiving someone? And how does one forgive oneself?
My friend Ruthie asked 16 Chicago taxi drivers one straight-forward question: Is it harder to ask for forgiveness or to forgive? Overwhelmingly, they said it was harder to forgive. She observed that our tradition seems to have a great deal more to say about tshuvah, repentance, than forgiveness. She suggested that we need a Jewish Manual on how to forgive – a Hilchot Slichah – laws of forgiveness.
The Christian notion of forgiveness inextricably involves God in acts of forgiveness. It is actually a wonderful concept, to tie the divine into the process. But, Jews don’t get that extra help. As Jews, our responsibility is solely human to human. In his book “Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism,” Emmanual Levinas shares the teachings of our tradition on this topic. He who has created and who supports the whole universe cannot support or pardon the crime that man commits against man. No one, not even God, can substitute himself for the victim. The world in which pardon is all-powerful becomes inhuman.
While writing this drash, I was constantly thinking of my own struggle to forgive a person from my childhood, a struggle that has defined much of my life. I kept telling myself I had to forgive in order to move on. I had to understand that this person had his own troubles, that he didn’t want to do what he did, that he had a spark of goodness inside of himself, that he could have been a better person but life’s circumstances overcame him.
I can remember the moment when I realized that I didn’t have to forgive this person. It was such a realization of freedom that came over me. I didn’t have to forgive him.
Now that made me think. What was I asking myself to do? What did I need to do? What was the right thing to do?
Simon Wiesenthal wrote a book called The Sunflower. In it, he details this struggle with forgiveness in a situation exponentially more profound than mine. During his internment, he is brought to the bedside of an SS officer dying a slow, lonely, and painful death. The officer confesses his atrocities, and expresses his repentance and grief in a way that strikes Wiesenthal as sincere and compelling. The solider had returned to the religion of his youth, which demanded that he confess and ask for absolution before he died. He then asks Wiesenthal – chosen by the soldier as the representative of the Jewish people – to forgive him. Wiesenthal listens to him, almost against his will, and then leaves without saying a word. He does not forgive him. But, he struggled with this decision for years afterwards. No one has the right to judge him, or expect that they themselves could have acted dispassionately, or criticize his subsequent ambivalence. His choice is supported by Jewish law, since one cannot forgive on behalf of others or on behalf of those who have died. Despite this, he was not at peace with his decision.
The second half of the book contains responses to this question by a number of great thinkers. What I gleaned from these writers is that the act of forgiveness takes place on many levels. The psychological, moral, religious, political and spiritual dimensions of forgiveness are profound, and each one is very different from the others. What you want to do, what others tell you to do, what would feel good to do, and what you should do, may be absolutely opposed. There is no one right formula or answer. Forgiveness is extremely complex and quite frankly a lot muddier than I thought before I wrote this drash.
Reflecting on my own situation, I realized that when I was asking myself to forgive that person, I was confusing a number of things we generally lump under the term “forgiveness.”
Was I trying to excuse him – to acknowledge mitigating circumstances had influenced his actions, and thereby lessened the wrong? Was I struggling for acceptance, to realize that no matter how many times I said it shouldn’t have happened, it still did? Was I telling myself to feel compassion for him? Was I enabling the wrongdoing on some level by demanding that I forgive him? Was I asking myself to condone what he had done – to fundamentally confuse right and wrong? Where did my responsibility to myself connect with my responsibility to him and with my responsibility to others hurt by his actions?
The heady sense of power I had experienced when I first realized I didn’t have to forgive him didn’t last long. When thinking about my desire to forgive this person, I realized that he hadn’t given me that choice. He had not asked me for forgiveness. He had not expressed repentance. He had not offered me the promise that he would do better, or attempted to atone for his actions. I didn’t have his help in trying for acceptance and healing. I was on my own with this. When people truly and thoughtfully and deeply ask you to forgive them, they aren’t just asking you to make them feel better. They are offering you a commitment to do better. Most importantly, they are committing to help you do and feel better.
Forgiveness is a choice. It is a moment in which the person who has wronged us has given US -- not God, but us -- the choice to decide which way the relationship is going to go. For one moment, we have the opportunity to stop, consider, and choose. It is a fundamentally a shift of power.
As with almost everyone, I think about my relationship with my mother when I talk about forgiveness. I realize I’m setting a dangerous precedent for my daughters by talking about my mom in front of a room full of people. But I’m going to go for it anyway.
My mom was sick for a long time, so I had plenty of time to reflect on what I wanted to say to her before it was too late. I was with her when she died. I got the call from my sister, took the next plane home, and was with her, my siblings, and my extended family for the next 36 hours until she died. She was conscious and coherent for several hours after I showed up, then gradually slipped into less and less responsiveness. Even when she couldn't talk or open her eyes, though, she knew we were there.
We helped her die. It wasn't easy for her. She did not “go gentle into that dark night.” We were mid-wifing her, only it was to death not birth. Immediately after she died, I was filled with the biggest and deepest sense of forgiveness I have ever felt. It went both ways -- she forgiving me and I forgiving her. I have no idea where it came from, but it was a gift. I'm not particularly comfortable with the "G word" -- but I think that was the experience of what people call God. It didn’t suddenly make me the perfect daughter, or her the perfect mom. But when I think of her and our complicated relationship, I try to remember that one moment in which we stepped outside the hurt and anger and neediness, and we both decided to let it go.
Forgiveness is transformative. It doesn’t come easily. Nor should it. I believe that forgiveness is the ultimate “HINEINI” -- Here I Am. It is renewing our covenant with another person which is akin to -- but not the same as -- our covenant with God.
Shabbat Shalom, G’mar Chatimah Tovah